TikTok Marketing Strategy: A Guide for Brands in 2020

TikTok Marketing Strategy: A Guide for Brands in 2020

What started as a “just ok” video-sharing app in China (called Douyin in its native country) has exploded in the US market as the hottest place to be for American...

What started as a “just ok” video-sharing app in China (called Douyin in its native country) has exploded in the US market as the hottest place to be for American youth. And, where the crowd goes, brand marketers aren’t far behind. But TikTok isn’t your regular plug and play marketing platform, as its users are highly discerning and anything that doesn’t feel “authentic” just won’t fly. Still though, there have already been some examples of huge brand marketing success on the platform. So how are they doing it? What does a TikTok marketing strategy look like?

Let’s start this guide at the beginning.

How Did TikTok Start?

Musical.ly (released in 2014) and TikTok (2016) were similar apps until ByteDance bought Musical.ly and the two apps were absorbed into TikTok in August 2018. Since then, the short-form video app has grown rapidly to over 1 billion global downloads.

Their mission is “to capture and present the world’s creativity, knowledge, and precious life moments, directly from the mobile phone. TikTok enables everyone to be a creator, and encourages users to share their passion and creative expression through their videos.”

The short-form videos created within the app primarily focus on singing, dancing, or comedic skits, where users can utilize filters, effects, music, editing tools and more. Users are encouraged to engage with the posts the view, usually either by “response” videos or “duets,” where users essentially copy another’s video and insert themselves into it.

Who Uses It?

The app currently boasts 500 million monthly active users, 26.5 million of whom are in the US.

Demographically, 60% of the US’s monthly active users are 16 to 24. The gender split skews slightly male (56% male to 44% female), and is more popular on Android than iOS, likely due to its global popularity.

Their users are heavily engaged as well, spending an average of 52 minutes per day on the app. 55% of users have uploaded their own videos, and 68% have watched someone else’s video.

Since 2016, TikTok has seen exponential growth in users. It overtook Snapchat just one year after launch and has since grown to be the number one app downloaded from the App Store and the number three app downloaded worldwide.

If you’re just discovering the potential of TikTok as a marketer, it’s not too late. While some big brands have dipped their toes in strategy and have provided the rest of us with some good examples, there is still plenty of room for innovation.

TikTok Marketing Strategy

The ad products are still a bit nascent. They’ve begun to roll out some display and video units for brands who are just testing the waters or are looking for a new place to repurpose their existing creative.

Sponsored Hashtags, Brand Takeovers, 3D/AR Lenses, and Stickers are also available to marketers, and while they may seem to replicate products we’ve seen from other social networks, there’s a different level of value on a fan interaction on TikTok. For example, a Tweet including a sponsored hashtag doesn’t require much time or investment from the creator, nor does it result in much time spent from the consumer/viewer. The same goes for likes, shares, etc.

On TikTok though, for a user to interact with a brand requires a much larger investment. Planning the video, shooting it, editing it, and sharing it will require the creator’s time, not to mention that they’ll likely need to purchase a brand’s product first in order to truly integrate it with their content. 

As a result, brands should deploy different strategies to measure their TikTok campaigns. Looking beyond hitting media benchmarks or even performance-based goals (sales/conversions), the primary KPIs one should be looking at within TikTok are exposure, awareness, and fan engagement. While it’s difficult to attribute sales directly, these elements tend to be a catalyst for eventual brand revenue.

Examples Of Successful Campaigns

The key to a successful campaign is to find a way to get fans to interact with your brand/product in a way that feels organic but also allows users to have fun and be creative. Creating a challenge is a great way to spread brand awareness and encourage engagement.

Chipotle inspired users to post their #ChipotleLidFlip Challenge, where after purchasing their bowl, users would drop their filled bowl on top of the aluminum lid in a way that caused it to flip into the air, where they would then try to catch it to land on top of their food. Similar to Water Bottle Flipping, setting up challenges that are seemingly easy and inconsequential allows video creators to sarcastically/ironically brag about their “accomplishment” in funny and creative ways. The six-day campaign had 104 million video starts and 110,000 submissions.

Beyond challenges, multiple brands have also found success in providing content creators with a video “template” of sorts and letting them run with it creatively.

Google ran a sponsored hashtag campaign – #HeyGoogleHelp – where users created videos that utilized Google Assistant (or other Google Voice products). And, GUESS launched the first-ever fashion takeover on TikTok with its #InMyDenim campaign, which encouraged users to flaunt their GUESS denim in creative manners, often transforming their look/attitude after changing their outfit from beat-up sweats into a mini-denim focus fashion show (usually to “I’m a Mess” by Bebe Rexha). This campaign was also aided by influencers such as @ourfire (5.2 million followers) and @operamericano (600K+ followers).

While the above examples were sponsored, several companies have experienced a surge in sales from organic growth. Marc Anthony True Professional noticed an unexplained spike in sales on their “Strictly Curls” products. Upon further investigation, they discovered they had become a meme of sorts on TikTok, where (primarily) women would perform a shampoo commercial-esque dramatic before/after of their hair after using the product. These #strictlycurls videos were viewed over 4 million times, resulting in a 60% increase in sales within the product line.

While these “lightning in a bottle” moments aren’t easy to recreate, they clearly show the power of getting TikTok users to engage with your brand/products in creative ways.

What Makes TikTok Marketing Strategy Different

Perhaps the biggest difference between TikTok and other social networking apps is that popular hashtags tend to favor trending challenges, memes or other repeating formats.  Current events are borderline ignored, as TikTok isn’t so much a platform to discuss what’s going on in the world. It’s where people go to have fun and be creative, without the stress of the 24/7 news cycle.

Like all social platforms, influencers can certainly play an important role in helping to promote a campaign. Like most influencer-driven campaigns, they can play an important role in driving fan engagement, but brands need a careful strategy for choosing influencers who are authentic and aligned with the brand. Given the level of fan engagement and the tendency of a young audience to be turned off by someone coming off too “sales-y,” brands need to be extra careful on TikTok when choosing who to partner with.

Blending In Branded Content

As standard ad offerings become prone to being ignored – either due to ad blockers or “banner blindness” – it’s becoming even more and more important for brands to find ways to get customers to interact with their brands in authentic ways. While many of the above examples are inherently silly, in order for users to create their own videos, at some point they need to purchase the product. While it’s difficult to accurately measure ROI, it’s undeniable that there’s value in that.

On top of that, TikTok, perhaps more effectively than many other web destinations or social networks, has a stronghold on the often difficult to reach Gen Z. As concerns over data misuse grow, Gen Z is gravitating away from social networks like Facebook, and towards apps like TikTok or SnapChat, where little to no user data is collected. While Snapchat is still struggling to provide a consistent ROI for its advertisers (publishers are a different story), TikTok is showing some promising ways for brands to get Gen Zers to not only view their branded content but put thought and effort into creating their own.

What To Be Wary Of In Your Strategy

While this lack of data may be a selling point for users, it results in a lack of precision and efficiency for advertisers. Google and Facebook are the dominant leaders in the advertising space because they can leverage data to ensure they’re reaching their target audience at scale. Without this data to lean on, any display/video ads are essentially little more than ROS. That really only leaves leveraging influencers or the hope of connecting and “going viral” for brands to truly make an impact in this platform.

Additionally, there are some valid concerns about brand safety. While users enjoy the freedom to create and post almost anything they want, brands may be a little more wary of the content they’re surrounding.  While TikTok has several policies, tools, and resources in place to maintain a “positive and safe environment for our community,” there’s still going to be risk in an ever-changing landscape that lives on user-generated content. Whether or not they go the YouTube route and create a premium content creator list that advertisers can specifically buy remains to be seen.

TikTok Marketing Strategy Going Forward

As long as TikTok is around, it will serve as a valuable platform for artists and performers. For example, Jimmy Fallon uses TikTok to collaborate with his viewers to create content that will often air on the Tonight Show, and Lil Nas X use the platform to test how to turn his song “Old Town Road” into a meme, ultimately propelling it to the #1 spot on the Billboard charts. However, unlike the Facebook’s and Google’s of the world, brand integration isn’t as simple and plug and play.

It requires authenticity, creativity, and a willingness to let people interact with your brand in a way they see fit (not taking yourself so seriously as a brand certainly helps with the latter). It’s also important to keep in mind that TikTok is a community, so there needs to be a long term strategy for continued presence and engagement. A one-off campaign will likely not have the same effect if the community doesn’t see you as “one of them.” It will come off as pushing sales rather than pushing creativity.

Getting Started with TikTok

Before launching your first campaign on TikTok, there are a few important questions that a marketing team should discuss before getting started:

  1. How important is the TikTok audience to your brand? TikTok is certainly a shiny new object in the digital space, but consider if the time/energy investment is worth the potential payoff. Success here will require consistent engagement with the community.
  2. How comfortable are you ceding some control of your brand messaging? Again, the viral potential of TikTok comes from setting up a template for people to interact with your brand and letting creators run with it in their own way. Unlike traditional marketing, not all messaging will be in your brand voice, so keep this in mind when setting up your own challenge or other campaigns.
  3. What are some unique ways that users are already interacting with your products? Your target for these campaigns/challenges are the creators. A successful challenge or campaign gives them a template, but lets them showcase their personal creativity. What can they do with your product that can show off some level of creativity?
  4. Are you going to use influencers, and if so, can you find any that are popular enough to make an impact, but also within the right niche for your brand? TikTok communities are often focused on specific niches such as comedy, music, gaming, food, tech, etc. Being inauthentic is the kiss of death on TikTok, both for the brand and the influencer, so partnerships need to be chosen carefully here.
  5. How are you measuring success for you TikTok marketing efforts? While this is a question going into every marketing campaign, as discussed, TikTok ad products don’t exactly fit within the standard advertising KPIs. While it can be valuable to measure your performance against TikTok benchmarks, metrics like followers or challenge participants are likely a better indicator of increased brand affinity (plus of course, increased sales).

Ultimately, the best way to learn is by doing. Download the app and browse through some videos to get a feel for the types of content being created. Join the conversation by finding a challenge you think is interesting, or lip sync to your favorite song.

TikTok is exciting right now, not just because of their explosive user growth, but because there’s still so much space for brands to innovate and be just as creative as TikTok users.

Mark Arpaia
Mark is a versatile and experienced media strategist, with over 10 years of experience in the marketing space.


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