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TikTok: Changing the Channel on Social Media


INFLUENCER: A view from ITB Worldwide's influencer and social media experts Tim Lay, Jenn Lydon and Monica Gonzales

TikTok: Changing the Channel on Social Media

TikTok is not the next Instagram or Facebook. While its popularity around the world is undeniable (1.5 billion downloads globally), the TikTok-Instagram or TikTok-Facebook comparisons really aren’t apples to apples. Numerous articles, news stories and commentary pieces have come out comparing the app to the two existing, dominant photo/video platforms – Instagram and Facebook. That comparison, however, ignores key differences at the core of how TikTok functions in comparison to its counterparts.

Understanding the main points of differentiation is key to unlocking how brands can best make use of the platforms for an influencer marketing strategy and give a better idea regarding what direction the platforms are growing in. To find a more parallel analogy that supports this claim further, we need to instead look at a more traditional medium with roots going back 84 years – namely, television – to show the distinction.

TikTok is digital programming for Gen Z

In 1936, the BBC launched the first regularly scheduled public television service and as this new medium evolved, the content that aired on the various networks that rose up were largely informed by the types of content that viewers were demanding.

Wholesome, light-hearted sentimentality captured TV in the 1950s and 60s in the form of spawned family sitcoms like I Love Lucy, The Brady Bunch and Dennis the Menace and melodrama dominated the '80s, giving audiences the likes of Dallas, Dynasty and EastEnders.

Fast forward to the last decade, we find ourselves in an on-demand and digital-first culture paving the way for hit programming that is a reflection of constantly evolving cultural conversations such as The Handmaid’s Tale and Morning Show. And now, more recently, we have entered into the social media-driven era where TikTok is dominating the new digital and short form content formats of programmatic television for a new generation of viewers: Gen Zs.

Since TikTok became the most-downloaded app in the U.S. back in October 2018, we are seeing a comeback and resurgence of entertainment-led “content-first” mentality mimicking the way in which people engage with programmatic television. Whereas Instagram has become known for inspiration-led – occasionally filtered and carefully curated content - TikTok has risen to prominence thanks to being entertainment-led in the type of content it encourages and publishes. Ultimately the content parallels the traits of its largely Gen Z user base: irreverent, authentic and relatable. 

Key Differences: Content-led vs. Creator-Led

Instagram and Facebook prioritises the content creator in their algorithm over the content itself - in other words, the platform is “CREATOR-led”. What users see in their feed is based on who they actively choose to follow and so priority is given to those with larger followings, higher engagements or most frequent personal interactions. TikTok, on the other hand, is a “CONTENT-led” platform and survives by the mantra: content and user sensibilities are king.

Regardless of whether or not the TikTok user currently follows the creators of the content they are viewing, users can simply swipe up to view the content echoing the act of changing the channel on television.

This key difference with TikTok is that it allows users with lower followings and/or name recognition to quickly garner mass exposure (if they’re creating the right content) and changes the way both creators and brands need to think about how they engage on the app.

Brands on TikTok must create content (or partner with creators to produce content) that is authentic and relevant to what users on the platform are demanding and in return exposure will quickly follow and grow. For example, TikTok successfully partnered with rap superstars and real-life couple Cardi B and Offset to produce a spontaneous and organic “rap/wrap battle” challenge that set off a viral spread of the campaign on the platform as well as in the media.

Key areas of growth to look out for…

Musicians and Gen Z bloggers aren’t the only influencers that we have seen capitalising on the platform and creating engaging content. The somewhat lower barriers to entry and the ability to gain max exposure on the young and booming app have provided an incentive in more recent years for more influencers within beauty and fashion to join and a growing number of brands including Calvin Klein, Burberry and Sephora start up accounts on the platform.

Last month, the likes of Prada partnered with breakout TikTok star Charli D’Amelio to attend their show in Milan to produce content on behalf of the brand. Other similar partnerships with Lewis Capaldi and Tyler Joe saw the creation of exclusive content on the app at NYFW and the Brit Awards. Calvin Klein, a leader when it comes to producing successful branded content, is experimenting with different content formats on their account showing the potential for more luxury brands to grow in this space. TikTok is also testing shoppable video content indicating that it is looking to position itself as credible within retail to further encourage established fashionistas to join the app.

There has definitely been an influx of Instagram stars who have entered the space such as beauty influencer Laila Loves and fashion influencer Who Wore What as well as celebrity personalities such as Reese Witherspoon. As younger audiences demand rawer, personality-driven content, it makes sense that talent would use TikTok to show another side of their personality that has the ability to provide more attractive content for this group. As talent continue to get more savvy with content creation on TikTok, we will see more brand partnership opportunities in this space.

The value of working with talent on different social platforms and our recommendations…

While TikTok provides more variability, Instagram and Facebook provide more reliability – at least at this stage of TikTok’s capabilities and growth. Instagram and Facebook give brands access to established and guaranteed audiences and reliable performance metrics that are not yet available on TikTok. Depending on a brand’s strategy, a platform like TikTok that prioritises content via its tightly held algorithms might not align with the overarching objectives of their brief.

Most of the time, when a brand looks to partner with a celebrity or influencer on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter, they are really doing it to buy a promised audience - and access to key metrics - first and foremost and content/creative second. Value is derived from the strength of the caché of a talent’s name and following but also the strength of their social footprint via key data points - impressions, click-through, etc. - which enable brands to justify this value as a means to evaluate whether there will be a return on investment. Partnering with big-name talent and influencers with high followings can provide extra PR legs and lend a certain level of clout to a program.

On the other hand, the opportunity that TikTok provides to be bolder in creative and push boundaries has its own merit. Brands can also certainly still abide by some of the tried-and-true social media tactics of “pay to play” on TikTok to achieve/guarantee wider exposure via PR and paid media when necessary.

What works on Instagram and Facebook may not work on TikTok and vice versa so brands can and should leverage the respective strengths of each platform for a more holistic digital strategy to hit different KPIs and target audiences. An integrated approach in this way makes room to flex creative muscles for more variety of interactive, topical and boundary-pushing content.

TikTok provides us with an opportunity to look at social media with a pair of fresh eyes and reminds us of the value of entertainment. It gives a chance for everyone to look to and learn from traditional entertainment staples and mentalities to inform and pave the way for a new era of authentic, bold and valuable content that is becoming more and more in demand. 

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Rogers & Cowan PMK, Wed, 11 Mar 2020 15:47:39 GMT