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Should you take to Tik Tok to reach your market?

It's far from an easy decision whether you should dip a toe in the carefree waters of TikTok. The early adopters in your industry are already there. The rest of the field may decide to dive in, provided the plug isn't pulled first.

When a politician joins a social media platform, it’s usually a signal for everyone under the age of thirty to get their coat and leave.

So when Emmanuel Macron took to Tik Tok recently, to send a message to French school leavers deprived of their usual last day drama by the Covid19 virus, it looked like the beginning of the end. The cool kids were sure to be on their way out.

It’s not quite that cut and dried this time, for reasons we’ll come to - and is part of the reason why you should consider using TikTok to hit your youthful target market.

And part of the reason why you shouldn’t.

In case you haven’t found yourself on there, gyrating suggestively while lip-synching to a mildly nostalgic pop song, Tik Tok is a Chinese-owned video sharing app, beloved of the under-30 market - nearly 70% of its users are under that demographic cut-off. It perfectly targets that Generation Z market which ignores traditional media and regards slightly older social platforms like Twitter and Facebook with barely disguised contempt. They are, in marketing terms, the very definition of ‘hard to reach’.

Yet they might become even harder to reach if the US follows India’s lead in banning the platform as part of the wider international tensions in which China is rapidly becoming a pariah.

And, as happened with Huawei, once the US makes a decision, the UK may not be far behind.

Setting the diplomatic politics aside for a second, the choice whether to take your brand and services on there is a rollercoaster of risk and return. If it doesn’t survive, you may have wasted your time trying, or you may have been prudent not to bother. If it survives the pressure and you jumped in, you’ll have started to build a significant audience of potentially millions of young consumers, ahead of most of your peers. If you dismiss it, you risk being left behind.

As a platform, it’s built for participation and engagement - creators often build audiences quickly. Almost by definition, content can go viral. That’s the point. Those 15-second video clips are designed to capture attention instantly, there’s no complex narrative arc here.

Companies need to get to the point of their offering quickly, though they can churn out content to repeat or elaborate. In some ways, the biggest problem for brands is that the (let’s be kind here) older demographic who may fill the corporate marketing roles are a little bemused by the scale of the adolescence on show and think the whole thing is too immature for them.

Which is to forget that, especially for companies who are marketing to students, school leavers and those early in their work lives, are precisely the people who are all over Tik Tok and obsessively so.

So if you’ve decided to go for it, you have three real options:

  • Create a brand channel and upload videos relevant to your services. The determinedly amateurish vibe of the platform gives authenticity to the posts, which can resonate with those a little sceptical of polished ads. It can work particularly well in the education market, where students are looking to understand what the experience of learning will be like. Even post-Covid, they will still want to know what the city they will live in is like, what the facilities are, the nature of the social life, and so on. There is also a, slightly surprising, educational bent to the platform which is investing $15m in short-form educational content.

  • Get ‘influencers’ to relay the message for you. Influencers don’t have to be vapid egoists hoping for a Love Island gig. In the education sector, for example, they might just be current students who have audiences of friends and family around the world - sometimes of scale, but more usually just the right target. Done well, that sort of ‘lifestyle’ content and the enthusiasm and loyalty it demonstrates will act as old-fashioned word of mouth.

  • Pay to use the company’s increasing advertising and commercial options. Paid-for campaigns are always a bit more of a gamble and the commercial offering from Tik Tok is a little nascent right now. They are keen to show the transparency of the spend and the sincerity of its users - committed to both daft dance videos and activism - billions watched videos connected to the Black Lives Matter movement.

But perhaps better to wait on the paid-for front. See what campaigns connect best and see where the real value lies. And in an age where companies are shying away from advertising on Facebook due to its lack of action on extremist and fake news, then paying good money to Tik Tok may look an odd choice in the current context.

The potential banning of the platform is not just an outcome of inter-governmental feuding, it’s also a response to genuine security concerns. As with all social media platforms, the personalisation algorithms are shrouded in mystery but are presumed to be driven not by posts from your friends and your demonstrated interests (as with others), but from countless inputs it gleans from your phone. In other words, it spies on you…

Views on privacy versus the efficacy of an app can vary between users and, more often between generations and its perfectly legitimate to consider that you trade your data for improved services. But suspicions about the Chinese government’s involvement in systems which can intrude on the privacy of citizens across the world (see Huawei) make it more of a borderline choice. The mobile security first Zimperium gave Tik Tok its worst possible grading last month and, while improvements have been made since then, few have been fully reassured.

Taking your brand to Tik Tok is not simply a marketing decision, therefore. In the relatively early days of a social media phenomenon, a brand can make a big impact in engagement and profile and reap the benefits of that in young markets. All good.

But there’s the significant risk of aligning themselves with an increasingly divisive platform where plenty of people have some well-founded doubts about privacy. It’s not the only one and there are similar issues on more well-established platforms too. Though with less likelihood of an outright ban.

In other circumstances, the advise would be to give Tik Tok a go and try and establish a presence with high engagement and impact.

Right now, it’s not so cut and dried - but while the worries are genuine, they are undoubtedly fuelled more by suspicions of the Chinese government than of Tik Tok’s management and developers. And with new contenders including Reels about to be launched by Instagram, the uncertainty only grows.