Two women modeling clothing for a video being recorded on a smartphone.
Businesses small and large have quickly realized the value of leveraging TikTok’s diverse and ever-growing audience for brand awareness and promotion. — Getty Images/simon2579

Why it matters:

  • More Gen Zers in the U.S. use video-sharing app TikTok now than Instagram.
  • An estimated 60% of the app’s users reported feeling a sense of community while on TikTok and are more likely to find the branded content on TikTok authentic and trustworthy compared to other social platforms.
  • Startups are driving product discovery on TikTok via memes and product demos to behind-the-scenes content, parlaying ‘likes’ into shares and sales.

TikTok is a social media platform unlike any other. Compared to its cohort of Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat or newer platforms like Clubhouse, the video-sharing app is less about personal brand building, networking and messaging, and more about presenting oneself or one’s brand authentically and capturing in-the-moment creativity.

Much of the appeal of TikTok is in its randomness. While you can follow favorite accounts, most users spend time on TikTok’s endless “For You” feed, which uses a sophisticated algorithm to deliver a different assortment of video content to each individual user. The platform is designed to be iterative, inviting others to “duet” or create their own content in response to any video, creating an endless feedback loop of memes and viral trends.

“TikTok is a sound-on first experience that gives brands and creators unique tools and features to engage with audiences, including advanced video editing capabilities as well as marketing tools like in-feed ads and branded hashtag challenges,” said Jon Severson, vice president, director of paid social for Mediahub.

“Specifically, its content is geared more for entertainment than simply bolstering a lifestyle.”

While the app is associated with Gen Z (now more of them use it than they do Instagram), its popularity across demographics has grown thanks in part to the past year that kept people stuck at home, looking for more things to watch or with more time to create their own videos. According to estimates from social media analytics firms AppAnnie, the app is set to reach 1.2 billion active users in 2021.

Brands have quickly realized the value of reaching TikTok’s diverse and ever-growing audience.

"Small businesses are the soul of our communities, and we're committed to helping them make a comeback after a challenging year,” Becca Sawyer, head of small business and operations for TikTok global business solutions, told CO—. “From woodworkers sharing their craft with the world to ice cream shops announcing that they're open—TikTok gives business of all sizes the opportunity to engage with people through feelings, actions and sounds."

[Read here on how to make TikTok videos that drive sales.]

From woodworkers sharing their craft with the world to ice cream shops announcing that they're open—TikTok gives business of all sizes the opportunity to engage with people through feelings, actions and sounds.

Becca Sawyer, head of small business and operations, TikTok global business solutions

Tapping into the power of authenticity on TikTok

“Authenticity is vital on TikTok,” said Josh Viner, a digital marketing strategist who specializes in data analytics, consumer behavior insights and social media. "There are many niche categories on TikTok that provide an incredible opportunity for young brands, as long as they don't saturate it with promotional content.”

According to a Nielsen survey commissioned by TikTok, 60% of the app’s users said they felt a sense of community while on TikTok, and users are more likely to find the branded content on TikTok authentic and trustworthy compared to other social platforms.

“When brands show up on TikTok, it conveys far less as advertising and far more as native content inspiring curiosity through powerful AI,” said Severson. “Organic content keeps users primed, engaged and familiar with brands while [providing an opportunity] for learnings to incorporate into larger, paid campaigns.”

According to the app, TikTok's U.S. advertising business grew more than 500% over the last year. This growth has been particularly important for small businesses, which are experiencing somewhat of a renaissance after the pandemic drove many people to discover independent brands online, or rediscover local retailers. As of April 2021, the hashtag #smallbusiness has racked up more than 24 billion views worldwide.

“TikTok’s growth means the narrative has shifted to be more about the incrementality of reaching consumers and allowing for a fuller audience experience across campaigns,” Severson said. “Its ability to drive conversions, at scale, with ad products that rival [competitor platforms], and with more advanced dynamic products on the horizon, TikTok has become an ecosystem in of itself.”

 Screenshots of Kaja Beauty promoting its products on video app TikTok.
Cosmetics brand Kaja Beauty built a sizable TikTok following without having to tap into its star creators or by participating in other viral trends. — Kaja Beauty

The new product discovery platform

On TikTok, brands don’t necessarily have to rely on influencers or paid posts to woo consumers, as brands’ product-focused videos can parlay likes into shares and sales.

The app has become an important platform for product discovery, particularly in the beauty and skincare space. While brands with a following like Cerave and elf Cosmetics have generated surprise sales as a result of viral TikTok recommendations, using the video platform to go viral has proven successful for emerging brands as well.

“TikTok practically sold me out,” said Leigha Stepp, owner of Franklin and Rose, a womenswear boutique from Lake Wales, Florida. After a series of successful posts about the experience of running an indie boutique and other behind-the-scenes store content, Stepp received over 60 online orders within minutes of listing new items.

Cosmetics brand Kaja Beauty provides another successful case study. With product demos and by highlighting the brand’s unique stackable and colorful packaging, Kaja was able build a sizable TikTok following without tapping into its star creators or by participating in other viral trends. “With the onset of the pandemic, we knew people would be spending more time on their devices as they stayed home,” Dino Ha, founder and CEO of Kaja Beauty’s parent company MBX, told CO—.

[Read here on TikTok success stories.]

Developing a small business TikTok strategy

At first, the platform posed a challenge for some established brands to nail the correct tone. After years honing a picture-perfect Instagram strategy, communicating in the meme-heavy language of TikTok was a much different beast. (Memes are a mainstay for the app and can help brands connect with their audience on the platform.)

Small brands and social media experts agree: There’s no shortcut to striking the right tone. “In terms of a general platform strategy,” Viner said, “the best thing to do is to be a student of the app — watch what others are doing, discover what takes off and, most importantly, create.”

“In the beginning, we didn’t have any concrete goals or expectations for growth because we were simply testing and learning about the platform,” Kaja’s Ha said. Instead, the brand leveraged eye-catching product demos and Gen Z-friendly messaging to drive hype. “We have never paid any creators or run ads, so our engaged community has grown entirely organically and we're really proud of that.”

Artesana Soaps, an online business based in Arkansas, credits TikTok with helping the business succeed through the pandemic. Not only did its behind-the-scenes content boost sales, it helped the company grow and connect with a new generation of consumers.

“The younger generations that compose much of the TikTok community require a lot interaction, which is why I believe the engaging features of the app have helped us to become successful on the app,” said Cecilia Davoren, founder of Artesana. For example, fans can duet with Artesana’s videos, ask questions in their own response videos, or start conversations in the comments.

“Customer engagement is of prime importance because you are showing your potential customer that, although we are not dealing face to face, they still are getting one-on-one service.” For customers who cannot visit the store in person, TikTok helps the owners provide descriptive sales content in the form of product demonstrations, Q&As and behind-the- scenes production videos. Taking it a step further, the Artesana team found success experimenting with ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) videos like soap cutting, which are popular among some users for the “tingly” or relaxing feeling they can create.

“What worked yesterday may not work today,” Davoren added. “Keeping a fresh, open mind and, above all, pouring lots of creativity into the making of the videos, is a must.”

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