Taylor Cohen believed in TikTok back in 2018 — before it was cool, or anything but new, really.
“I felt like it was going to blow up,” the senior social strategist at global ad agency DDB told Built In. “I was also obsessed with it as a user.”
So Cohen invited TikTok reps to present at DDB’s New York office. They gave a basic rundown of their app: it was a social media platform rooted in short-form video; it had launched in August of 2018; it was popular enough to be ranked in the app store.
At the time, though, the app’s actual marketing and advertising tools were rudimentary, compared to the hyper-targeted advertising on other social platforms.
“I think you could only do hashtag challenges,” Cohen said.
A TikTok spokesperson told Built In that the platform’s first ad campaign, in September of 2018, was indeed a hashtag challenge, where a brand invited users to post a specific style of TikTok to a branded hashtag.
The company has since broadened its offerings for advertisers, but, at the time, Cohen’s DDB colleagues weren’t impressed.
“Everybody made fun of me after that meeting,” she said.
Then TikTok surged. In November of 2018, it outranked Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat in the Apple App Store and in the Google Play store. In the summer of 2019, it propelled Lil Nas X’s ubiquitous “Old Town Road” to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 — where the song stayed for a record-breaking 17 weeks. Today, TikTok has been installed on roughly two billion devices worldwide, according to research from Sensor Tower.
Cohen may have been one of the app’s earliest and most fervent ad industry evangelists, but she’s no longer alone.
Using TikTok For Marketing
TikTok is in a “magical golden era,” Stefan Kalczynski, director of client strategy at Hawke Media, told Built In.
“I truly believe TikTok’s going to be the next Instagram,” digital marketing consultant Melanie Balke told Built In.
(In fact, it’s already become so high-profile that the Trump administration has floated the idea of banning it from the United States, citing privacy and national security concerns about its Chinese parent company.)
So what do marketers need to know about the buzzy app? Cohen had some thoughts.
TikTok Isn’t Vine
One of the most common misconceptions about TikTok, Cohen said, is that it’s “just like Vine,” the short-form video app that shuttered in 2016.
Though TikTok also imposes constraints on its videos, they’re not the same as Vine’s. Vine clips couldn’t run for longer than six seconds and change; on TikTok, meanwhile, users can film for up to 15 seconds in the app, and post edited, spliced-together videos that run up to 60 seconds.
The two apps also lend themselves to different content. Vine was best known for ultra-short-form comedy, but TikTok is more famous for lip syncs and viral dances, like the Renegade.
TikTok Reaches People of All Ages
“It is definitely not just for teens anymore,” Cohen said. Though it began as a teen-oriented platform, people of all ages started checking it out — especially during the shelter-in-place phase of the pandemic, Cohen said, when everyone was desperate for entertainment.
The app’s now-diversified audience includes “grandmas, workers, everyday people,” according to a TikTok spokesperson.
Crossposting From Facebook or Instagram to TikTok Doesn’t Work
Posting the same content to different social platforms has become commonplace in social media marketing — but Cohen doesn’t recommend crossposting a social asset from elsewhere to TikTok.
“This is a completely different deliverable,” she said. “Create for the platform.”
Yes, that even applies to Instagram stories. They’re formally similar to TikToks, but TikTok still has its own flavor of cool.
“Instagram cool is like your fake life.”
“Instagram cool is like your fake life,” Cohen said. TikTok, meanwhile, is less filtered, more “in the moment.”
“It’s somebody doing something stupid or somebody who’s just hopping onto a trend.”
TikTok Offers a Lot of Native Effects — and Marketers Should Use Them
One of TikTok’s greatest strengths is its effects. Users can edit their footage in the app, adding split screens, creative transitions, filters and text annotations.
“It’s crazy to see what some of these younger kids are able to do just with the app,” Cohen said.
She’d like to see brands explore these in-app effects too. The key to success on TikTok, after all, is creating content that looks “at home in-feed,” she said.
That way, if “somebody’s scrolling, they’re going to stop,” Cohen said. “They’re going to think it looks like something that belongs here.”
Brands Can Create Their Own Effects in TikTok Too
Through an advertising offering called Branded Effect, TikTok lets brands create their own effects and filters. These can add a product or logo into the foreground of a user-generated TikTok; alter a clip’s background; or even integrate immersive augmented reality elements.
Increasingly popular with advertisers, this offering especially boosts engagement when paired with a hashtag challenge, a TikTok spokesperson explained.
Marketers Can’t Ignore Teenage TikTok Stars
“People live and breathe by them,” Cohen said, of TikTok influencers.
She specifically called Charli D’Amelio, a teenage dancer with more than 70 million followers on the platform, “the queen of TikTok.” (As of March, D’Amelio had the most-followed account on the app.)
Hype House — a Los Angeles-based collective of about 20 TikTok creators, including D’Amelio — also has a lot of power onTikTok.
“Whether they even realize it or not ... how they dye their hair, do their make-up or what accessories they’re wearing ... people are influenced by it,” Cohen said. “At some point it does change the platform and how people operate.”
If everyone emulates their style, that means brands should emulate them too, to fit into users’ feeds. Or they can just work with influencers directly.
TikTok Makes Influencer Marketing Easy With Its Creator Marketplace
The TikTok Creator Marketplace lets advertisers browse influencers — “TikToklebrities,” as Cohen called them — by their price point, audience size, and the keywords or industries they’re connected to.
“It’s almost like a Facebook of TikTok’s creator network,” Cohen said. “They all have profiles.”
Though the creator marketplace is still being beta tested, according to a TikTok spokesperson, brands and creators can use it on an invite-only basis in certain markets.
This sets TikTok apart, Cohen said. Other social media channels don’t offer straightforward influencer marketing products, which means influencer marketing typically requires “a completely different approach and strategy” than social media marketing, Cohen explained.
TikTok, though, puts an influencer database “literally in front of you.”
Marketers Shouldn’t Underestimate TikToks Filmed at Sunset...
It’s not just influencers and effects that make a TikTok fit into a user’s feed, Cohen said — it’s also the way it was filmed.
“It comes down to how you produce it,” Cohen said. “It has everything to do with lighting, how far away you are from the camera.”
Lighting, especially, is key. Cohen noted that some TikTok influencers prefer to shoot at the hour right before sunset, also known as “the golden hour” — it’s when “the lighting looks best.”
“Some TikTok teens ... only film during that time,” she said. “I know it’s insane, but also it’s their aesthetic.”
When Cohen works on TikTok campaigns, she often goes to set and supervises the shoot directly, to make sure every detail is right.
...or TikToks With a Soothing, ASMR Quality
Certain types of content tend to succeed on TikTok too. A spokesperson said that instructional style content and “oddly satisfying or ASMR videos” tends to do well.
(ASMR stands for autonomous sensory meridian response, and ASMR videos often involves simple, repetitive tasks and sounds — like whispering, chewing and crinkling.)
Overall, TikTok’s a Great App for Top-of-Funnel Advertising...
“They’re great for driving awareness,” Cohen said of TikToks’ marketing power. One good example of this from 2019: e.l.f. Cosmetics’ viral #EyesLipsFace TikTok campaign.
This was, at core, a hashtag challenge. Users and influencers created TikToks set to an original, campaign-specific song, iLL Wayno and Holla FyeSixWun’s “Eyes Lips Face,” and posted them under the hashtag #EyesLipsFace to earn a shot at a make-up giveaway.
Using in-feed ads — including TopView ads, or branded TikToks that play as soon as a user opens the app — e.l.f. spread the word about the challenge, and ultimately achieved stratospheric awareness metrics, a TikTok representative said. All told, the campaign got more than a billion views across three million user-generated videos (including an unpaid, faintly disturbing one from Ellen Degeneres).
...but Really, Anything’s Possible
Lower-funnel, conversion-oriented campaigns can work on TikTok too, Cohen noted. Advertisers can link out to external pages, so “you could potentially drive [users] to point of sale.”
Any type of campaign can work on TikTok, really, as long as you have a clear objective.
“It’s just about [knowing] why you’re showing up,” Cohen said.