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On November 16 of this year, a poorly mounted tire on 16-year old Katie Cornetti’s car came loose as she was driving. She lost control of the vehicle, which flipped over and left Cornetti and her passenger, friend Marissa Bordas, hanging upside down in their seats but otherwise unscathed. Cornetti and Bordas checked in with each other first, then dialed 911 for help. It took 20 minutes for first responders to arrive on the scene, so the girls occupied themselves in a way that seems unthinkable, given the circumstances: Cornetti fired up the TikTok app on her phone, created a video, and uploaded it for the world to see.
Set to the song “Stupid,” by hip-hop artist Ashnikko, the video became a near-instant viral hit, earning the girls an entry on the Know Your Meme website, along with a heaping dose of scorn from the sort of people who just don’t understand the priorities of kids these days. Because TikTok demographics skew so heavily young, it was bound to be criticized by an older crowd that doesn’t “get it,” whether or not two 16-year-olds posted a video while hanging upside down in a freshly totaled car. For their part, the girls said they were just trying to cope in a scary situation, and TikTok was a way for them to distract themselves. Their critics say they’re opportunistic, inappropriately trying to achieve viral fame in the midst of something terrible happening.
Regardless of which side you believe, the lesson here is the same: TikTok has become a huge player in the social media landscape. It’s no wonder marketers have taken notice of the platform, eyeing it as the next frontier for influencer marketing. And while they’re right about that assessment, it’s not enough for them to simply stay on top of TikTok trends, or monitor its most popular users, in order to make effective use of it for marketing purposes. While it shares some commonalities with established social channels, TikTok is in many ways fundamentally different. To get the most out of it, marketers need to truly understand what’s behind its seemingly overnight rise to success.
OK, Boomer: Here’s a Brief Rundown on TikTok
The TikTok app is a social network and in a practical sense, it adheres to the basic mechanics of what you’d expect from such a thing. Users upload content—in this case, short videos—with the aim of attracting followers. On the flip side, users also scroll through a feed of videos, which they can like and/or comment on. The videos themselves are very quick—they average around 15 seconds. Creators can set them to music, choosing from a massive library of licensed songs, and the finished product is something that can look pretty slick. For the most part, the goal is humor, or silliness, or just having fun.
It’s that commitment to lightheartedness that’s propelled TikTok to becoming a major social network. Indeed, the social part isn’t really the point of it. There’s definitely interactivity between users that fuels the videos; users can reply to videos with videos of their own, set to the same song, creating a kind of conversation where no one says anything to one another while still feeling they’ve taken part in something. One of the biggest TikTok trends is the video challenge, where users are encouraged to make a video that conforms to a certain requirement. The #eatonthebeat challenge, for example, dared the TikTok community to do what it sounds like: make a video where they eat food in rhythm to the music being played.
For someone who’s used to “old school” social networks, TikTok might not make a lot of sense. But for the avid users who participate daily, the platform offers an escape from the everyday toxicity of social media in general. You won’t find your grandparents’ confused posts in your timeline, like on Facebook. Unlike Instagram, users aren’t subjected to the staged photos of beautiful hipsters showing off their enviable lives. Scrolling through TikTok for an hour might actually leave you feeling pretty good about humans, which is something that never happens. And while there is a Snapchat-like capability to share videos only with people in your network, communication isn’t really the point of the app. Creativity is.
Further, the reliance on music as the backdrop for most of the content breaks down geographical barriers. TikTok is a global phenomenon, and unlike other social networks, the content is much less likely to be segmented by language or culture.
As with any new tech or tech service, it should come as no surprise that the early adopters are by and large young. In the case of TikTok, they are very young, and only part of this has to with it being a new app. Everything about the TikTok app screams youth. Jack Wagner, an Instagram personality, put it best in an interview with The Atlantic magazine, “To be a grown adult doing a cute karaoke video on an app and trying to make it go viral is odd behavior.”
With that in mind, it makes perfect sense that Gen Z dominates TikTok:
- 39.9% of its users are in their teens
- 26.1% are in their 20s
- It’s a precipitous drop to 10.2% for users in their 30s
- Oddly, the number rises to 16.8% for users in their 40s, presumably because people in their 40s have never heard of Jack Wagner or the judgy things he says about them
- 6.5% are in their 50s– as if their presence on the platform even matters
For those of you not doing the math at home, note that 66% (nearly ⅔ of all users) are under 30. That is a huge concentration within a narrow demographic. But while the age of its users overwhelmingly skews in one direction, their geography is widely dispersed.
This can be attributed not just to the app itself, which has mass appeal, but also to its corporate background. Owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, TikTok “grew up” in Asia and already had a solid user base by the time it made its way to Europe and the U.S. In November 2017, TikTok acquired Musical.ly and, by extension, its 200-million+ users. Musical.ly, while also a Chinese company, found the bulk of its success in the United States, and TikTok’s acquisition turned the latter company into an instant global force.
As of November 2019, TikTok reached 1.5 billion downloads across both the iOS App Store and Google Play. The top three markets are, in order: India, China, and the United States. This is a fairly varied list in terms of geography and culture; now consider that the app is available in over 150 other countries (and 75 languages) and boasts an estimated 800 million monthly active users worldwide. Here’s a small breakdown of how those active users shake out across different countries/continents:
- China, 150 million
- India, 20 million
- United States, 20 million
- Germany, 4 million
- France, 4 million
TikTok may have hit a saturation point in China, but everywhere else the numbers continue to grow.
A Look at TikTok Culture
As stated earlier, TikTok differs from other social networks in that its mission seems to be one of pure entertainment. It’s more of an escape from the darker side of social networking than it is social networking. There is very little trolling; instead, it presents as a supportive community, where users are encouraged to be themselves, get silly, and create something fun. As Kevin Roose wrote in the NY Times, TikTok “adds up to what might well be the only truly pleasant social network in existence.”
This focus on social networking for enjoyment’s sake helps explain the platform’s quick rise in popularity. And it seems users enjoy all aspects of what the TikTok app has to offer. 68% of users are watching other people’s videos, while 53% have uploaded their own videos. This shows a majority active user base, with not too many people simply lurking.
This participatory nature is best exemplified by two of the most popular TikTok trends, the Duet. The Duet allows people to create their own videos alongside an existing video so that they appear side by side. 43% of users have created Duets inspired by and including other people’s videos. There’s also a React feature, where users can record themselves reacting to another video. The reaction video is embedded into the original, and this can all be done with the tap of an icon, an icon that 41% of TikTok users have tapped.
Marketers Take Note
TikTok’s fan base is highly active and growing, with no signs of slowing down. Downloads and active users are outpacing Snapchat regularly, so marketers looking to reach Gen Z should take note. The enthusiasm of users is a result of the feel-good nature of its use, and their inclination toward creating and participating is a boon to any campaign. This is especially true with influencer marketing: on channels like Facebook and Instagram, the goal is to get people to notice content, like it, and maybe talk about it. There’s an opportunity for that on TikTok, as well, but there’s also the potential for so much more. With challenges, duets, and reaction videos, the chance for virality is increased—instead of interacting with videos, the teens and twenty-somethings of TikTok can end up creating even more content on your behalf—content that could spread worldwide. Understanding TikTok trends, culture, and demographics becomes even more important when you look at it in this light.