As TikTok Becomes the Place for Youth, Brands and Publishers See Opportunities

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October 22, 2019

In less than four months, Complex has amassed more than 1.5 million followers on TikTok. One of its top videos, a person fixing a stool with ramen noodles, has garnered upwards of 43 million views.

What's even more impressive is the unique audience they are finding on the social video platform. While Instagram and Snap may say they are where younger generations get their entertainment fix, TikTok is already attracting a sizable slice of the demographic. The majority of Complex's TikTok audience is in their teens and early 20s, and 62 percent of them are female.

"I think it's an important channel for reaching new people in an environment you expect for them to be on," said Arman Walia, director of social media at Complex. "TikTok is not just a marketing vehicle. It's a place that a brand has to be in order to reach the audience there."

TikTok — a year-old video editing platform that allows users to post short, looped clips — does not publicly disclose platform stats or user demographics. But according to app analytics form Apptopia, about 48 percent of TikTok's users are under 20. Another fifth are between 20 and 30. With Apptopia's estimate that the company may have over 600 million monthly active users globally, that would mean at least about 411 million people under the age of 30 use the app monthly, 288 million of which are under the age of 20.

Snapchat doesn't release monthly active users, instead disclosing daily active user numbers. However, eMarketer estimates that it will hit 297.7 million monthly active users globally in 2019. Around 67 percent of its users are under the age of 30 according to Apptopia, or about 199.5 million users. About 67 million of those people are under the age of 20.

Instagram is much larger, with 1 billion monthly active users. Using Apptopia stats, 65 percent of their user base — or 650 million people — are under the age of 30. Of that number, 430 million are under the age of 20. It's also been around for nine years, so if TikTok keeps its trajectory it may be able to overtake it in the youth demographic in the future.

On top of that, the average TikTok user is spending six minutes on the app per session, compared to 5.2 minutes on Facebook and about four minutes on Snapchat and Instagram respectively.

As advertisers look for ways to reach audiences that don't read or watch traditional media, TikTok is emerging as the entertainment platform that may get the attention of Gen Z and Gen Alpha, the children of millennials.

"It's slightly different from Snapchat because it's more about content than your social graph," said Jennifer Bongiovanni, senior vice president of global media partnerships at Dentsu Aegis Network. "Brands are trying to figure out where it fits in their broader plan. They're definitely asking for more information, and we're doing a lot of education with our clients."

Kids Flock to TikTok

The U.S. version of TikTok launched in August 2018. The app, which is owned by Chinese company ByteDance, is a combination of the original TikTok and Musical.ly, a lip-synching music app that ByteDance acquired in 2017. It started as a platform called Douyin, which spawned an international offshoot called TikTok to comply with Chinese content standards. Both platforms still exist today.

However, many media outlets have yet to achieve profitability despite millions of views. TikTok advertising is still in its infancy, mostly consisting of integrated ads that play in between content.

Because the video format is similar to some existing social video platforms — the company refers to itself as "Vine 10.0," according to one employee — brands feel comfortable marketing on the platform, Bongiovanni said. It makes them more open to exploring ads on the platform.

In September, the company launched a beta version of TikTok Marketplace, a way to connect influencers with relevant companies for sponsorship. It was a smart move on the TikTok's part, especially because it took other platforms, like Instagram, longer to figure out how to turn popular accounts into marketing opportunities, Bongiovanni pointed out.

What's more, TikTok is revolutionizing the meme. Instead of just re-sharing funny images, TikTok users are creating videos based on similar formats or themes using hashtag challenges. It can be as simple as completing the same dance challenge, or more elaborate stunts like telling a lover-scorned story while putting on clown-style makeup.

"What this means for advertisers is they can create this manufactured trend," said Bongiovanni. "There are some makeup brands that are doing a lot on the platform by seeing some content and creating a hashtag challenge."

Group Nine's top account, technology, and innovation vertical Seeker, which has more than 153,000 followers, found a way to turn a popular joke into a branding and educational opportunity. Saving the turtles is a passionate topic for TikTok-infamous VSCO girls, a subset of environmentally-conscious teens known for their penchant for Hydro Flasks, reusable straws, and Fjällräven backpacks, as well as catchphrases like "and I oop" and "sksksksk." Seeker decided to create a TikTok around the turtles topic, telling users about the dangers of sea turtles eating plastic. It's been viewed more than 2.9 million times.

What's great about TikTok is you don't necessarily need a lot of followers to have a hit, said Erin Weaver, director of audience development at Group Nine. Behind-the-scenes videos of common things, like mold on raspberries, or unique videos, like clips of animals who become unexpected friends including a zebra and a lion, have proven to be formulas for success.

"If you create an original piece of video content, if people like it, you'll have a much wider audience than you'll see on another platform," Weaver explained. "The nature of discoverability on TikTok surfaces your content to a broader audience."

BuzzFeed, which has been on TikTok for just three months, is finding that content that does well on other social platforms does well on TikTok as well. Lifestyle videos like do-it-yourself hacks, animations, and crazy food recipes have all found success. BuzzFeed's Tasty channel in particular now has more than 570,000 followers. One baking hack posted on the Nifty was viewed over 7.9 million times.

"Young people are now spending even more time online, generally," BuzzFeed publishing special projects lead Samir Mezrahi said. "Youth are still spending a lot of time on Snap, but TikTok seems to be having a significant moment too. People are even sharing TikTok watermarked videos on Twitter or Instagram."