Going Viral with 15-Second Videos: A Marketer’s Ultimate Guide to TikTok

Is your brand ready to explore the innovative (and somewhat weird) social media landscape on this wildly popular new video app?

I. TikTok — the Hottest Social Media Sensation

“I don’t take selfies anymore. I just make TikTok videos because TikTok is fun and cool.”

TikTok, the app letting users create and share 15-second short videos of lip-synching, dancing, and skits, is sweeping the globe by storm. Ranked as the №1 free app in Apple’s App Store for Q1 2018 ahead of YouTube, Instagram and Facebook, TikTok has been downloaded 80 million times in the United States and almost 800 million times worldwide. As of this July, TikTok has hit more than 500 million monthly active users across 150 countries.

(Top Non-Game Apps by Downloads, Sensor Tower)

Celebrity endorsements are also turning the spotlight on the fun-loving, creator-friendly quintessence of the TikTok community. The goofy hashtags #tumbleweedchallenge and #elfontheshelfchallenge created by NBC Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon have generated over 19 million views. Just recently, Cardi B, Offset, and Awkwafina started sharing their holiday cheer and gift giving mood with TikTok users through the #wrapbattle competition, where the winning creator will be rewarded with prizes valued at $16,897.

(Screenshots of celebrity collaboration hashtags on TikTok)

II. Why Should You Start Using TikTok for Marketing campaigns?

The Power of Gen Z Influence and Beyond

The user base of TikTok is undoubtedly young, with 50% to 60% of users between the ages of 13 and 24, the majority of whom are female (based on previous Musical.ly data). Although the app currently sets an age minimum of 13 years old and requires parental approval for young users, it is reportedly popular amongst tweens too.

Not surprisingly, 8 out of the 10 most followed accounts on TikTok are creators under 20 years old. These teen idols are pretty, upbeat, and creative, often rocking fashionable outfits and dramatic makeup with an attitude. The most common theme for their performances is lip-syncing to pop songs with choreographed moves and strong facials. You may have never heard of names like Lisa and Lena, Loren Gray, and Baby Ariel, but they are absolute superstars who have received 5.7 billion (yes, that’s 5,700,000,000) “hearts” combined on TikTok.

(Screenshots of TikTok profiles of Baby Ariel, Lisa and Lena, and Loren Gray)

If your business is eyeing the huge potential of Gen-Z purchasing power, penetrating their “native habitat” on social media is almost a no-brainer.TikTok would provide an intuitive access to the behaviors and interests of these young consumers and help your brand respond quickly and accurately to the latest trends. Millennials and Gen-Zers may all look young, but have completely different personality quirks as they interact with brands and make purchase decisions. Members of Generation Z are more financially savvy, tech-centric, and respond best to no-B.S. direct messaging that delivers value propositions clearly and quickly.

(Source: Adrenalin Media)

Compared to millennials, they are less easily swayed by brand names but love to celebrate autonomy and independence. To win their hearts and minds, superior long-term value and individualized customer experiences should be front and center in your marketing content. Ultra-short videos are the perfect format get the job done within Gen-Zers’ 8-second attention span — later in this story, I will introduce several powerful and actionable ways to tailor your marketing strategy on TikTok for this unique audience.

Moreover, with TikTok’s continued effort to engage a more diverse audience, the app may eventually gain traction among “older” users. Within one year, the percentage of Douyin users over 26 years old increased from 32% to 48% in China. It could be just a matter of time before millennials in the U.S. also start to dig TikTok, opening up even more opportunities for brands.

(Source: Miaozhen.com, 2018 Douyin Research Report)

It Pays to Get in the Game Early

Since TikTok is still in its infancy as a social media marketing tool, brands may be tempted to play safe and stay as observers until there is more clarity on TikTok’s long-term performance. However, the rewards of early adoption advantage may significantly outweigh potential risks.

As TikTok aggressive expands in the U.S. market, the company is actively seeking partnerships with brands and likely offers more flexibility and autonomy than established social media channels. If you play your cards right, a pioneering TikTok campaign can also induce substantial media attention across other platforms (as we will see in the next section of this guide). Given TikTok’s astonishing growth in the U.S. and the company’s proven track record of enormous success in China, this special window of opportunity may not remain open for too long.

It requires time, and most likely trial and error, to become familiar with any social media platform. Getting your foot in the door early means VIP access to a less-crowded brand space at a discounted price, which allows your brand to tap into Gen-Z consumers more quickly and make stronger impressions. Experimenting with a new channel also keeps your brand image fresh and authentic. An adventurous and fun-loving brand spirit will resonate deeply with TikTok users, especially when there is limited competition.

III. Best Ways to Hack your Growth on TikTok

1. A New Take on #Hashtag Challenges (GUESS)

Hashtag campaigns are by no means a novel tool for social media marketing. On established platforms including Instagrams, Youtube, and Twitter, successful hashtag campaigns like #ShareACoke by Coca-Cola and #LikeAGirl by Always have driven a lot of traffic and awareness. Powerful, authentic user-generated content can work miracles in boosting brand visibility and customer loyalty on digital channels.

One thing users LOVE most about TikTok is that there are virtually no ads on this app (although this endearing feature may not last forever as ByteDance continues to monetize TikTok — the app’s privacy policy clearly leaves room for targeted ads and sponsored content.) User engagement on the app is largely driven by hashtag challenges created by the app itself, as well as by individual users and brands. With trending hashtags like #imadome and #chooseyourcharacter, TikTok is taking user creativity to the next level with endless music, dancing, lip-syncing and comedy skits.

(Screenshots of trending hashtags on TikTok)

GUESS is the first major global brand to experiment with sponsored hashtag campaign #inmydenim on TikTok. In September, GUESS launched its first few “official” videos featuring popular creators on TikTok, and users immediately took it from there by submitting their own versions of “mess to best-dressed” transitions wearing Guess jeans, with Bebe Rexha’s “I’m A Mess” playing in the background.

(GUESS #inmydenim campaign on TikTok)
“ These digital natives’ tastes and desires govern the future of social media and culture. A cluttered brand space demands unique, engaging content and integrated participation,” said Edward Park, SVP of Retail and Digital at GUESS.

As a sexy, fashion-forward apparel company that targets young customers and boasts its trend-setting image, GUESS cleverly leverages TikTok’s intuitive, refreshing short-video format to woo Gen-Zers who value authenticity and individuality. The campaign has been a whopping success with 34 million total views as users participated organically and enthusiastically. The happy marriage between GUESS and Tikok marks the start of an exciting new path for social media marketing.

2. Lessons from Latest Case Studies on Douyin

If you think sponsored hashtag campaigns are the only way to boost brand presence TikTok, it’s time to get inspired by the lastest Douyin marketing trends in China. Although the two platforms are not yet identical (e.g. the Chinese version supports advanced forms of paid ads and direct checkout links), taking a leaf from Douyin’s book will definitely put your business ahead of the curve when it comes to TikTok marketing.

KOL Partnerships (Michael Kors)

Michael Kors’ Douyin campaign marks the app’s first partnership with a luxury designer brand. In addition to fashion influencers and celebrity ambassadors including Yang Mi and Mark Chao, the brand has worked with many Douyin-native KOLs to promote its “City Catwalk” hashtag challenge. The campaign clips made a whopping amount of 200 million impressions, with over 30,000 users posting their own catwalk videos with Michael Kors products.

(Michael Kors Douyin campaign images, source: Cosfilm

KOL partnerships on this ultra-short video platform also come in different shapes and forms that are more friendly for smaller businesses. Working with micro-influencers and longtail content creators with a relevant niche focus doesn’t require deep pockets, but can go a long way for brands that target the right audience.

Original and Localized Content (AdidasNeo)

Douyin and TikTok present a unique opportunity for brands to create visually engaging content that feels genuine and relatable.

Adidas uses Douyin specifically for its youth-focused AdidasNeo product line. The AdidasNeo official account features local celebrities that embody their target buyer persona — young, athletic, and dashing. The account periodically releases original short videos that promote an effortless, active, stylish lifestyle, including a popular series of 15-second tutorials on outfit-matching, hip-hop dancing, and even video-making.

(Source: Adidas China)

Even if your business does not yet have a budget to splurge on influencers and professional marketing agencies, it is not a bad idea to test the water with casual in-house productions that highlight the key features of your products or services. It is not only okay but sometimes even “cool” to make yourself look like a fool on TikTok. What makes an ultra-short video popular on TikTok is rarely polished staging and copyrighting — originality and straight-up FUN always come first.

Offline Engagement (Haidilao, Answer Tea)

Who would think a hotpot restaurant chain can break China’s internet with a simple call-to-action on Douyin? To integrate online and offline user engagement, Haidilao encourages customers to DIY their soup bases and dipping sauces by mixing and matching dozens of ingredients (think this as a variant of the Starbucks secret menu), and then post videos on Douyin. As a result, food-lovers swarmed into Haidilao restaurants to film their own Douyin recipes, eager to showcase their cooking mastery and unique tastes.

(Source: DIGITALING, the original video was created by Douyin user ID: 5897702)

Similarly, milk tea shop chain Answer Tea converted online engagement into substantial foot traffic to their franchises all over the country. Consumers can write down a question on the cup sleeve (e.g. Where to find my Mr. Right? Will I win the lottery?) when buying their beverages in-store and see the answer printed on top of the milk foam when they open up the lid. Curious customers form long lines waiting for their AI-customized fortune and enthusiastically post their experiences online. After all, who needs fortune cookies when your tea does a psychic’s job for just 2–3 dollars?

(Question: How to maintain a long-distance relationship? Answer: Love can move mountains. Source: 36kr)

If your business has a brick-and-mortar presence, TikTok can be a super effective tool to connect with the online community without the fuss of sending out coupons and newsletters. The short-video format organically highlights the most attractive features of your products and services and turns positive customer experiences into a powerful social currency.

Culture-centered Brand Voice (Xiaomi, AliPay)

As two of the most well-known tech companies in China, Xiaomi and AliPay have found their niche on Douyin by creating a down-to-earth yet innovation-oriented brand voice. In addition to product demos, the two companies’ corporate accounts both periodically post organic, unpolished videos featuring the everyday lives of their real employees in the R&D and operations departments. Douyin users are impressed by the talent and sense of humor of these ordinary people, who often seamlessly work the latest product features into their pranks and skits. These “behind-the-scenes” videos are an excellent way to communicate your corporate culture and values to both current and prospective consumers.

(Screenshots of Xiaomi Mobile and AliPay corporate accounts.)

Are you ready to make the leap into TikTok marketing? Need more pointers on what to do next? Contact me for more advice and insights that will help your business grow on TikTok and Douyin.


Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this article, please give it 👏50 claps👏 and follow me on Medium for upcoming stories on marketing, growth hacking, entrepreneurship, and the latest business trends in China and the U.S. Feel free to reach out to me at doriskeke@gmail.com or on twitter @doriskeke.
I thank my team members Dian, Shirley, and Elaine, for assistance with this article.