We’ve all seen the hilarious thirty to sixty second videos of cats rapping or gen Z’ers pranking unsuspecting boomers playing on our phones with a “TikTok” logo in the lower right hand corner. Almost overnight, TikTok’s appeal has broadened beyond that of young adults who have a preternatural talent for viral TikTok video creation. I recently came across a TikTok posted by a gen X'er business owner who felt compelled to drive awareness with a younger audience. The post did not drive sales or even explain her product. It seemed like a true attention grab - a silly video of her dog with her business handle subtly tagged. Is this the future of content? AsTikTok emerges into the mainstream, it’s worth probing into the backstory of the mysterious brand and their addicting app.
Demystifying the origins of TikTok
TikTok is an app for short-form mobile videos. If you are unfamiliar with the form factor of TikTok, may I recommend that you start with the TikTok hit of a cat dancing along to ‘Mr. Sandman’. The app birthed an entirely new form factor of content. TikToks can combine aspects of music video, slapstick comedy, and performance art in one thirty to sixty second clip. TikTok creators have a talent for utilizing the app to leverage universally humorous or poignant content. According to G2 learning Hub, as of November 2019, the most followed TikTok account is Charli D'Amelio with 52.3 million followers.
The New Yorker’s September 2019 article, “How TikTok Holds our Attention” by Jia Tolentino, describes why and how TikTok became a viral video content house. TikTok was developed by ByteDance, founded by Zhang Yiming. Tolentino describes the two products, “The direct predecessor of TikTok is Douyin, a short-video platform that ByteDance launched in China in 2016.” It’s somewhat challenging to parse out the difference between the two platforms, but the general consensus seems to be that Douyin is the Chinese version of TikTok, which also happens to have more native ecommerce functionality. This is not the first commerce enabled consumer app in China. The China based WeChat app allows users to make purchases directly from the app.
TikTok curates content & enables a broader TikTok ecosystem of producers, creators, and managers
According to Tolentino, “TikTok employs an artist-relations team that contacts musicians whose songs are going viral and coaches them on how to use the platform. Some videos include links to Apple Music, which pays artists per stream, though not very much. Virality can thus pay off elsewhere, relieving the pressure for TikTok to compensate artists directly. It is, these days, a standard arrangement: you will be “paid” in exposure, giving your labor to a social platform in part because a lot of other people are doing it and in part because you might be one of the people whom the platform sends, however briefly, to the top.”
Tolentino writes about Jacob Pace, a twenty-one year old CEO of a content production company with a TikTok speciality, Flighthouse. "Pace has fifteen employees working under him to make TikToks, some of which serve as back-end marketing for record labels that have paid Flighthouse to promote particular songs."
The Commerce aspect of TikTok is particularly interesting. Excerpts from the Tolentino piece:
Though it remains broadly similar to TikTok, Douyin has become more advanced than its global counterpart, particularly with respect to e-commerce. With three taps on Douyin, you can buy a product featured in a video; you can book a stay at a hotel after watching a video shot there; you can take virtual tours of a city’s stores and restaurants, get coupons for those establishments, and later post geo-tagged video reviews. Fabian Bern, the head of a marketing company that works closely with Douyin influencers, told me that some power users can make “fifteen to twenty thousand U.S. dollars” on a shopping holiday like Singles’ Day.
Bern thinks that TikTok content will soon become more mature, as has already happened with Douyin, which now contains micro-vlogs, life-style content, business advice, and videos from local police.
I have no designs on downloading TikTok, but I do love the cat videos. I’m curious to see if TikTok will be a passing fad as alluded to in the New Yorker article or if it will become a successful mainstream app with an ecommerce play.