2020 has been quite the year. We’ve been through an unprecedented U.S. election cycle, weathered climate change-induced firestorms, not to mention our ongoing battle against the Covid-19 global pandemic. One result of these events has been that many individuals are Extremely Online, now more than ever. And quietly, a fundamental shift on the internet has taken place. We’ve entered Social Media 3.0.
What is Social Media 3.0? Good question. To understand where we are, it’s helpful to take a step back into the history of the ways we’ve connected online. I would argue there have been three definitive chapters of life on the internet:
Social Media 1.0 — This era is largely defined by a desktop-native experience, for the most part centered around smaller, closer circles of friends. We can think of the first ever blog (1994) as its launch, followed by AIM (1997) — arguably the first true social network, Friendster (2002), Myspace (2003), and finally, Facebook (2004).
Social Media 2.0 — Formed from its emphasis on the mobile-first experience, this era includes Instagram (2010), Snapchat (2011), and Vine (2013). Notably, these companies push users to engage outside of the intimate circles fostered in Social Media 1.0, enabling the rise of influencers. It marks the first time users interact meaningfully with brands in a social context. However, at their core these platforms still function as extensions of life lived IRL, rather than as ecosystems in and of themselves. Their visual infrastructure is moving towards higher engagement but is still not 100% immersive.
Enter Social Media 3.0 — Though it shares a mobile-first mentality with Social Media 2.0, this generation is defined by a 100% immersive experience. This is accomplished by the physical layout of apps (full screen content, looping replay, video-centric) and strong reliance on algorithms to boost content outside of a user’s immediate social circle. Crucially, these platforms are actively influencing IRL culture, rather than simply mirroring real world events. Though TikTok (2016) is the clear first-mover of this era, Clubhouse (2020) might also be considered in this category— and we are likely to see continued development of apps that share these characteristics in the coming years.
Why is TikTok Different?
TikTok’s UI is fundamentally centered around immersion. Everything within the app is designed to engage viewers and, crucially, keep them within the app’s ecosystem.
There are a few key features that differentiate TikTok — these include:
- Proprietary environment: no time or battery % visible while inside app, inability to play music through other apps while on TikTok (no distractions)
- Low friction: one click to follow users, videos loop infinitely, simple swipe up to see new content
- Prioritized sharing: two clicks to share internally and externally, videos can be fully downloaded
- Content generation: duet and stitch features allow users to riff on existing content, audio can be custom uploaded, plentiful filters
Not all of this is novel, but what makes the platform different is the combination of these features, a hyper-amalgamation of previous social media apps.
As a result, TikTok has become the most immersive platform on the internet. Its full-screen UI makes it the perfect app for our phones, now equipped with wall-to-wall LCD screens. You can expect more undivided attention from users on TikTok than any other social media site. One could argue that the platform has more in common with games like the Sims or Animal Crossing than any “traditional” social media channel that came before it.
The app has its own behaviors, protagonists (see: the D’Amelio Family, Sway House), and shared narrative arcs. Content on TikTok actively influences the outside world, rather than simply existing as a record of IRL activities (although it does that too). Mostly, TikTok is just fun. The app’s “trends” are essentially a visual extension of meme culture popularized in the 2010s. Users are continually remixing dances, songs, jokes, and skits. Rather than a binary create → react culture, TikTok has fostered a dynamic environment, one where content is rarely, if ever, static.
On TikTok, first impressions are everything. Videos are capped at one minute and the ease of scrolling means that if you don’t capture attention within the first 5–10 seconds, users will likely skip your content.
And yet, it’s easier to go viral on TikTok than almost anywhere else on the internet these days. While people come to Instagram for updates, they come to TikTok for discovery. The platform’s novel algorithm is its secret sauce, uncovering new and joyful content for its users.
How does the algorithm work? It presents users with both high traffic content (typically 10K-1M+ views) and relatively unknown videos (<10K views). The more users engage with content by watching, liking, commenting, and sharing with friends, the more the algorithm boosts its reach. TikTok quickly gets a sense for what content users prefer, but every so often throws in an odd-ball selection. The revelatory high of discovering new content when this happens is like a human version of the Operant Conditioning Chamber, keeping users coming back for more.
While the algorithm can quickly power a video from an audience of 0 to 100K, TikTok’s integrated sharing functionality is an added catalyst behind virality. Indeed, sharing is part of the TikTok DNA. Its users are conditioned to sending and downloading clips — it’s not surprising to find TikTok content plastered across Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
Unprecedented Reach & Power
While once an enclave for videos of teenagers dancing in front of their bathroom mirrors, TikTok has hit the mainstream. Over the past year, nonprofits like NPR and the ACLU have joined, as well as major brands including the NBA, Chipotle, and Crocs.
Teenage K-Pop fans leveraged TikTok in June to sink a Trump presidential rally and the app played a major role in organizing support for the Black Lives Matter Movement globally. Crucially, activities occurring on the app are generating a substantial impact on our lives, even among those that aren’t registered users.
There is no longer any doubt about TikTok’s power and influence. It is changing the way we make music, dress ourselves, organize politically, and even become famous. In March 2019 when the New York Times declared that “TikTok [was] re-writing the world” it seemed crazy. Today, it feels normal.
Indeed, as the ACLU announced its launch on the app this fall, it acknowledged:
“We’re joining TikTok to engage younger audiences in the fight for our civil rights and liberties…we’re meeting them where they are — on TikTok.”
Young people are living their lives on the app, a trend that has only been accelerated by Covid. Globally, the app has over 800M active users, with 69% of U.S. teenagers now on the platform (up 200% from this time last year).
“If TikTok did shut down, it would be like losing a bunch of really close friends I made, losing all the progress and work I did to get a big following. It’s a big part of who I’ve become as a teenager. Losing it would be like losing a little bit of me.”
Logging into the app has become a regular ritual for its users, who spend an average of 52 minutes per day on the platform. Especially in a time when in-person socializing has been largely eliminated and education has moved online, TikTok has emerged as a virtual third place, one where its (largely younger) users convene for connection, community, and shared identity.
What Does this Mean For Brands?
Brands that are interested in attracting and retaining young customers are realizing that TikTok is fast becoming the top location to capture their attention. Anyone who has spent some time on TikTok will notice that the app operates with its own lexicon and set of norms. There is a “TikTok language” consisting of slang words, popular songs (and sounds), and dances; successful brands not only speak it, but innovate on top of it.
We can consider four main tactics that brands have to engage with users on TikTok: 1) Organic Content, 2) Paid Content, 3) Sponsored Content, and 4) Native Content. Examples of each of these methods are outlined below.
1. Organic Content
In late September, a video of Nathan Apodaca (better known by his alias “420doggface”) went viral on TikTok. In it, Apodaca longboards down a country road, Fleetwood Mac playing as his soundtrack while he leans back to drink cranberry juice straight from the bottle. Ocean Spray, to be exact. The video generated over 70M views, resonating deeply with viewers quarantined at home looking for a sense of relaxation and carefree joy.
A viral trend was started. Teens across the country shared videos of themselves drinking Ocean Spray juice. Shortly after, Ocean Spray’s CEO posted his own version of the trend to resounding acclaim, with users declaring their respect for the brand. Ocean Spray went further, purchasing a car for Apodaca, who had previously been living in an RV with no running water before he hit viral fame. While Ocean Spray’s sales spiked as users went out to buy juice to participate in the trend, more importantly, it engendered a new generation of loyal fans through its engagement and generosity.
2. Paid Content
Outside of organic engagement, TikTok has allowed advertisers to insert paid content into its users’ feeds. Avid TikTok users can tell you that audio is often the most important component of content on the app, with viral dances and storylines circling around shared soundbites. The best paid campaigns have seen companies create their own audio clips, generating their own virality on the app.
This fall, Crocs launched a campaign with a custom song, titled “Strap Back” — a veritable earworm that was both catchy and instantly recognizable. The paid campaign swarmed the TikTok airways and then exploded with organic growth as users generated their own content using the Crocs soundtrack, powering #strapback to 6.7B views. Outlets including Slate and GQ ran articles proclaiming Crocs as the fall’s coolest accessory. But TikTok users weren’t surprised — they had orchestrated the orthopedic shoe’s ascent to popularity (and $80M in 3Q revenue, too).
3. Sponsored Content
What would TikTok be without its influencers? While the idea of influencer marketing was largely pioneered on Instagram, TikTok innovated on its structure with its own roster of internet superstars.
One of the best examples is Dunkin’s recent partnership with Charli D’Amelio. The coffee and donut retailer launched an exclusive drink (aptly named “The Charli”) alongside its own song on TikTok. 200M views later, the campaign reached the upper echelons of TikTok virality, inspiring a generation of teens to order the drink and post their own reviews online (to the tune of 50K videos). Dunkin’ leveraged Charli’s global audience to expand its reach outside of the U.S. East Coast where its customers were concentrated, driving a 45% surge in cold brew sales.
Importantly, sponsored content works best when brands tap into a user that was already authentically engaged with its product. TikTok users knew Charli was a hard core Dunkin’ fan for months before the official partnership was announced, even requesting it on her behalf. When the official drink was released, it resonated as authentic and natural, rather than as a heavy-handed branding ploy.
While these opportunities are rife, companies including Sherwin Williams and Chick-fil-A have fired employees that built large (mostly positive) followings on the app, worried about brand representation outside of official channels. Word to the wise — perhaps instead of terminating employees, it would pay to lean into their popularity and engaged audiences with some official #sponcon.
4. Native Content
Notably, the app has not only become a home for existing brands, but an incubator for new companies. The nature of the platform enables founders to manufacture virality and generate authenticity for a wide audience more easily than ever before. In this way, TikTok can essentially become a $0 CAC funnel.
GenZ dating app Monet launched in October via a viral post that has since been viewed over 560K times. With no marketing spend, the company was able to onboard 10K users before even launching in the AppStore. Posts with the hashtag #monetdating have now reached 1.1M views.
Native content tends to look a lot like organic content (it is often organic after all) — the key difference here is that companies employing native content are using TikTok to reveal how they are building their company, rather than promoting an existing, finished product. Much of this activity fits within the “Building in Public” movement, recently popularized by SaaS companies on Twitter.
So… What’s Next?
Throughout the 2010s, Instagram became a must-have for consumer brands, with their presence on the app acting as both a free marketing channel and vehicle for customer engagement. Companies including Glossier, Outdoor Voices, and AWAY rose to prominence largely because of their presence on the app.
And yet, the sans serif, pastel, picture-perfect imagery touted by these brands no longer resonates (indeed, they’ve been snubbed as “blands”). The authenticity consumers now crave is, in many ways, better served on TikTok than any other platform. Maintaining a TikTok presence has quickly become the new minimum skin in the game for upstart and legacy consumer brands.
The playbook has been written (and is being continually re-written) for marketing success on TikTok. The successful brands of the 2020s will need to master organic and paid strategy on the app, participating in online trends and (hopefully) working to make the internet a more joyful and connected place to be.
Indeed, it’s not crazy to think that the next great consumer unicorn might well be born on TikTok.