Do I need to be on TikTok? — A guide for oblivious thirty-somethings

Do I need to be on TikTok? — A guide for oblivious thirty-somethings
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Last month the Panthers made their TikTok debut with a quick video of Sir Purr dancing to Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up,” a familiar style of step-by-step instructional song so easy to mimic that it ends up generating irresistible viral dance challenges for people who otherwise have no business dancing.

Buzzy music challenges like this are common fodder on TikTok, a Chinese-owned short-form video app that’s been taking the U.S. by storm since launching here in 2017.

It made immediate headway on audience growth by way of a billion-dollar acquisition of, a lip-sync dubbing app that was popular with teens. The sale was followed by a $5.7 million fine from the Federal Trade Commission for mishandling parental consent and privacy for’s many users under age 13.

TikTok outpaced Instagram for app installs in 2018 and hit the billion download milestone across iOS and Android earlier this year. On iOS, it’s currently the No. 3 free app in the U.S., outranking social media giants Instagram (No. 4), Snapchat (No. 6) and Facebook (No. 10). Even video juggernaut YouTube is currently trailing at No. 5.

But TikTok execs don’t categorize the app as social media, instead positioning it as an entertainment app for consuming content, not necessarily connecting with friends. It’s currently third in the iOS App Store Entertainment category ahead of Hulu, Netflix, Prime Video and every major network streaming app except CW (No. 2).


Although TikTok doesn’t share user numbers publicly, it’s been widely accepted that it’s in the ballpark of 500 million active monthly users globally, a stat VP Blake Chandlee vaguely confirmed and inflated at Advertising Week in New York last month. “It’s not a billion,” Blake said, “but it’s not half that either.”

It’s no wonder brands are slowly finding their way to the app. The Panthers’ dancing Sir Purr debut followed the NFL’s announcement of a multi-year partnership with TikTok that will allow third-party brands to buy sponsored ad space on the NFL’s account, which currently has more than 900,000 followers.

Not since Snapchat, which launched in 2011, have we seen an app positioned to disrupt the balance of power in the battle for your phone screen time. But despite the buzz, TikTok remains a mystery to most, due in large part to the fact that it attracts such a young audience — 41 percent of TikTok users are between the ages of 16 and 24.

That explains a lot. When the Panthers teased their TikTok antics to their three million followers on Twitter, where 84 percent of U.S. users are age 25 and up, my timeline lit up with oblivious fellow thirty-somethings wondering aloud, “What the hell is TikTok and do I need to be on it?”

Let’s break it down.

What is TikTok?

TikTok is a short-form video platform with an endless feed of user-generated clips, usually under 15 seconds but you can also string them together up to one minute. Your home tab is a curated feed powered by an algorithm that serves up suggested content based on your viewing and engagement patterns, but you also have the option to toggle to videos only from people you follow.

The discover tab showcases videos organized into themed categories (like “Extreme Sports”) or popular hashtags (like #gitupchallenge). You’ve also got an inbox for direct messages, your main profile where all your videos are displayed, and a creator studio, if you will, where you can produce videos with a fairly robust toolkit of editing features.

Ok, but say it in the length of a tweet.

TikTok is a short-form video platform popular with teenagers. It’s kind of like Vine, Twitter’s beloved but now defunct 6-second video stream (RIP), but with longer video and more advanced editing features.

Who created it?

Although it’s only a couple of years old in the U.S., this is not a scrappy young startup launched in a college dorm room. TikTok’s parent company, China-based ByteDance, is a behemoth operation with a valuation that rivals that of Uber ($78 billion) and more employees than Facebook (50,000). While TikTok touts a cutesy mission “to inspire creativity and bring joy,” the ByteDance umbrella is every bit an artificial intelligence lab with a suite of video, content discovery, and messaging apps feeding its machine learning algorithms in 150 markets and 75 languages.

ByteDance clocked $7 billion in revenue for the first half of 2019, a better-than-expected result following a reported $7 billion in revenue for all of 2018. Thirty-six-year-old founder and CEO Yiming Zhang launched the company in 2012.

Who is using TikTok?

TikTok attracts a young audience with 41 percent of users between the ages of 16 and 24. Adults, brands and celebrities have been slow to join the platform, making it a playground for the average teenager.

You’re not alone if you feel left out, confused and old. Reese Witherspoon recently had her son teach her how to use it and then posted her first video (below).

What do people post on TikTok?

Imagine a world where memes and relatable viral tweets become videos produced by amateurs with zero budget. It’s kind of like that. Unlike Instagram’s ultra-curated, color-coordinated aesthetic, TikTok is stripped down and unfussy but still performative by nature.

Most of the videos lean on a bizarre brand of internet humor born from meme culture that’s heavy on sarcasm and self-deprecation. You’ll also see plenty of lip sync dubs (harkening back to the days), dance challenges, and common editing combos stolen and then tweaked without credit to the original creator (just like memes).

Recurring themes include:

  • I’m your type – The clip opens with the question “If you like guys/girls who…” followed by a list of positive attributes. It’s paired with NIKI’s song “Indigo” and timed so you step into the frame when she says “You know I’m your type, right?”
  • FAQ – Overlaying frequently asked yes/no text questions about your life over E-40’s song “Choices” which repeats “nope, yup” over and over again.
  • Before/After transitions – An edit that creates a seemingly instant transition from casual (sweatpants and no makeup) to polished (full glam) paired with songs like Cinderella’s “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo,” Stunna Girl’s “Runway” or CG5’s “Absolutely Anything.”

How much social media experience do I need to make sense of TikTok?

It’s easy. If you’ve spent any amount of time on Snapchat or Instagram Stories (Instagram’s Snapchat replica that was also rolled out to Facebook), you’ll find TikTok’s user experience fairly intuitive. If you’ve somehow dodged those platforms over the last few years, you’ll have a steeper (but manageable) learning curve.

If you’ve worked with any video editing software, especially mobile versions, you’ll see some loose crossover in the functionality.

Should my brand be on TikTok?

Maybe. If you want to immediately drive sales or website traffic, you need to be on a platform with the ability to link out like Instagram or Facebook. If you want to build brand awareness and a relatable rapport with Gen Z, TikTok could get you there — but you’ll need to be patient and, more importantly, extremely creative.

The Washington Post is doing this flawlessly with a sort of Jim Halpert-style behind-the-scenes look at the newsroom shot a la “The Office.” It’s less about delivering the news and more about showcasing the personalities of those who cover it.

When you think about something like Instagram that started strictly as a photo-sharing app and now features Snapchat-style video clips in Stories, swipe up links to drive traffic out of the app, live video, longer-form video on IGTV and shoppable product links, it stands to reason that TikTok will evolve beyond its current form. Early adopters like WaPo will be better poised to leverage whatever those future features may be because they embraced the app in its infancy as its core users know and love it.

In the case of Axios Charlotte’s social strategy, our decision to hop on Instagram almost five years ago has paid off big time and I’m glad we’re not playing catch up there. At the same time, our less notable decision to maintain that focus and not pour any resources into Snapchat when it was the sexy new thing was also invisibly valuable. Sometimes what you don’t do is as important as what you do. Although some brands (and individuals) are going to find huge success on TikTok, not everyone has to be on every channel. If you can’t do it well, don’t.

If you have to beg, bribe and otherwise coerce your existing audience into following you to a new platform (“Follow us on TikTok for 10% off!”), it’s not a natural fit. If you can meet an existing audience where they are and package your offering in a way they want to consume it — in the case of TikTok, funny 15-second clips — you can make it work.

At a minimum, you should claim your brand’s name on TikTok now before someone else does — just in case.

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