What’s better for brands than a social media platform with 500 million users in 150 countries? Here’s what: a social media platform that has 500 million-plus users — most of which are Gen Zers (okay, and some millennials) — in 150 countries. Since the TikTok app opened for business, it has blasted through a billion downloads. So, marketers are now paying attention.
We need to remember that by the end of the year, Gen Zers will surpass millennials as the global majority population. We also need to remember that they are currently in the workforce and spending money. Smart and agile marketers have already been seeking out Gen Z as consumers and are looking for ways to crack through their highly protected circles of trust. Over the past decade I’ve looked closely at what will soon become the most influential generation of our time and, in my book, Disrupted, From Gen Y to iGen: Communicating with the Next Generation, I predicted many of the behaviors we are seeing from the first true digital generation.
So, imagine my thrill to observe the rise of what appears to be Gen Z’s first social network. However, although TikTok may seem like a dream come true for brands trying to reach Gen Z, exactly how different is it from Instagram? In our eagerness, can brands simply move their well-crafted and beautifully-produced 15-second IG videos over to TikTok?
The answer, in my opinion, is no — that is, if you think what works on platforms like Instagram that target millennials will work on TikTok. First, Gen Zers are not the same as millennials. Gen Zers were born and raised in an era with access to vast human knowledge at their fingertips. That means that from an early age, they were able to become master curators. And they typically only engage with content that gets through the iron mesh of their circle of trust, with influencers that both represent them and whom they respect.
These are not the influencers of the millennial internet. They are typically microinfluencers with smaller but far more engaged audiences. And they are not the perfectly produced and glamorous influencers that we’re used to seeing on Instagram.
A 2016 Google report told us that younger generations relate to YouTube creators more than celebrities. They want real, raw, authentic and honest influencers, not the polished veneer of many of their predecessors. Prizes go to those who are genuinely funny, realistic, charming, cute, unique and full of personality. Millennials have largely been taken by the polished and refined look of Instagram, but as the younger generation is moving in, even millennials want more authenticity. As The Atlantic reported, the “Instagram Look” is fading fast. And a more authentic approach is taking its place.
Content on TikTok wins through engagement alone. It doesn’t matter how many followers someone has. All that matters is that the broader community loves the content. Most of TikTok’s content has an amateur feel to it — a departure from the high-production values and staging often seen with content on other major social media platforms. A user’s ability to create fun content focuses more on creativity, not budget. It compels users to show who they really are, not who they aspire to be.
So, no. In my opinion, brands should not use the same strategy on TikTok as they would for Instagram. They should be authentic to who they really are. Like the users, they should represent themselves in a realistic and endearing way. For example, Chipotle did a “Lid Flip Challenge” recently and, through petty pure-fun silliness, managed to rack up hundreds of millions of views. U.K. publisher Dazed managed to rack up millions of interactions in just a couple of months.
With Gen Zers thirsting for real connections with their influencers, it is no wonder these campaigns resonated with them. In the case of Chipotle, the brand seemed to entirely embrace what TikTok was all about: 15 seconds of relentless and selfless absurdity. This must have felt very authentic to audiences, because if Chipotle was fluent in “TikTokese,” it certainly would understand and relate to younger audiences. Similarly, when Dazed introduced ideas like the #lassochallenge (where people lasso innocent passersby) it understood an inherent momentum in the platform where clever ideas are re-performed by others relentlessly and with their own unique style.
These examples demonstrate the importance of “getting it.” If a brand does manage to show that it truly understands the point, rhythm and momentum of TikTok, then by extension, the brand must truly understand the audience. And, when done authentically, that one gesture can get brands into Gen Z’s circle of trust. This means they will begin listening to the brand and possibly even begin advocating for it.
Gen Z is a remarkable generation in that they grew up with the sum total of human knowledge at their hands. They’ve never known anything different. So, naturally, they have become the world’s best curators. When targeting Gen Z, a brand can spend all of its marketing money on the best ad platforms they can find, but unless they are in Gen Z’s circle of trust, it’ll land on deaf ears. There are many other brands that do get them and are in that circle, so they don’t have to listen to you. The best way to reach them, whether it is on TikTok or a billboard, is to be your authentic self and to make sure that authentic self can relate to Gen Z’s life in a meaningful (and often fun) way.
Although TikTok’s ad platform is still being developed and agencies are dabbling with it, the platform is trying to woo more brands and I’d recommend they take the bait or be left behind. If you are planning on jumping into the fray, remember who you are talking to and leave your millennial tactics at the door.