What Is TikTok? Is It Worth Using for Business?

Updated on October 9, 2019
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Heidi Thorne is an author and business speaker specializing in sales and marketing topics for coaches, consultants, and solopreneurs.

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Boldly Going Where Almost No Baby Boomers Have Gone Before

Whenever I hear that this or that social media network is going to be the next big thing, of course, I want to see what all the fuss is about. Am I missing an opportunity? Is it a fad that will soon be gone?

So the next big thing on the social media horizon as I’m writing this is TikTok. Generation Z seems to be the primary audience for the network. So being a late-stage Baby Boomer, I’m a little older than the core demographic. Okay, okay, a lot older. I could be a grandparent to a lot of TikTok-ers. But that doesn’t mean I don’t or can’t serve younger generations in my business. So I’m curious to find out what makes Gen Z tick... and TikTok. I will say that if grandmas and grandpas completely infiltrate TikTok someday, the core audience will be moving on to whatever’s next.

Let’s dive in to what I’ve learned from my TikTok experiment so far.

What is TikTok?

TikTok is a social media network that features short videos (15 seconds, but can be up to 60 seconds max). According to Vox, in 2018, the TikTok app was downloaded 1 billion (with a “b”) times. In February 2019, 27 million of those users were in the United States; the majority of users are in China.

It’s similar to Snapchat and Instagram Stories in its visual look and feel, vertical orientation, and features, except that the videos don’t disappear after 24 hours.
From what I’ve observed, the majority of videos are more content rich and less like status updates you would find on most social networks. Most videos are short features that provide entertainment or offer information. This is also a departure from most Snapchat and Instagram Stories, even if those status updates are entertaining; the entertainment value there is because you have a relationship with the person or group posting on Snapchat or Instagram Stories.

I think this tendency is fostered by the fact that the videos don’t disappear from TikTok. Plus, the likes (when viewers tap the heart symbol to signal their approval of a video) are cumulative. So if the subject of the video is seriously time-sensitive, it has a lower chance of getting more likes if the topic becomes irrelevant or dated.

Robots Run TikTok

Like Instagram and other social networks, TikTok is controlled by a computer algorithm, but possibly to an even greater degree. According to a New York Times article from March 2019, TikTok is really more of a machine that’s constantly analyzing your behavior. Then it feeds you more of what and who it thinks you’d like based on your behavior, not the people you’ve necessarily connected with. On your home screen, you’ll see a For You link at the top which will show you a never ending stream of videos that the robot algorithm thinks you might like.

Why do it like that as opposed to every other social network where you are required to intentionally follow others to view their content? Well, there are some advantages for users.

Have you ever calculated how much it takes to find interesting and relevant people, or even people you know personally, on social media? It can be quite an investment of time and energy. As you use the TikTok app, the algorithm will continue to learn what’s important to you and can play social media matchmaker. Going onto TikTok completely cold like I did for this experiment, I appreciated the suggestions, although I’m sure they often suggest those that would benefit TikTok in some way.

In case you’re wondering, yes, you can still manually follow users and their content will show up under the Following link on the home screen.

Of course, as with all social media platforms these days, the concerns over underage users, creepy people, privacy, etc. are real. So cautions are in order, especially for monitoring use by younger users. There is also concern that if robots are in control, would they suggest inappropriate users and videos, especially for younger viewers? Well, I guess that’s possible. You are asked your age when you start using the app. So we can hope that the algorithm is taking age into consideration. But then users can lie about their age.

Hashtags, Trashtags?

Of course, you can supplement the algorithm’s suggestions by searching for likeminded TikTok users through search and hashtags.

TikTok is very similar to Instagram and Twitter with heavy hashtag use. From my experience so far, I don’t see the hashtags being all that powerful. The algorithm is sure to be analyzing content for more than just simple text hashtags. Plus, the number of hashtags is limited because the caption text that accompanies each video is only about 100 characters.

However, a lot of users seem to think that putting the hashtag #foryoupage or #fyp will signal to the algorithm to put their content in users’ For You Page. As might be expected, getting on the algorithm-controlled For You Page is the Holy Grail on TikTok. As on every other social network or search engine, people are looking to game the system with stupid hacks like this. I’m guessing the algorithm is smarter than that, constantly “learning” and rewriting itself over time.

While the robots may use some signals from hashtags, I would bet that it’s only a piece of the algorithm. I really see TikTok hashtags as a search and organizing tool for the humans, not the robots. So I’m using hashtags in my posts that I think humans would naturally search, and that I've researched to make sure they're ones actually being used on TikTok.

Is TikTok Like YouTube or IGTV?

Not really because it’s often difficult to go in-depth with anything in 15-60 seconds. I’ve observed that some popular TikTok users are YouTubers who use TikTok to show short previews of their longer videos on YouTube, hoping that TikTok users will visit and subscribe to their YouTube channels.

While TikTok could rival Instagram’s IGTV video app, I see almost no TikTok users directing people to view longer content on IGTV. YouTube still wins the long-form online video game.

Why I Think TikTok is Better than Snapchat and Instagram

I really, really wanted to like Snapchat. I thought the concept of short video updates that disappear made it a light and dynamic network when compared to the likes of Facebook.

With the exception of the disappearing nature of Snapchat, TikTok feels very similar to Snapchat to me. But why I like TikTok better is that the connections are accessible. On Snapchat, like most other social networks, you have to make an intentional mutual connection to view someone’s content. But the user search feels very opaque. That’s a good thing for an app that’s targeting younger users since it means you really have to know the person you’re connecting with.

However, I had a very, VERY hard time finding anyone I know on Snapchat, even though I let it try to find users in my contacts. Very few of my social and IRL connections were there. And the user names and profiles are so cryptic, I just didn’t want to spend too much time on it. Plus, the avatars are typically cartoons. Yeah, like I can figure out if this cartoon is or is not one of my contacts. I just gave up.

I LOVE that the TikTok caption text is limited to 100 characters that displays on the lower left corner of the video!

One of the things that annoys me about Instagram is the never ending miniature font text captions in Feed posts, with up to 30 hashtags, which you have to click the "see more" link to view. And some users have a caption that's as long as a blog post. Having to "see more" slows down the scroll through Instagram posts. I'm wondering if TikTok was aware of that, because there are no speed bumps as you scroll through. You see what you need to see all at once.

A screenshot of a post I did on TikTok. Notice how simplistic the interface is.
A screenshot of a post I did on TikTok. Notice how simplistic the interface is. | Source

So What's on TikTok?

As noted earlier, TikTok’s content is more similar to YouTube than other “social” platforms. Yes, there are some more personal videos. From what I’ve seen, even these are usually of the “here’s more about me” or “watch me” variety, as opposed to “here’s what happened to me today.”

Even more telling of what TikTok is all about is the Discover page. The videos are categorized for Fandom, Food, Beauty & Style, Sports, Life Hacks, Oddly Satisfying, Animals, Gaming, Fitness, Art, Comedy, and a whole lot more. Sounds kind of like YouTube, eh? Like on YouTube, the value and quality of videos runs the gamut from pure junk to pure joy.

You might be wondering what “Oddly Satisfying” is all about. Many of these are videos that I would describe as ASMR. So what’s ASMR? It stands for “autonomous sensory meridian response,” which currently refers to a feeling of calm and relaxation received from watching or hearing content that isn't stressful or overly stimulating, but enjoyable. I saw one description that likened it to watching painter Bob Ross. If you’ve ever seen his TV show, you know what I’m talking about.

Music, Music, Music

TikTok was launched in China in 2012. In 2017, the company that owns TikTok bought social network Music.ly and merged it into its app. Music.ly was a music-centric app where lots of younger users would post lip sync videos, dancing, and other music-oriented content. Though Music.ly is gone, the musical influence still remains.

You’ll find that the majority of videos do have some sort of background track. Users can add a snippet of background music from a vast, searchable free library right on the app. So you don’t have to be a music or audio pro to add a background track to your video posts. There's a similar feature on Instagram Stories that's hooked up with Spotify. So new Instagram cross-over users will find that helpful and familiar.

Duets

One of the popular features on TikTok is duets, where users can both be on the same video to sing, dance, or whatever. This is similar to Instagram Stories where users can invite friends to join them on an Instagram Live.

Challenges

Challenges online for crazy stunts or pranks have come and gone. On TikTok, they're common for lip syncing, dancing, stunts, comedy, etc. Users might include a common hashtag in their caption so that their challenge entry could come up in a search.

I really couldn't care less about the challenges. However, I understand some brands are getting into it by launching a challenge. Due to their usually short-lived nature, I'm not actively participating in the challenges. But let your market's interest in them be the deciding factor.

TikTok Content Creation Challenges for Business

You’ll notice that a lot of the videos on TikTok appear professionally produced, and way above the capabilities of most people, including such things as multiple camera angles, pro lighting, and really slick editing. Even though the built-in video shooting and editing tools on TikTok are quite extensive, in comparison to Instagram Stories, TikTok seems more difficult.

I found that working with the built-in video creation features can be a time suck. I spent at least a couple hours struggling with some text effects while I was learning it. Ugh! Don’t try to create videos to compete with the pros or more experienced users, especially while you’re learning. Experiment with effects, filters, and tools a little at a time.

Since my business is mostly non-visual, TikTok is challenging when it comes to creating visual, video-based content. I have the same issue with Instagram, although I've developed some coping strategies and a rhythm that seem to be working for me. Now I just need to figure out what will be my M.O. for TikTok.

Is TikTok Good for Your Small Business?

The jury is still out on this one. Digital marketing pro, Neil Patel, mentioned in a September 2019 podcast that it’s not yet at scale and probably not worth too much investment in this early stage. However, entrepreneur superstar, Gary Vaynerchuk, is bullish on TikTok. So now what?

You have to analyze your market. Do you, or will you, want to reach a younger audience now or in the near term? Then it’s worth investigating and experimenting with now so you at least have an idea of what it’s all about. With the popularity of vertically-oriented, short video platforms (TikTok, Instagram Stories, and Snapchat), learning about creating in this format can help prepare you for others like it that may pop up in the future.

Advertising Opportunities

Digiday reports that TikTok ads are running at $10 per impression, with a $6,000 minimum ad spend. Brand takeover ads (I’ve seen some pop up on my feed from big brands like Apple) are $50,000 per day. What????? Definitely not in the realm of possibility for most small business advertisers.

Organic Business Building on TikTok

So for small businesses, building a fan base organically is probably the best strategy. And since TikTok is more of a content network, as opposed to a friend and connection network, the algorithm robots can assist you in recruiting new followers. That’s more efficient than doing the hard work of searching out connections on social media. Even though the videos are short and you have algorithm assistance, building a TikTok audience will take time... just like anything else online.

Also, if you set up your profile as a business account, you can get some very helpful analytic data about your content and followers. Building a following and creating a business account are both free. Yay! On the downside, you cannot have a link to your website in your profile, but you are allowed to include active links to your Instagram and YouTube channels that show up as buttons on your profile. So if you have a presence on those networks, TikTok could serve as a feeder to them.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Heidi Thorne

    Comments

    Submit a Comment
    • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

      Heidi Thorne 

      2 minutes ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Sharon! It's pretty new for all of us, especially for those wanting to use it for business. Glad you found the article helpful. Keep us posted on your TikTok adventures. Have a wonderful week!

    • cinderella14 profile image

      Sharon Lopez 

      2 days ago from Philippines

      Yes, Tik Tok is a relatively new app and can be very helpful in marketing. I haven't used this app as of yet, though, it's good to know another way of building followership and promoting products and contents. Thank you for sharing such a comprehensive discussion on this topic.

    • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

      Heidi Thorne 

      3 weeks ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Shaloo! Sometimes getting banned is the best thing that can happen, eh? :) No matter what country you're in, I think people are still trying to figure out what TikTok is all about and how to best use it. Thanks so much for stopping by and have a wonderful weekend!

    • swalia profile image

      Shaloo Walia 

      3 weeks ago from India

      I heard about Tiktok when it was banned in my country. The ban has been lifted now and it somehow helped to popularize the app even more. Your hubs gives me a detailed view about what it is all about. Thanks for sharing!

    • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

      Heidi Thorne 

      4 weeks ago from Chicago Area

      You're welcome, Liz! If you do decide to check it out, let me know how it goes. It is intriguing. Thanks for stopping by and have a great day!

    • Eurofile profile image

      Liz Westwood 

      5 weeks ago from UK

      This is a great explanation of what TikTok is. I saw a reference to it recently and I was intrigued. Thanks for this informative and useful article.

    • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

      Heidi Thorne 

      5 weeks ago from Chicago Area

      Flourish, you are so right! It seems like there's a new hot social network coming up all the time. Sorting through the pros and cons of each is quite a project.

      I do like the AI robots help! On a cacophonous site like TikTok (or any of the others for that matter), the effort it takes to sift through the nonsense can be exhausting.

      I was stunned by the potential ad spend, too! I think Snapchat has a similar ad model, but I don't think it was as pricey as TikTok. I'm guessing that, like Instagram, they may find a way for smaller advertisers to participate eventually.

      Thanks for chiming in! Have a lovely weekend!

    • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

      Heidi Thorne 

      5 weeks ago from Chicago Area

      You're welcome, Linda! Honestly, I was kind of ignoring TikTok and Music.ly. But after hearing about it on a number of business podcasts, I figured it might be good to investigate and share. Thanks for stopping by and have a beautiful weekend!

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 

      5 weeks ago from USA

      I have heard of Tik Tok but didn’t know anything about it. It seems like there is no shortage of new platforms. I like that the robots do some of the finding for you. Some of those ad rates are unbelievable!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 

      5 weeks ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I've never heard of TikTok before. Thanks for sharing your knowledge and discoveries about the site, Heidi. I appreciate all the information that you share.

    • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

      Heidi Thorne 

      5 weeks ago from Chicago Area

      Hi Pamela! In spite of it having a user base of close to a billion people, it still hasn't made many inroads here in the US. So it's very new to a lot of us. Let us know how you like it if you do decide to dive in.

      Thanks, as always, for reading and for your support! Means a lot. Have a lovely weekend!

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      5 weeks ago from Sunny Florida

      Heidi, this is another interesting article as I knew literally nothing about TikTok. I may check it out as your descriptions make it sound interesting, even with the limitations. Thanks for the education on another social media site.

    • heidithorne profile imageAUTHOR

      Heidi Thorne 

      5 weeks ago from Chicago Area

      Bill, us Boomers are just trying to keep up! *sigh*

      I do have to admit that TikTok is kind of fun. Maybe because it is geared for younger audiences. So it seems less heavy than the others. Well, when you get some time...

      Actually, I do hope that you dive into podcast land one day. I think it would be a good outlet for your talents and insights.

      I'll look for you on TikTok in 5 years, granted it hasn't been acquired by Facebook or some other behemoth of technology.

      Thanks so much for taking a few moments to chime in. Have a wonderful weekend!

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      5 weeks ago from Olympia, WA

      Sigh! I do that a lot while reading your articles about social media . . . I sigh! Not because it isn't interesting, because it is...no, I'm sighing because social media is progressing much too fast for me to catch up.

      I can see the value of this site. I even think it would be fun to try, but I thought the same thing about the others. I'm still trying to find the time to do my first podcast, and podcasts have been around how long now?

      Look for me on Tik Tok in about five years. lol

      Have a great weekend, Heidi!

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