What is TikTok? And Why Marketers Need to Care

Download Now: The Marketer's Guide to TikTok for Business
Pamela Bump
Pamela Bump



A year ago, I downloaded a trendy new app called TikTok. When I opened it, I was overwhelmed by a feed of hilarious looping videos and bizarre music montages made by other users. It reminded me of Vine, the looping video platform that was killed by Twitter a few years beforehand.

woman on phone posing for tiktok

As I continued to explore the app, I felt like I was witnessing utter chaos -- but in a good way. The stream of odd videos had no rhyme or reason to it, but it kept me entertained and easily distracted for the whole weekend.

As the app neared its one-year mark, a news story caught my eye about how brands were becoming more interested in TikTok due to its astounding user growth. I was shocked that this funny platform was starting to be taken seriously.

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When I offered up a few TikTok-related post ideas at a HubSpot Blog pitch session, colleagues who knew of the app were also as surprised as I was about this marketing trend.

Meanwhile, others were asking, “What the heck is TikTok? All I can think of is that Ke$ha song.”

While many marketers have heard of it -- and might even know that it got over 1 billion downloads in its first year, they might still scratch their heads when they read about TikTok or see some of its nonsensical videos.

So, why are people so obsessed with it? And -- most importantly -- should marketers even care about this super bizarre, niche app?

In this post, I'll attempt to unravel some of the mystery behind TikTok and explain how marketers can leverage it now or in the future. To give you some added marketing inspiration, I'll also touch on a few brands that have already conquered the platform.

In 2017, ByteDance acquired the app Musical.ly and later merged it with its new app, TikTok, in 2018.

The app, which now has more than 500 million monthly active users, is like a combination of its predecessor, Musical.ly, and the discontinued short-video app, Vine.

Before essentially becoming TikTok, Musical.ly had nearly the exact same layout. The app allowed users to lip-sync and virtually duets with friends to musical overlays. To give you an idea of what the app looked like, here's an old ad for it:

Advertisement for Musical.ly

Image from TikTok

Meanwhile, users on Vine had a similar layout to Instagram. They could record and post basic 10-second looping videos. Most of which had a comedic tone to them. Although Vine didn't have a musical overlay feature til later in its existence, users would often play music in the background or work in sound effects in other creative ways.

When you enter TikTok, you'll see a video feed -- similarly to Musical.ly's -- with a wider variety of post styles, from music montages to funny shorts with insane AR filters. Here's a screenshot of what this feed looks like:


Like other visual apps such as Snapchat or Instagram, TikTok has become a creative outlet for young adults and teens. To give you an idea of what you might see on the platform, here's a highlight reel published on TikTok's official Youtube page:

Soon after its launch and youth popularity, celebrities and comedians, like Jimmy Fallon, began to discuss it and use the app themselves. Here's a quick video of Fallon showing it to his audience on an episode of The Tonight Show:


Examples of TikTok Posts

If you're interested in joining TikTok for personal or business-related reasons, it can be helpful -- and pretty entertaining -- to look at other posts for inspiration. Here are a few of the common post styles you'll see there:

Music Videos or Montages

On any given day, you'll see a number of musical montages or mini music videos on the platform. While some people are just lip-syncing to songs, others might get more creative. In this interesting example, a user combines a video game's storyline with a song with lyrics that relate well to what the main character is doing.

Comedic Shorts

Most of the posts you'll see on TikTok are aimed at getting laughs. While you might see shorter and simpler funny videos, you'll also see more detailed, well-planned posts that feel like short narratives. Here's a great example of a post which tells the story of a cat going on vacation.

Videos with Special Effects

In this funny example, users take advantage of TikTok's AR face filters.


With the Duets feature, you can reply to a musical post by recording your own video to the same music. Your video will then display back-to-back with the original post. While some people will use this former Musical.ly feature for lip-syncing videos, others will get more creative by adding a visual response, like this:

Challenge Videos

On TikTok, you'll also regularly see hashtagged challenges. These videos will often encourage you to record yourself doing something odd to join in on the challenge. Here's an example of someone participating in the Chipotle's #ChipotleLidFlipChallenge. The goal of the challenge is to flip a Chipotle to-go bowl's lid with only the bowl:

Brands on TikTok

Although TikTok might feel like just a hub of odd posts, its popularity and video-focused layout opens brands up to a variety of unique marketing and brand awareness opportunities. In fact, it's already becoming a tool that companies like Chipotle and Washington Post use to engage new audiences.

But, because TikTok doesn't hyperlink posts to websites and only recently started to allow advertising, these businesses seem to be focusing on boosting brand awareness, rather than leads or traffic.

To succeed on TikTok, marketers will have to get creative. While entertainers and publishers might have an easier time transitioning content into a TikTok videos, some brands will require more brainstorming.

One brand that creatively and virally highlighted a product line naturally on the app was Guess. The major fashion brand recently launched the #inMyDenimChallenge, which encouraged TikTok users to film a music video while wearing Guess' new denim line.

Two other notable companies that are taking a unique approach are The Washington Post and the United Nations.

The Washington Post’s account takes shockingly casual and comedic approach with the app. Here’s an example of one of their recent posts:

While The Post publishes a variety of funny shorts about the newsroom, the United Nations has started dance challenges to spread awareness about more serious topics like global warming and world hunger. Here's a video post that responded to the UN's #danceforchange challenge:

Although some of the first brands to join TikTok were large, well-known companies, it can still be helpful for small businesses to look at what businesses and influencers are trying on the platform.

Branded video examples, even from bigger companies, could arm you with helpful takeaways related to creative marketing strategies and experimenting with new platforms. Even if you don't join TikTok, checking out these videos could also help you come up with ideas for posts on other visual platforms, like Instagram.

If you've enjoyed the examples we've shown you so far and want to start making your own, below are a few basic instructions for filming your first video. Because TikTok has so many features, we'll also be publishing a detailed guide on how to use the entire app. Stay tuned. 

1. Open the app and go to the center camera tab.

2. Use the labeled icons around the screen to explore and add filters or music.

The Music icon will appear in the top center of the screen while the more intense AR filters and video overlays can be found by tapping the "Effects" button on the bottom left of the camera screen.


3. Tap a time setting at the bottom to choose how long your video will be.

Your video can be 15 or 60 seconds long. You can also use this bar to enter Photo Template mode. This will allow you to upload photos into slide-show styled templates.

Setting video time on TikTok

4. Start recording all at once or in segments.

Hold down your finger on the record button and release it when you'd like to pause recording.

5. After recording, add more filters, text or musical overlays, and stickers.

Adding text overlay and other effects to TikTok video

6. Press Next to enter post settings.

Include a caption and relevant hashtags to make it more searchable. You can also tap Drafts to save the post for later. 

Post settings screen in TikTok app

7. Adjust the privacy and comment style by tapping on the settings under the video caption.

You can also turn Duets on or off if you don't want people to share a video response to your post.

8. Publish it!

What's Next for TikTok

TikTok isn't going anywhere anytime soon. While companies like Facebook have tried to recreate the app, they haven't been nearly as successful.

With TikTok's growth and lack of competition, we highly recommend keeping this app on your radar -- even if you aren't sure of how you'll use it yet.

If you think TikTok could be a great part of your strategy, download it and start experimenting. This will help you learn about what content is or isn't engaging long before your competitors. Not to mention, the app is so new that there aren't many rules or norms around what you can or can't post.

So far, if TikTok has taught marketers one thing, it's that experimenting with new platforms and thinking outside of the box can help you engage new audiences and boost brand awareness.

As you start to brainstorm your first TikTok posts, here are some tips to help you get your creative juices flowing:

  • Embrace the filters and musical overlays.
  • Don't be afraid to be funny.
  • Use hashtags and reply to challenges for more engagement.
  • Come up with creative ways to show off your brand, product, service -- or even a company jingle.
  • Consider using videos to give fans a behind-the-scenes look at your work.

To learn about other new and emerging social platforms, check out this helpful post.


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