Editor’s note: To realize their full potential media need to look beyond their comfort zone and learn from other industries and businesses. Many of those are now flocking to TikTok, seeking to build relationships with younger audiences. The Fix asked Bozhena Sheremeta, a social media marketing consultant who advises both media and non-media firms, what opportunities the fast-growing social platform has to offer.

If you still haven’t seen a single TikTok video, you have been living under a rock the whole year. After coronavirus, TikTok must be the second most used word of 2020. 

It’s turned from a time-waster app into a platform with 2 billion downloads and a real revenue source for influencers with supersonic speed. But what can businesses, including the media, get from it? Does TikTok have enough potential to generate real money?

“Started from the bottom”

In 2014, the app called Musical.ly was introduced to the world by two friends Alex Zhu and Luyu Yang in Shanghai, China. Its prime purpose was to give people a platform to record fun videos, set to a big library of popular songs. 

Later, the Chinese company ByteDance launched a rival of Musical.ly called Douyin. As a tech giant with a reported revenue of $17 billion in 2019 and over 60,000 employees, ByteDance had big plans for the app and wanted to expand to western audiences. In 2018, it acquired Musical.ly, merged user bases, and renamed the app TikTok – that’s how the worldwide expansion started. 

According to digital marketing agency Wallaroo, as of October 2020, TikTok has over 1 billion users and has been downloaded over 175 million times in the United States alone. In August 2020, TikTok scored 63.3 million installs, the highest number of downloads in both the App Store and Google Play worldwide, leaving giants like Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube behind. 

It’s too early though to compare TikTok to the success of, say, Instagram and its 1 billion monthly active users. TikTok’s monthly active user base is 850 million globally. But Instagram launched 10 years ago while TikTok has managed to reach this result in just a couple of years – and it’s growing much faster than its rivals.

The secret of TikTok virality

TikTok has generation Z to thank for its growth. Up until March 2020, before the pandemic hit the world, TikTok was the habitat of under 20-year-old users with content ranging from dancing to lip-syncing and very little business, news, or any other type of content for an older audience. 

The pandemic has changed the scene.

At present in the U.S, only 32.5% of users are 10-19 years old. The rest are people above 20 who show demand for educational and even business-related content.

As older users started joining TikTok, they discovered its “holy grail,” the algorithm that can make you go viral and gain millions of views and followers in a matter of days. No other social media platform is offering such a generous free lift – that’s what makes more and more people get the “TikTok virus” each day.

How does TikTok work?

TikTok has never officially released data on how its algorithm works. But you learn the rules as you go once you start posting. 

Unlike on Instagram or Facebook, where your followers are the first to see your content, on TikTok, the algorithm pushes your videos to random users who might be potentially interested in the topic or format of your video.

TikTok analyzes what is happening in your video. Are you dancing or talking, is it a woman or a man, what captions and music you use, etc. Based on that, it shows your video to random users with interests that match what your video is about. 

If the first round of users who see the video watch it till the end, rewatch it, comment on it, like, save or share it, then your video is shown to a larger group of users. It’s a “snowball” effect that can make you go viral in a matter of hours.

This is why TikTok is seen as a unique chance to start from zero and gain worldwide popularity without investment or prior social media fame. It’s also something that is no longer possible on platforms like Instagram and YouTube where your followers are the first to decide how far your content may go. 

If you don’t have many followers, it’s hard to gain new ones unless you invest in paid advertising and buy access to a larger audience. TikTok gives you this access for free.

What’s in it for business?

As older audiences – those with real money, not lunch money – jumped onto TikTok, businesses started to catch up as well. Brands from different industries, like Burger King, Elf Cosmetics, NBA, and others invest time and money in TikTok in different ways.

Some pair up with TikTok influencers and launch branded hashtag challenges where users can post a video of a certain theme along with a specific hashtag. Challenges can bring hundreds of millions of views, quick follower growth, and a huge brand awareness push. 

TikTok also offers other forms of advertising to brands, like Brand Takeovers, In-Feed Video Ads, and Branded Effects. They are not accessible to brands worldwide just now. For some, you have to get approved by TikTok first to advertise.

TikTok, however, is a perfect place for growth from scratch even if you don’t have an extended budget, hence the majority of businesses on TikTok create content and rely solely on its virality, which works by itself. 

Media on TikTok

Media businesses whose main product is content should have found TikTok an outstanding opportunity for fast, easy and free distribution.

Some did. 

The Washington Post found a way to appeal to audiences by talking to them in the language of TikTok. They usually post short videos filmed and edited on a phone. People that film videos are usually their staff, who are not afraid to look and act funny on camera. 

But they don’t just joke around. Their TikToks cover and explain topics like George Floyd’s life, the corporate prison system, housing vouchers, and a plethora of other political and business topics. The Washington Post’s TikTok has over 744,000 followers and over 140 million views, according to exolyt.com, a service for TikTok analytics. 

But not all the media have found a way to connect with TikTok audiences. A case in point is NBC News, which is also on TikTok with over 224,000 followers and over 20 million video views

That is a lot less than The Washington Post’s and when you watch NBC News TikTok videos it soon becomes pretty clear why they are underperforming. 

They don’t film their staff in videos. Instead, they publish clips of video news, screenshots, with subtitles and audio. That might work on platforms like Instagram and Facebook, but it’s just not enough for TikTok. It makes them lack personality and rawness that is one of the TikTok trademarks and the reason why people all over the world love it so much. 

Publishers like LADBible, however, were destined to find fame on TikTok. With a UGC-first approach, they are now at 4.1 million followers and over 1.4 billion video views. 

Creativity and timing is the key

When you talk TikTok, you talk creativity. For media, especially, TikTok requires finding new ways of presenting information.

It’s definitely easier for entertainment news sources to gain reach on TikTok, but the example of The Washington Post proves you can find a way to get the attention of the TikTok crowd if you talk their language.

More than any other social media platform, TikTok is a good place for experimenting. Its algorithm is extremely friendly to new accounts now. It won’t last forever, though, as we have seen with platforms like Facebook and Instagram limiting the ways you can reach new audiences without investing hefty amounts in advertising. 

So the conclusion for media and businesses alike is pretty clear – act now before TikTok turns into yet another tech giant that wants your money, not your content.