With dozens of apps competing for users’ attention, TikTok is the latest front-runner in the war to keep people scrolling. The Chinese-owned video app is the fastest-growing social media platform of all time, with roughly 80 million monthly active users.
With its ForYou page built for discoverability, short-form videos, and a heart-shaped “like” button, you might mistake TikTok for just another Instagram. Although TikTok is most certainly trying to overtake the photo-sharing app, this isn’t only the battle of Instagram vs. TikTok. In fact, Instagram is finding TikTok much harder to knock off than platforms like Snapchat. TikTok wants to be the No. 1 social platform in the world — and it has the advantage of learning from its competitors’ past mistakes.
Let’s take a look at TikTok’s playbook for becoming the best of the best in the social media world.
Step 1: Poach the smartest people in every room.
The first part of TikTok’s strategy has involved recruiting top talent from other social media giants to recreate their successes. The company has already hired dozens of ex-employees from Facebook and Google, including Blake Chandlee, Facebook’s former vice president of global partnerships.
Trevor Johnson, former director of marketing operations at Instagram, is now the head of marketing in Europe for TikTok, and David Hoctor jumped ship from Facebook to work on TikTok’s brand partnerships. While talent poaching isn’t unusual in Silicon Valley, these recent hires and early initiatives are strong signs that the future of TikTok hinges on its ability to build an ad solution that competes with the likes of Facebook.
Marketers familiar with both platforms find TikTok’s ad-buying interface bears an uncanny resemblance to Facebook’s. If you know how to make Facebook ads work for your brand, TikTok is a natural arrow to add to your performance marketing quiver.
Step 2: Build a better ad platform.
TikTok seemed to realize early that it could build the product of every Facebook engineer’s dreams if they had the benefit of experience. By the time Facebook introduced its ad platform in 2007, Google had already created an incredibly compelling model with AdSense. To compete, Facebook lured in large holding companies with enticingly low CPMs. By the time the news broke that Facebook had been inflating its metrics, the company had successfully grown its ad platform into one of the largest in the world.
The platform had managed to build some of the most robust user profiles in existence. Whenever publishers installed Facebook’s software development kit, Facebook would extract and store data from each of those sources. Once it had a gigantic data pool, it had another compelling offer for advertisers.
Like Facebook, TikTok gathers a wealth of information on its users and relies on data-driven decision-making to inform its next moves. More than that, TikTok has established its standing as an ad platform, rounding up an impressive roster of advertisers and announcing a global partnership with WPP. It’s clear that, in numerous ways, TikTok is closely adhering to the Facebook/Google blueprint to challenge their current oligopoly.
Step 3: Craft a narrative of positivity.
Another way TikTok has differentiated itself from its predecessors is by creating a narrative of positivity. TikTok’s tagline “Make your day” clearly communicates its mission to build a social network where users can escape the 24-hour news cycle, and the content on TikTok generally reflects that.
Americans particularly struggle with news fatigue, and there are hardly any corners of the internet where people can escape the political division and ugliness. When users open the TikTok app, though, they won’t see Antifa or QAnon posts. They’re more likely to see a video of Shaquille O’Neal dancing or a funny prank captured on camera. TikTok’s creators have managed to build a platform that’s just as addictive as Facebook — without the negativity.
The Challenges Ahead
Despite its early success, TikTok will still face many challenges moving forward. Its monthly usage has already surpassed the amount of time spent on Facebook and Instagram, but its daily active user base numbers in the tens of millions — far fewer than Instagram’s more than 500 million users and Facebook’s 1.85 billion.
As TikTok grows, it will have to expand this base so brands comparing social media tools for marketing and advertising no longer question whether their target audiences are using the app. TikTok has a reputation for being a youth-centric platform, and it will have to capture the attention of users older than 24 to maintain its rise to the top. More specifically, the battle of Instagram vs. TikTok will boil down to which platforms users have the most disposable income.
In its quest to grow a competitive ad platform, TikTok must also avoid anything similar to the caustic narrative that developed around Facebook. After Facebook turned off notifications for games like “FarmVille,” it burned bridges in its partner ecosystem — and the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal and bad publicity from “The Social Dilemma” film has created public distrust. To find more success than the long-established social media giant, TikTok will have to avoid being tied up in similar scandals and negative associations.
While it remains to be seen whether TikTok will soon be better than Instagram or Facebook, the future of TikTok looks bright. It has assembled a team of brilliant minds in social networking, and it has been successful in carving out a space for lighthearted content and positivity. The playbook TikTok is following is tried and true, and the platform has the benefit of hindsight.
We’ll all have to watch to see what happens as the platform writes its own playbook and works to make it to the top.
Brian Freeman is the CEO and founder of Heartbeat, a marketplace that connects brands with real consumers to run influencer-style campaigns on TikTok or Instagram. Heartbeat has more than 340,000 on-demand brand ambassadors for launching turnkey ambassador solutions.