Why Some Brands Are Doing TikTok Wrong—and Steps They Can Take to Ace the Platform

It's not just another channel—it's a new medium entirely

Gen Z has grown up desensitized to digital and advertising. They've been to their friend's proms on TikTok LIVEs, visited new countries via Snapchat, crammed for exams with strangers on YouTube—all without ever leaving their bedrooms. Social media is not just a place where the next generation consumes content. It's become a kind of temple, where a big part of their personalities live and evolve.

Traditional media have been losing impact for today's consumers, and especially with younger generations. Since its launch in 2018 as TikTok, the platform has reached 150 million U.S. monthly active users. Forty percent of Gen Z and millennials use TikTok as a search engine more than they use Google. Canadians use TikTok 1.5 hours daily, more than Netflix (1.1 hrs), YouTube (0.7 hrs) or Facebook (0.6 hrs).

So, if TikTok is pervasive in the culture of young North Americans, and it's shattering the way advertisers are expected to show up on social media, why are big agencies getting it so wrong?

Simply put: They're seeing it as an extension of the way things always have been, rather than as an essential part of a new reality where the rules have fundamentally changed.

They just don't understand it.

For the last decade, traditional social media platforms have remained the same: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. Social media strategies have been developed around these core platforms, tweaked as needed to fit brand objectives. Big agencies spend millions of dollars on their 60-second spots and cut-downs. So naturally, if they have a 15-second version, they'll toss it on Facebook, Instagram and hey, let's throw it on TikTok while we're at it.

Imagine grafting radio copy verbatim into a full-page print ad. That's the same mindset. Time and time again, it's the fastest way that brands burn money because they're placing non-compelling, hyper-promotional content on a platform that is the absolute antithesis of traditional advertising. Agencies see TikTok as another TV channel. But it's a whole other medium entirely, a different TV altogether.

They're selfish.

Attention is a vital commodity. Big agencies often approach messaging through the lens of what they want the consumer to do. With Gen Z and millennials, you need to convince audiences that you're worthy of their attention.

For years, the traditional method has been getting your target audience to consume your messages. Today, it's about having two-way communication with them. To get exposure, you need money. To create a community, you need to mesh with them, know who they are, and most importantly—give them what they need.

They crave perfection.

TikToks should not be perfectly curated, high-resolution mini-advertisements for your brand. TikToks are little snippets of your brand voice that feel raw and real.

TikTok's For You Page algorithm is so powerful that it can put your brand in the spotlight nationwide, even worldwide, if users deems the content worthy. To earn such reach without a cent of paid budget, brands must fit in with the crowd through timely activations of TikTok trends and audios. Trending formats and audio are relevant for days, not weeks.

Brands must loosen their grip on lengthy approval processes and trust their social media teams to decide what does or doesn't resonate as part of the overall message. After all, social media managers are the digital foot soldiers of your brand, speaking directly to your target audience day in, day out. If they can't be trusted to know what the target audience wants, who can?

"People check Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, but they watch TikTok like Netflix and Hulu," said Sandie Hawkins, general manager of the platform's global business solutions, North America.

TikTok is more than just an emerging trend—it is the future of social media consumption as we know it. So how can brands do it better?

They should learn how the FYP works.

The For You Page is a hyper-curated feed that allows users to reach a larger audience than traditional social platforms. On TikTok, users are invited to fill in a drop-down menu of topics such as sports or makeup. Their resulting feeds are based on which videos they watch all the way through. This is a prime worldwide opportunity for brands to jump into the game. If you can get onto a user's For You Page without them ever having to know about you or even follow you, your potential reach has no bounds.

They should recognize the potential.

It's easy to write off TikTok solely as a place where your teenage nephew and his friends do dance challenges. Until you remember one number: $360 billion. That's Business Insider's estimate for the disposable income of Gen Z—more than double compared to three years ago. Over 60 percent of TikTok users consider themselves Gen Z, and, as previously stated, over 40 percent of Gen Z use TikTok as a search engine rather than Googling the answer.

TikTok is not going anywhere, and its format for social media content is now the blueprint for all social platforms, like YouTube Shorts and Facebook Reels. To ignore TikTok's pervasive opportunity is not only shortsighted, it's also ignorant of today's consumers and what they expect from brands.

They should make room in budgets for TikTok-first content.

We're not even talking about budgeting more money, just budget your effort to do a few new things at the same time. One in three Gen Z users say they want brands to show their "real" side. You can give it to them.

Gen Z and millennials have recoiled from the "perfect social media" narrative to introduce authentic representations of themselves—photo dumps of random pictures, blurry shots, messy bedrooms—to show how real they can be. So, when they're scrolling on their phones, that's what they see: a feed of unedited videos of friends and influencers, rudely interrupted by polished, perfectly curated product ads.

If you're doing a product shoot, budget for some BTS video capture. Your TikTok can feature a "come-with-me-for-a-shoot day" from the perspective of the photographer.

If a brand wants to see success on the platform, they must relax their notions of what "great content" looks like. Brands need to stop seeing TikTok as another avenue to flaunt their beautifully produced 16:9 videos, and start seeing this venue as one that bursts with fun and fast creativity.

TikTok trends move quickly. If you don't leave room for creative flexibility, you'll soon fall behind. Embrace technological change that confuses you. Rely on your social media team to be the experts in this area—because they are. Above all: Stay open-minded.

Michelle Nguyen
Michelle Nguyen is co-founder, brand and social strategist of Super Duper Studios.

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