The business case for TikTok—from a Gen X skeptic

Contributed by Roger Patterson, an EO Vancouver member and the founder and CEO of visual marketing platform Later, and co-founder of accelerator Launch Academy. His insights on leadership, social commerce and mental health have been published in outlets such as Fast Company and Entrepreneur.

My first impression of TikTok wasn’t atypical for a Gen Xer: To me, the platform seemed like a hub for tweens to flaunt dance moves and indulge in pre-adolescent narcissism. But after participating in a company hack week where the mission was to build an integration with TikTok, my eyes opened to the possibilities it presented as a serious business tool.

With more than a billion monthly active users globally, TikTok has become the fastest-growing social media platform of the decade — but with 63 percent of its users under the age of 30, executives are quick to disregard it as a juvenile app best leveraged to keep kids quiet after dinner. 

And while increased screen time among the under-15 demographic during the pandemic contributed to its growth (kids aged four to 15 now spend 80 minutes a day on TikTok), the platform is more than short-form dance videos — it’s the next generation of content creation. 

With its suggestive algorithm, musical navigation and brilliant editing tools, TikTok has mastered compelling, short-form video as a service in a way legacy platforms like YouTube and Instagram have not. The latter may have secured more placement in marketing budgets for now, but TikTok has created a legitimate new content channel that is forcing brands to re-evaluate how they engage consumers.  

If you’re a Gen Xer, Boomer or traditionalist doubting the ROI TikTok can bring to your business, here are three reasons you should reconsider:

1. Branded entertainment has become a must-have  

First and foremost, TikTok is about entertaining its users. Entertainment has become a new form of brand currency, and it’s no longer a nice-to-have: It’s a must-have. Social media influences 71 percent of consumer buying decisions—and that funnel starts with interest and awareness. Millennials and Gen Z in the US alone have a combined US$350 billion of buying power … and they’re also turning to mobile video as a primary source of entertainment.

Brands need to start thinking of entertainment as a service—a way to add value to consumers first and establish a relationship before moving to transaction. 

Importantly, entertaining content doesn’t need to exclusively be a frivolous distraction. Done right, TikTok videos can be a gateway to brand education, tying to a brand’s mission or higher purpose in more creative and authentic ways. 

2. Early adopters are rewarded with influence 

Just as Snapchat graduated from the exchange of ephemeral photos to include video, stories and chat— a formula brands quickly acclimatized to—TikTok is showing signs of breaking out of its Gen-Z niche. The platform just launched a TikTok Resumes pilot program and a new Shopify partnership to support social commerce. Recently, Vimeo integrated with TikTok Business: the first video creation platform to do so.

While the platform’s expansion into more mature markets is inevitable, research shows benefits to getting in early: higher social status, increased customer loyalty and influence. Not to mention, building an authentic community on any social platform takes time. Those who get in early have a distinct advantage over competitors who are left playing catch up.

Retail giants including Walmart and Amazon are already diving in head-first, securing their position on the platform, as other brands figure out how to embrace the new kid on the social media block. The Washington Post, for example, may not seem a likely brand for TikTok success. However, the legacy publication was an early adopter, adapting its news into funny, bite-sized videos that appeal to an entirely different audience than its print or web presence. The reward for its efforts: 40.9 million likes.

3. Connectivity is the new word of mouth

In January, TikTok star Barbara Kristoffersen posted a video of herself wearing a vintage Gap hoodie in brown, a colour the retail giant hadn’t produced since the 2000s. The post went viral, garnering more than six million views. By February, retro Gap hoodies were a common sight on style influencers across all platforms. Just a few months later, Gap was taking preorders for a reissue of the iconic pullover sweatshirt. 

The fact is, social connectivity is the new word of mouth. And Gen Z’s status as the most socially connected generation of all time can’t be ignored. These are the consumers most likely to be talking, sharing and posting about your brand—don’t you want to get in on that conversation?

I understand the legitimate hesitations some have about social media in general, and TikTok in particular. Between privacy issues, concerns about spyware and misinformation bubbles that just can’t seem to be popped, the internet can feel like a scary place. But ultimately, at its best, social media allows people to connect around shared interests and businesses to connect with their customers in a more direct way—through conversation, not broadcast. 

TikTok may be whimsical and fast-changing, but it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Much like the social media platforms that came before (Facebook started for university students, and is now a key player in the US$48 billion social commerce market) TikTok will eventually grow up, expand its demographics and monetize in new ways.

It isn’t a question of whether or not TikTok has business potential; it’s whether Gen X wants to lead the way in harnessing it, or follow. 

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