How a 40-something Toronto creative director became a (modest) hit on TikTok

It was an unexpected route towards becoming a minor TikTok sensation: Crudely rendered drawings of comic book superheroes like Batman and Thor, soundtracked by the U.S. Army marching song “Hard Work.”

When Toronto-area creative director Denny Kurien posted that 13-second video to the fast-growing video sharing site on Feb. 17, he wasn’t expecting it to garner millions of views, or even lead to a minor brand partnership: Arteza, a maker of high-end professional markers and pens, offered to send him some of its products in exchange for a mention.

“That completely caught me by surprise,” he says.

A self-admitted “grown-ass man in his early 40s,” Kurien doesn’t even fit the profile of a typical TikTok user. According to recent data from Omnicore, 41% of the video sharing app’s estimated 800 million monthly active users are between the ages of 16 and 24.

My Creative Work #diy #art #toronto #illustration #artist #doodle #superheros #hardwork

♬ Hard Work – U.S. Drill Sergeant Field Recordings

An avowed technophile, the co-founder and creative director of Mississauga-based Rayvn Design became curious about TikTok after hearing outspoken media figures like Gary Vaynerchuk proclaim that it was poised to become the next big thing in social media.

Professional curiosity rather than the desire to become an influencer led Kurien to the platform. “My main purpose was to see how I could get an audience and what kind of content they’re liking” he says. “I’m not trying to sell anything, I’m just trying to be part of the conversation.”

His first TikTok video was intended mostly as an experiment to see what kind of content would find an audience. He spent three days consuming “every kind of TikTok video I could find” to get an idea of the types of content that would appeal to users.

One of his key takeaways was that TikTok users tend to respond to videos that contain an element of surprise. “The videos that come out of left field get a lot of likes and shares,” he says.

His video is built around doodles of Thor, He-Man, Batman and The Incredible Hulk, with missing parts of the image (such as Thor’s hammer and Batman’s cowl), replaced by everyday objects such as a pencil sharpener or a pair of pliers.

“It’s kind of like the stuff you see on Bored Panda or BuzzFeed,” he says. “People see cartoons and animation all the time, but it’s that X factor that kind of makes it appealing. Every video needs a bit of that.”

That original video garnered more than 6.1 million views, and Kurien amassed more than 70,000 followers (more than on any of his other social channels) and 580,000 likes.

Subsequent videos have followed a similar template to the first, although Kurien notes that engagement has been steadily declining. His second video, for example, amassed only 254,000 views, while two recent videos have garnered less than 1,000 views.

#punisher – get me that cracker, cracker! #toonme #toronto #toonme #doodle #doodleart #animation

♬ Sean Paul – Get Busy (Shake That Thing) – laurieelle

His followers have also declined slightly, from a high of about 71,000, which he ascribes to a combination of infrequent posting and a decline in the quality of his content. While that might be a deadly combination for a TikTok professional, Kurien says it provides him with a better understanding of how the platform operates.

“I think the content wasn’t as smart as it was earlier,” he admits. “Before, I was combining actual objects with doodles, and that was smart. After that I guess I just got lazy or didn’t have much time and just started concentrating on just doodles.

“The audience is pretty smart at picking up on that kind of stuff, thinking ‘This is not as cool as I thought it was going to be.’ When you start off really strong, you always have to keep levelling up.”

Any significant lag between posts can also be detrimental in an environment where followers crave fresh content and have no shortage of options to fill the gap, he says. “It’s almost like the algorithm forgot that I even existed,” he says.

One of Kurien’s next steps in the ongoing experiment/creative outlet will be to take advantage of TikTok’s “Duet” feature, which allows users to create a video that can run alongside that of another user, such as a friend, a celebrity or even one of the true giants of the platform.

“A single ‘like’ from someone like Charli D’Amelio (an American social media personality and dancer who has more than 48 million followers) can totally up your engagement and followers,” he says.

TikTok’s user base was growing exponentially even prior to the current COVID crisis, but the social platform has become increasingly popular as homebound people all over the world seek a creative outlet and a respite from the grim daily news.

A recent study by YPulse found that Gen Z is increasingly turning to TikTok to share quarantine experiences, COVID-related memes and to stay entertained. Videos relating to self-isolation/social distancing are hugely popular, with those using the hashtag #BoredAtHome amassing seven billion views.

According to a recent report from Sensor Tower, TikTok was the most downloaded non-game app worldwide in February, with installs up approximately 96% over the previous year. It generated a record 113 million downloads, nearing two billion lifetime installs.

Denny Kurien’s 5-step checklist for TikTok brand success

1. Publish exclusive content made on TikTok: Don’t repurpose video content that you made on YouTube or other social networks. 

2. Use content native to the app: ie. stickers, effects, and filters.

3. Take advantage of trending music: See the Discovery Page— if there is trending music accompanying a trending hashtag, that’s a double whammy.

4. Use short catchy captions and hashtags: Keep brand bios really simple. (“See @Chipotle’s TikTok: ‘Less Tok. More Guac.’ They are a brand that puts out really good content on TikTok, and knows how to engage with their audience”).

5. Keep experimenting, keep it fun and quirky: This is a platform for brands to show a lighter side. Don’t sell — be part of the conversation first, enjoy the platform and gain an audience of loyal followers before asking anything from them in return.

Chris Powell