The rise of TikTok during COVID-19

—TikTok’s popularity has reached a new level during the pandemic. Now might be the time for brands to join in, but they need to play differently than with the OG platforms, say Jess Hunichen and Emily Ward—

As COVID-19 and self isolation continues to feel more and more like our “new normal,” we’ve seen both consumer and influencer habits change significantly.

From adjustments made to adapt to working from home, to the rise of apps such as Zoom and Houseparty to maintain social connection (albeit virtually) there is no question that consumers have flocked to social media like never before during this time of uncertainty.

A study of 25,000 consumers across 30 markets showed a 61% increase in engagement during the pandemic. Even the less popular Twitter platform has seen 23% more daily users than at this time last year.

Among the biggest surprises has been the buzz around one of the fastest growing social hubs, TikTok.

With new platforms popping up every year, gaining traction and getting users to expand their habits beyond the OG platforms like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube is no easy feat.

Prior to COVID-19 TikTok was primarily known as an emerging Gen Z-dominated platform, with most brands questioning how they could play in a space that doesn’t currently offer the same message opportunity as the big three.

But with two million downloads during the week of March 16 according to Music Business Worldwide—an 18% increase in downloads from the previous week and a 27% increase in the first 23 days of March over the previous month—it’s clear that TikTok very quickly reached a new level because of the pandemic, feeding the consumer demand for entertainment and connection.

How is Social Talent using TikTok?

Influencers have been taking this opportunity to test the platform to see what’s working and how it can complement their overall brand strategy. One of our influencers, @mikzazon started playing around with TikTok during the pandemic and has quickly accumulated 673,000 followers. She uses the platform to combat the diet/weight loss culture, and continue her movement to #normalizenormalbodies.

Similarly, @gabbymale started her TikTok channel during COVID and has amassed 77,000 followers to date. She has been using the platform to post short fitness videos with motivational messages. In the comedic space, @reza_jax has been using the platform to hone his skills and is syndicating the content across his Instagram stories, which has been a common cross-platform tactic.

What does this mean for brands?

With the limit on captions and a lower tolerance for the type of branded endorsements typically seen on Instagram and YouTube, brands have found success by letting the influencer lead the creative strategy, partnering for validation and brand alignment rather than pushing a specific brand message.

This is a significant change from what we usually see on Instagram, where brand collaboration briefs can come with a number of guidelines and restrictions that talent needs to creatively navigate.

TikTok has appeared to re-prioritize the value of passive brand endorsements or product placement, where the goal is having target consumers see the affiliation of the brand with the talent or media.

TikTok strategies and trends

TikTok’s current algorithm gives posts a high chance of going viral even if the creator’s audience isn’t large. Brands new to TikTok can maximize their exposure through partnering with like-minded creators to do takeovers on their page. If a post takes off, the brand’s handle will be the one seen creating interest, increasing the chance of gaining new followers.

Another strong tactic for brands is to work with a number of TikTok talents who throw content from one to another in a challenge or circle, such as the pass the brush challenge, where the makeup brush touching the screen is the common thread between users.

The benefit here, beyond being entertaining to watch, is the brand’s increased likelihood that one of the user’s posts will catch on, bringing the entire series into the spotlight. If the brand itself can find a genuine way to jump in on the challenge or circle and participate, event better.

Great campaigns and brand accounts

Chipotle has proven to be a brand leader in the space by understanding its simplicity and engaging in playful humour with posts like the viral “Someone Like You” serenade of their chips to the guacamole.

We’ve also been impressed with brands such as Safeguard, which is using TikTok as an educational tool to remind followers to wash their hands for a full 20 seconds. Other apps such as Bumble are diving into the space using creators’ bios as a place to link to outside brands.

Where TikTok’s user base has been growing rapidly over the past few years, branded campaigns are new, and the ones who can act fast and be clever will have a huge opportunity to capitalize on the highly engaged user base.

Bottom line, TikTok is a good investment for collaboration opportunities, but brands must be open to giving influencers creative freedom. The platform’s upwards trajectory has quickly accelerated through COVID-19, and after more than 12 weeks has likely become a habit for most users. It’s here to stay.

Jess Hunichen and Emily Ward are the co-founders of the influencer and PR agency Shine, a North American talent management and influencer relations agency with offices in Los Angeles, Toronto and Montreal.

David Brown