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Brands’ biggest TikTok challenge is less “Lip Sync” or “Flip The Switch”, it’s much more authentic content

TikTok’s winning combination of snappy videos, catchy soundtracks and viral trends is attracting users and, as a result, brands in their droves. The latter’s appeal lies in its big audience and even bigger engagement, whether it be through hashtag challenges, organic strategies or in-feed shoppable advertising solutions.

In TikTok, ‘organic’ is the word of the day. Brands must build meaningful connections through entertaining content that feels native to a user’s wider home feed. That means understanding the platform’s micro-communities and content trends deeply. Then, adopting and evolving them to fit the respective brand’s personality.

Combine this with the various filters, effects and editing techniques, and it’s certainly a challenge that only a small number of brands have yet mastered. Considering TikTok has around 1 billion users on the app per month, it’s clear how problematic a wrong strategy can be.

There are, of course, many opportunities that can be gained from getting it right. For example, Wavemaker’s fast growth client e.l.f. launched its first original song on TikTok in 2019, “eyes. lips. face”, and the campaign now has 10.1 billion views under the hashtag. The song was also used in videos by celebrities such as Lizzo and Reece Witherspoon. As a result, it was able to capture Gen Z’s attention and cement its cultural relevance.

Since then, many brands have tried to replicate this success. But if the hashtag “eyes. lips. face” makes your head spin, there are some essential tricks of the trade to help navigate TikTok, and it’s about priming for trends and creative excellence.

Traction in trends: It’s all about timing

It’s a given that brands gain traction in TikTok through trends. Every day, trending topics emerge, which is what makes TikTok one of the most entertaining social media platforms. It is also a way for the campaign and the brand to participate authentically in the conversation.

The way to approach trends is to designate the timing of a trend. For example, it might be a waste of time to jump into a trend that lasts just a day. This is especially if it means mobilising and activating an entire campaign, as well as the creative suite that accompanies this.

At Wavemaker, we designate via Moments (creative prompts that gain buzz quickly but drop off just as quickly), Signals (a content pattern that shows emerging behaviours and interest. These usually last much longer, maybe several weeks or even a couple of months) and lastly, Behaviour Transformation (these are large scale and are set to make waves for months or potentially up to a year).

Once this is established, ask what’s the appetite for risk? What’s the relevance of those specific trends? And how quickly can you get to market? Is there specific creative that you want to build? Are there any influencers that fit the bill?

For the gold standard in TikTok trends, look to Duolingo. From twerking atop a conference table to remixing Adele’s “Easy on Me” with rapper CupcakKe, Duolingo’s green owl has become fluent in TikTok’s cultures and codes. It is an impressive set of results, not only in terms of engagement (the campaign’s average click-through rate was 39% above the benchmark of the education market average) but in terms of signups to the platform and the cultural clout it has gained.

Discovering TikTok creative: It must be made ‘For You.’

Trends are an excellent way to approach TikTok, but ultimately, if the creative isn’t fun, engaging and entertaining, it won’t land. TikTok is arguably a place where creativity matters the most, and this is why creators play such an important role on the platform.

Partnerships with creators can enhance credibility and authenticity for brands. In addition, they can ensure that content is both accessible to consumers and entertaining enough to keep them engaged. Moreover, it makes branded content feel native to TikTok rather than repurposed. This is critical to gaining traction – MAGNA found that customers view native ads for 27% longer after being introduced to them.

Besides working with creators, brands can follow fundamental rules to achieve that identifiable look and feel. For instance, try lo-fi, shoot in 9:16, and use sound wherever possible. In fact, sound is crucial: 88% of TikTok users have said sound is essential in creating the TikTok experience. Sound is how e.l.f. made its mark. Its original song, created by Grammy Award-winning producer iLL Wayno and rising artist Holla FyeSixWun, became a global viral sensation in itself. And as a result, achieved success on – and off – the platform.

It should now be clear what links these creative approaches – authenticity. The litmus test should be, ‘Does this look and feel like it belongs on the ‘for you’ page? If it doesn’t stop and reassess the creative strategy. This is why the only way to know what’s working on TikTok is to be on it. It’s about continuously monitoring, exploring, and evolving. What people want to see one month may not be the same the next. So, listen to the audience, analyse the performance – and have fun.

However, content shouldn’t be copied from other brands ‘hits’. Creativity prevails. It underpins the return to authentic, up-to-date content on which social media was founded. In many ways, this makes TikTok so exciting for brands since it’s not about big production budgets and large-scale brand campaigns. With the right approach, brands of all shapes and sizes can achieve TikTok success.

There are many ways to make a mark on TikTok as a brand. Trends and the right creative approach are critical to this. However, at the heart of both is understanding what resonates with the people interacting with the app itself. When it comes down to it, if an ad feels like it’s just thrown in there – the wrong trend or a one-size fits all asset – it stands out like a sore thumb. And not in a good way, either.

Article originally published in Creativebrief.

Nathan O’Connor
Head of Paid Social

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