HARVARD HERO MOMENT #32: TikTok takes off during lockdown

Lisa Coutts

22 May 2020

One of the long-standing misconceptions about us poor, maligned millennials is that we’re addicted to social media. We grew up during the days of MSN and Myspace, and were the first generation to experience the Facebook phenomenon. So, the tag of ‘social media addicts’ seems to have stuck permanently. Granted, it’s not wholly undeserved – if this lockdown has taught me anything (apart from no, it’s not as easy as they say it is to bake sourdough. And yes, there is a point at which bananas become inedible even for banana bread), it’s that I have a pretty high threshold for aimless social media scrolling. And while I’d like to say I’ve spent my hours on social media meaningfully connecting with friends and family, to be completely honest, it’s the latest short video sensation that’s had me hooked – TikTok. Owned by Chinese parent company, ByteDance, TikTok is really having its moment in the sun. When it initially launched in 2016, it seemed like it was going to be a teen-only zone. And while most users are still on the younger side, thanks to the pandemic, it seems like every man and his dog is taking to the platform to try and make the next hit viral video or learn the newest dance of the day. It now boasts 2 billion downloads and 800 million daily users worldwide. And while we remain isolated at home it’s likely these numbers will only grow.

Making it big

In a move that shows just how serious TikTok is about making the most of its currently captive audience and solidifying its growth strategy, this week the company only went and appointed Disney exec Kevin Mayer as CEO. As the man responsible for the launch of Disney’s own content and streaming platform, Disney+, Mayer’s appointment signals TikTok’s big ambitions and even potential forays into the music streaming business.

What does TikTok hold for brands?

For consumer brands, the promise of a large, engaged audience is a no-brainer. Many companies, from Kellogg’s to Procter & Gamble (even Crocs), are tapping into its advertising opportunities. But for B2B brands the decision to advertise on the platform is far less black and white. TikTok has built itself as a place for people to be creative and authentic, and any B2B campaigns would need to deliver that ‘human connection’ that users are looking for. In reality, for B2B marketers there’s going to be a long period of experimentation before they’re likely to get it right.

TikTok’s chance to sidestep the techlash

As a relatively new player in the social media landscape, one of the biggest advantages that TikTok has is its chance to put in place the right policies, practices and technology to ensure it’s putting its users’ interests first. And it’s demonstrated that it’s willing to make the changes it needs to keep on the right side of public opinion. The launch of its Family Parenting feature is a prime example. In the wake of rising issues around child protection online, TikTok has said it’s putting parents in the driving seat and allowing them to control what type of content their children can view, as well as who they can have a conversation with within the direct message feature. It’s a move that was rightly welcomed by child protection experts the world over. But, as ever, no one is perfect. While seemingly rising to the challenge of tackling child predators on its platform, TikTok has since been accused of violating child privacy laws by illegally collecting their data. Clearly, there’s still work to be done as they navigate the fine line between providing a platform that people use and enjoy, and maintaining user privacy.

A welcome distraction

At the end of the day, CEO announcements, brand building opportunities along with privacy and security concerns will most likely go unnoticed by the majority of people who use TikTok to pass the time. For now, all we want is a way to fill the hours, laugh at videos of dogs ‘working from home’ and maybe show off our dancing skills (although don’t expect me to be doing that any time soon).