How TikTok’s Unique Blend of Social Media and Broadcast Techniques Sets It Apart

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TikTok’s bizarre and unprecedented twists are unfolding against the backdrop of significant shifts in social media itself, as it evolves from a sharing medium to a one-to-many broadcast medium for the digital age.

TikTok’s platform is built on viral content through casually created and widely distributed videos. It seems like everyone and their moms are aiming to get featured on the “For You” page, where TikTok provides a curated stream of videos from anywhere in the world to enjoy their fifteen seconds of fame. By curating content from across the platform, TikTok represents a break from older social media platforms designed to distribute content more narrowly, to a limited group based on community, geography or common interests. And, while totally different in tone and structure, TikTok is not unlike traditional broadcast media which is also designed to spread content widely in order to compete for the widest possible audience.

TikTok’s efforts to monetize its platform can tell us a lot about the future of not just the social media industry, but TV and one-to-many media in general.

TikTok wins a seat at the table

Some of the first major social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and LinkedIn, were designed to help users create and share media within finite circuits of followers. Generally, these circuits would include friends, family and colleagues. These actual social connections, as the moniker “social media” suggests, were central to the user experiences, delivery frameworks, and monetization models of these platforms.


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Gradually, each of these platforms has worked to make itself more suitable for broader, more public communications, adjusting algorithms and user experiences to encourage more professional content production and distribution to wider audiences. This shift explains why we’re seeing more incentives for professional content creators (like with Facebook Watch and Snap Originals), and more resources devoted to promoting users to discover content beyond their existing social networks (like with Twitter trending topics). After mastering the one-to-few experience and monetizing it more successfully than anyone could have predicted, social media platforms are trying to master the one-to-many playbook, where TV still remains king. undisputed.

TikTok is already here. By encouraging anyone to produce entertaining content for a global audience, TikTok leapfrogged social giants when no one was watching and earned a seat at the table with TV and streaming players. TikTok has recently solidified this firm position among the top social platforms: it is currently the most downloaded app on the Apple App Store and Google Play, a cultural phenomenon important enough to be transformed into geopolitical football.

As TikTok blazes a new trail at the intersection of social virality and TV entertainment, it offers new advertising opportunities to allow brands and organizations to connect with consumers. Going forward, the key to success for marketers will be creating content that responds to the unique nature of the platform. Videos should be immersive but not overly polished, and value-driven without being overtly commercial. In other words, they must be built from the ground up for entertainment and virality.

Will TikTok gain a share of the wallet?

Clearly, TikTok has claimed a unique place in the media ecosystem. The question now is to what extent the platform can monetize this position. While wide distribution of casual content can provide huge brand-building opportunities, it’s not yet clear if TikTok can make this format work for direct response campaigns, which are centered around driving a immediate action and conversion. Unlike Facebook or Pinterest, TikTok does not have consumer purchase intent signals. And it will become increasingly difficult for TikTok to build rich audience profiles as local governments scrutinize how the company handles user data.

Going forward, TikTok could leverage social commerce for both immediate monetization and for finding intent signals to boost ad targeting. In the short term, this involves scaling its successful pilot of buyable ads in the US. They collapse the funnel, turning every brand message into a conversion opportunity. It’s no surprise that TV is on a similar trajectory with monetization, with top broadcasters like NBC introducing buyable ads in TV and digital video formats. Walmart’s pursuit of a stake in TikTok indicates that the commerce link holds real potential. As buyable formats become more standardized in video, Walmart and other retail giants see new territory where their mountains of purchase intent data and mastery of the lower funnel can translate into a better monetization.

TikTok has proven its algorithm to be incredibly good at keeping people engaged by popping up videos based on what people are watching. Time will tell if this can also prove effective in matching brands with consumers based on their interests. If it can, TikTok will capture a slice of the $600 billion global ad industry that suits its unique place in the ecosystem. If not, it will end up in the social media graveyard alongside MySpace, Friendster and Vine.

Anupam Gupta is a product manager at Mediaocean

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