A man holding a phone walks past a sign of Chinese company ByteDance’s app TikTok, known locally as Douyin, at the International Artificial Products Expo in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China October 18, 2019.
The explosion of TikTok’s popularity has pushed the app into the biggest technology companies’ focus. While geopolitical issues remain heightened over data-privacy and security, technology firms cannot ignore the platform’s influence on audiences.
Google, Apple and Microsoft all have TikTok accounts, with over 8.5 million likes between the three. While Apple has more than 1.3 million fans on the platform, Google and Microsoft have 403,000 and 143,000, respectively. But unlike Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, or any social platform where these companies also have a presence, TikTok is being used to showcase the brands beyond traditional advertising.
“Younger audiences are usually in ad-free environments, so where are they going to be exposed to things like Microsoft?” said Hanna Kahlert, an analyst at research and analysis company Midia Research, where she specializes in social media, cultural/consumer trends and marketing/advertising.
“It becomes a question of, ‘Where else are you going to reach these younger consumers and generate a bit of awareness?'” Kahlert said. “Technology companies are going [to TikTok] because it’s the best way to reach them.”
Audiences are already on TikTok
The rise in big tech’s activity on TikTok is reflective of a larger cultural movement.
“Brands can’t just exist as brands anymore,” Kahlert said. “They have to have an interface, something for audiences to actually engage with. Those big companies need to become more approachable and more personable because audiences are growing very used to being able to interact with the creators that they like.”
Being close to consumers is also important. “Social is a place for us to be more personal, to be more relevant, to be, in some ways, more candid, because we’re literally in the same space that our audiences exist for themselves,” said Kelley Myers, the director of social media for consumer brands at Microsoft.
Big tech companies are finding success on TikTok by not only creating personable content, but by creating content that follows trends already on TikTok — often related to corporate humor and professional advice.
This makes content resonate with younger audiences, a demographic that doesn’t necessarily relate to specific products or services.
“A lot of the technology companies are focused on the product versus the message, which is great but a lot of them are so into the weeds of the product,” said Brian Easter, the co-founder of Nebo Agency, a marketing agency in Atlanta, Georgia.
“One of the challenges is pulling [brands] out of that, and saying, ‘Hey, if we go to TikTok, and we just brag about your technology, nobody’s going to pay attention,'” Easter said. “What we have to do is find a way to tell stories and to be human.”
When brands make human connections, that’s when videos drive engagement, he added.
“We’re having a lot of fun. We’re out there, watching trends, listening to audio trends that are happening, and then finding ways that are super brand-relevant for us to participate in that space,” Myers said.
Big tech needs to be on TikTok and it’s easy for them
TikTok became the world’s third-largest social network last year, ranking behind Facebook and Instagram, according to Insider Intelligence. It estimates that TikTok will have 755 million monthly users globally in 2022, and its market share will top 20%.
While more users are flocking to TikTok, Easter said big tech firms could miss out if they don’t invest in content creation.
“Google, for example, would be remiss if they ignored an audience that skews younger,” Easter said. “It’s not like, ‘Hey, I’m Google over here. Please search.’ It’s about making sure that your brand is building and winning hearts and minds, wherever the users are at.”
Users on products like Google’s search engine are decreasing. In 2021, TikTok.com was the most popular domain on the internet, outranking Google.com, Facebook.com, Microsoft.com and Apple.com, according to Cloudfare, an internet hosting provider, which also has its own TikTok account.
While big tech competes for audiences on TikTok similar to other brands, it’s actually easier for these large companies to rise above the noise.
“I think TikTok is a lot easier to execute as a larger brand,” said Hayley Filippone, a social and public relations strategist at Nebo Agency.
“Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter have the time, money and resources to really commit to the platform, but you’ll see that for smaller brands, video production can be very challenging. It’s time-consuming and can be expensive,” Filippone added.
Kahlert said TikTok’s algorithm is also demanding and requires frequent posting to be prominent on its feed. The algorithm requires brands to post at least one TikTok per day, which can lead to smaller creators actually spending more time marketing themselves than making their products.
“These bigger companies are competing for airspace on the same exact platforms as everybody else, but they’re able to hire teams to produce content with speed and scale,” Kahlert said.
TikTok is popular now – but maybe not forever
It’s uncertain how long TikTok will remain popular and influential.
“First of all, nothing is permanent, but as permanent as something can be, TikTok has all of the ingredients that it needs to stay in power,” Easter said.
Kahlert said our digital society is past the point of a single platform completely upending the social media market. Facebook was the first social platform to shake up the game, then Instagram and Snapchat. She said each platform adds a new aspect or feature, but TikTok might just be another in the mix.
“It might be TikTok that sticks around, but it could just as easily be another company that comes out and does it. I don’t think we’ll see exactly one being everything,” Khalert said. “We’re always going to see at least a handful of these apps being really important at the same time.”
While big tech should be on TikTok, Kahlert said that compared to traditional advertising, not all exposure and publicity on social media equals positive awareness, or increased sales.
“It’s a lot more unreliable than that, so you’ll have one [social post] that goes viral for good reasons, and then there’s one that goes viral for bad reasons,” Kahlert said. “So you need to be [on TikTok]. But be careful what you wish for when it comes to this kind of popularity.”