TikTok is fast becoming a search engine for users to discover new products, places and user reviews, and Milieu Insight’s Sonia Elicia, Tan Yan Rong and Antarika Sen say brands can leverage the platform to think beyond traditional advertising strategies.

TikTok has taken the world by storm and while it may be known primarily as a social media platform for sharing short videos, it is also becoming a powerful search engine in its own right.

With its highly personalised algorithm that queues endless scrolls of bite-sized videos on a user’s feed, TikTok has successfully captured the attention of a rapidly growing audience beyond Gen Z. This social media platform’s highly visual, quick and up-to-date content allows it to grow beyond a dance app in its early days to that of a rising search engine for users to discover new products, places and user reviews.

Milieu Insight’s recent survey on TikTok found that 27% of Southeast Asians use it to search for information and this is especially common in Indonesia (37%), Vietnam (37%) and Thailand (29%). This number leapfrogs to 46%, 43% and 42% for the respective markets when we focus on those aged 16-24, only suggesting a generational shift towards TikTok as a source for product and/or service-related information.

In fact, among those who rely on TikTok as a search engine, more than half (56%) of respondents found TikTok more useful than traditional search engines like Google when it comes to looking for information. The app is testing a feature that identifies keywords in comments and links to search results for them. In Southeast Asia, it is also testing a feed with local content so people can find businesses and events near them.

Results from this TikTok study also found differences in user behaviour across Southeast Asia – users from Singapore (78%) and Malaysia (64%) tend to use the app to discover places to eat and drink, while users in the Philippines do so to look for movie and TV show recommendations (67%).

Highlights from the report:

  • Places to eat/drink are the top areas Singaporeans (78%) and Malaysians (64%) use TikTok for when it comes to discovery.
  • Travel recommendations is the top search category for Indonesia (56%).
  • Clothes/apparel is the top category of interest in Thailand (56%).
  • Speed to insights (58%), visual mode of content (52%) and up-to-date information (43%) are the top reasons people use TikTok for product/place discovery.
  • Of those who use TikTok to search for a topic, product, service or discover places to visit, more than half (56%) find TikTok more useful than traditional search engines like Google.

Stay on top of the latest trends

So what’s next for brands?

Speed to insights (58%), visual mode of content (52%) and up-to-date information (43%) are the top reasons people use TikTok for product/place discovery. Every day, millions of users on TikTok are creating waves of trend after trend and the one you saw last week? Gen Z isn’t doing it anymore.

It pays to develop a process of getting in the know of the latest trends and to invest some time daily to scroll through your feed to get a sense of what’s going on – transitions, filters, audio, all things included. Another good place to look at would be the audio and filters that top the “Trending” list where you create a new post.

Create TikToks, not ads

Think about the “why” for showing up on TikTok as this platform is built for the user. Its unique discovery algorithm gives every video an equal chance to go viral, regardless of how popular the content creator is. TikTok’s own messaging encourages brands to be more creative, more authentic and to create content that truly speaks to their target audience. Because of this, brands should approach the platform as an opportunity to explore and experiment.

Product-based social media trends from TikTok have even generated a now well-known phrase and hashtag: “TikTok made me buy it”. On a branding level, brands like Duolingo are winning at this game without having to shout about their language-learning product at every turn. Their “unhinged” content makes people laugh – a sure way to win points and strengthen brand recall.

TikTok has enabled pretty much anyone with internet access and a smartphone to become a content creator and this very organic, authentic nature of the app means that brands really should be thinking  beyond the traditional advertising strategies. Loosen up, get personal and don’t be afraid to laugh a little, even at yourself.

The sky is truly the limit here – you can post everything from showing off your products to day-in-the-life videos and dance challenges. If you need a helping hand, work with influential creators who have mastered the intricacies of the platform.

Consistency, consistency, consistency

According to Milieu Insight’s latest TikTok study, 89% of those who use TikTok as a search engine have taken an action (purchased, visited, followed) from what they see in the app. 63% of the same group also indicated that they buy products they searched for on TikTok at least once a month or more frequently.

Whether brands use TikTok ads, post product videos/reviews or brand takeovers, posting consistently is key. Frequent and consistent posts are usually rewarded by the TikTok algorithm. According to TikTok, the algorithm is influenced by a combination of factors and recommends content based on those.

User interaction (like, share, comments), video information (captions, audio, hashtag) and device settings (location, language) are also key factors to consider to reach your target audience at the right time. Brands should monitor their TikTok analytics to find their sweet spot and determine if there is a point where posting more has diminishing returns.