2020 will go down as the year in which TikTok tipped into the media mainstream. Trevor Johnson, the social video app’s Head of Marketing, Global Business Solutions, Europe, talks to Alex Brownsell for the WARC Marketer’s Toolkit 2021 about how brands should go about engaging – and selling to – its growing number of users.

What is the key to a successful brand activation on TikTok?

That's a very expansive question, but it’s actually pretty simple to answer: it's understanding that our community has a humanity to it. It means people need to be seen and heard and understood, which we think doesn't really [happen] elsewhere. Brands that are utilising the platform to its full potential are the ones that are making most of that. They understand that they are equally welcome on our platform as creators, and that they aren't a separate component of the experience. The way that people interact with brands on TikTok is unlike anywhere else. A brand can launch a campaign on the platform and the user community will be inspired and compelled by that campaign to create their own commercials or brand assets [in the form of] branded Hashtag Challenges.

I’ll give you a couple of examples of brands that have been really successful. Beats by Dre did a hashtag challenge called #BeatsDaisyChallenge [featuring music artist] Ashnikko. They got around 10 billion views of the hashtag because it embodied everything that the TikTok platform gives: creativity, community, culture, music, creators. A second example is ASOS, with its first branded presence on our platform. They utilised 25 leading creators to deliver an experience across the UK and the US. Again, they used a fun, bespoke music track and an interactive augmented reality experience to drive around 1.8 billion views.

Key insights

  • TikTok is developing tools to enable brands to shorten the purchase funnel, and potentially drive users from discovery to purchase with only a single ad.
  • Data transparency is a key objective for TikTok in 2021 and beyond, providing brands with clearer campaign measurement and allowing users to manage their data more easily.
  • TikTok is becoming a hub for content relating to the Black Lives Matter movement and social justice. Brands have a role to play, but they must understand that users wish to be active and not simply recipients of one-way messaging.
Some of the numbers involved are huge – tens of billions of views. How should brands evaluate the effectiveness of their investments on TikTok?

We should be delivering business impact. We're a young company, and we do lots of beta testing and collaborative research, but there are already some cool [tools that advertisers] can utilise on our platform to measure [campaigns].

The first is real time monitoring, where you can follow campaign performance in a very simple, effective way. You can look at in-app metrics, [and] track download reports. You could look at things like cost impressions, engagement rate, click conversion rates. We're also starting to look at things like scale and brand lift. We’re starting to work with people like Nielsen and Millward Brown [to] help brands understand how their campaign has resonated with audiences, and analyse whether a campaign has influenced brand sentiment in any way.

And then, ultimately, you can look at attribution. We're starting to work with other organisations such as Tune, AppsFlyer and Adjust to understand where conversions like app installs or foot traffic are happening. This is definitely an area that we are continuing to invest in.

Trevor Johnson, Head of Marketing, Global Business Solutions, Europe, TikTok

One of the big trends we are seeing is the rise of shoppable media. How is that playing out across TikTok?

I talk about TikTok being a discovery platform. You open up the app and you don't really know what you're going to get. Ultimately, I think it will lead to people making decisions on the back of their engagement in a very, very short [timeframe].

Shoppable is definitely an area in which we're wanting to help brands drive real business results, and we’re already seeing some examples of that. At Christmas last year, Balenciaga utilised our Top View [ad] format, which is the first format you get when you open up the app, just to drive people to its shopping pages. Whilst it isn't an immediate in-app purchase experience, it was about encouraging users to see what Balenciaga had in terms of products, and being able to drive from the TikTok app to make a purchase there. They saw a combination of 25 million video views and had 4.5 million clicks onto that landing page.

The other example is Ba&sh. It's a Paris-based brand set up by two friends called Barbara and Sharon – for women, by women. They launched a new collaboration with Reebok and chose TikTok to raise awareness and drive fashion-conscious digital natives to discover their collection. That generated about 100,000 clicks to their e-commerce landing page, and reached around five million users.

We definitely recognise there is an opportunity in order to make that purchase funnel a little bit shorter, and so we are starting to experiment more with e-commerce integrations. The first one that you'll see is our Small Gestures digital gift-giving programme. Enabling e-commerce within our platform is going to be exceptionally important.

There is a lot of debate on the optimal balance between brand-building and activation spend. Do you see platforms like TikTok blurring that distinction?

Most people would say that our Top View format is a brand proposition. If you put an app-install ad in that [format], you are exposing it to a big range of people on a single day, but actually it's a conversion ad. That's [an example of] a supposedly branded format being used for performance purposes.

There's definitely a blurring of lines between a brand and performance. If you look at DTC brand ads, people might buy those products just by seeing the ad for the first time. [A single ad on TikTok] can make people aware of [your product], it could be targeted [at users] in the right mindset, give them a really easy way to click and fulfil that order, and have an easy way to pay for it. All of a sudden, that funnel becomes very quick.

Marketers are grappling with the demise of the cookie and the rise of consumer privacy. What is TikTok’s approach to data-led audience targeting and user privacy?

Firstly, we have to ensure that people understand and are in control of the data they share. And secondly, we need to make sure that we protect users’ privacy and security, because we want to build a platform that inspires creativity and brings joy. That means we have to build trust.

There's a number of things that we're doing. The first is our Transparency Centre. That is initially going to focus on content moderation, and later on will probably include insights into our source code and efforts around data and privacy and security. The second is around data storage. We're choosing data centre location that are acceptable to both our community and to governments. [For instance], we recently announced that we're establishing a new data centre in Ireland, which is going to be TikTok’s first data centre in Europe. That's coming in at the start of 2022, and is going to play a key role in safeguarding our protection of user data.

Third is data collection. We want to limit the types of data that we collect. When we do collect data, we want to make sure that we disclose the data we do collect, how we use it, who it’s shared with and how those people then use it. The fourth is around data access and data transfer. We want to ensure that these are subject to internal controls and risk assessments, and we want to restrict access further by ensuring that employees outside of countries where TikTok is available can't access those individual user records. It’s supremely important to the existence of our platform, and it's something to take seriously.

What changes in consumer behaviour have you seen post-COVID?

It's been an extraordinary year, right? It's also been extraordinary for our platform, in particular in Europe. The platform was growing before [the pandemic], but it's been growing [more rapidly] since the start of lockdown. We now have more than 100 million people across the region that are using TikTok every month.

We've definitely seen a change in the usage and the perception of the platform. When we talked about deriving joy pre-lockdown, it probably meant lip-synching and dancing. That was all great and it's still a really important part of the fabric of our app. But we've definitely seen this humanity, authenticity and relatability in our content that has changed over the course of lockdown. Families are consuming and creating content together. Not only have we seen [a change] to the look and feel of the content on the platform, but we also see a diversification of the age and gender of people on our platform.

How has the Black Lives Matter and social justice movement in the US impacted TikTok, both as a content platform and also an advertising channel?

We believe that TikTok is becoming one of the leading destinations providing users with a window into the Black Lives Matter movement. People are leveraging the platform to tell their stories, to encourage people to protest, and really provide support for users that are being impacted by what's happened in the Black Lives Matter movement. We’ve set aside $3m from our COVID-19 community relief fund for not-for-profits to help the Black community, which has been disproportionately affected in terms of health and economic impact, and we're committing $1m towards fighting racial injustice and inequality.

We've created a grassroots employee-led campaign supporting the black community across Europe. The ethos of the movement is ‘Black History, Black Present and Black Future’, and not only to tell the Black story within Europe, it's trying to tell it in a more joyful, uplifting way, which I think is much needed this year. The centrepiece of that campaign is a hashtag, #MyRoots. In a series of TikTok LIVEs we hero the black community and encourage black leaders and creators to share their stories, and allow people to learn about the individual experiences of those taking part.

Brands need to understand how they can play a role in that as well. [TikTok users are] not just a passive audience there to receive messages and to be advertised to. They want to get involved in things that are meaningful for them. As a brand or an advertiser, it's just thinking about how they can activate and be part of this really powerful community of TikTok users around the globe.

2020 has been a momentous year for all sorts of reasons, especially for TikTok. What advertising and consumer trends do you think we should expect in 2021?

Socially and economically, next year is going to present entirely new challenges. There's going to be a new reality for marketers. Companies are going to have to find new and creative ways to build affinities with audiences. It's definitely going to require a massive collective mind-shift. The old way of doing things is not going to be successful.

We also see, particularly at TikTok, the power of creators. Creators are going to become more central to how consumers engage with and find out about things. Entertainment brands are going to have to tell stories in very different ways. We're going to have to see more diversity in terms of the content and the people that are telling those stories. [Sport] will be seen through a different lens, also online learning.

So many things are going to be impacted next year, we’re going to have to think about every business objective in a very different way. Putting our finger on what that actually means is going to be difficult, but hopefully we can do that together.