TikTok is a place where savvy content creators can produce and share inventive, insightful, and fun short videos spanning an array of topics and interests. Over a billion users flock to the app each month, so it’s no surprise that brands have identified it as a key marketing tool to reach and engage with their audiences.
With the wrong approach, though, brands can fail to make an impact. The best TikTok advertisers understand what the app does best and lean into that style. Read on to discover the most effective strategies for brands on the app. Find out what goes into getting noticed on TikTok, giving your brand a boost in the eyes of an engaged audience.
The app offers several kinds of ad buys, each with their own feel and impact. Start with the one that looks most like a TikTok: in-feed ads. These appear on users’ For You page (FYP) and play like any other video would, making them minimally intrusive to the user experience. In fact, brands can turn their existing, organic content—or that of notable content creators—into native content with TikTok’s Spark Ads tool. To boost your TikTok video to an even higher platform, there’s TopView, what TikTok calls its “biggest billboard.” These buys are the first thing users see upon opening the app, making it TikTok’s most attention-grabbing offering.
Other marketing buys focus on user interaction, inviting audiences to be a part of the campaign. These can take the form of a branded hashtag challenge (such as Chipotle’s #GuacDance challenge, which has amassed over 1 billion views) or branded effects (such as Ghostbusters’ #GhostYourProblems filter).
Dahlia Maleh, marketing strategist at Ogilvy, notes that all successful TikTok ads, no matter the type, have one consistent trait: “Storytelling,” she says. “There is a story being told, it’s comprehensive, and it’s genuine.”
As an expert in influencer marketing, Maleh notes that your brand’s storytelling chops must come from a place of authenticity.
“An influencer that I follow uses the phrase ‘hostage ad videos,’ where it's clear that the influencer is reading a script and has no choice other than to read that script. Those videos don't perform well,” she says. “We can get better content, have better analytics, reach more people, and make a bigger impact if we put creative power first rather than thinking like a brand.”
Remember: “High-impact” can mean many things, and an ad is only successful if it meets the specific goals the brand has set. TikTok Ads Manager pinpoints a handful of objectives the platform can help achieve, which fall under one of three main categories:
- Awareness: an ad that introduces your brand or company to audiences
- Consideration: an ad that leads audiences to look into your brand or company further
- Conversion: an ad that gets audiences to actually use your brand or company’s services
A company looking to sell a product may be less interested in getting an ad out to as many people as possible than in making sure a high percentage of people who do see the ad click through to its store, add an item to their cart, etc. On the other hand, a brand-new company may want to prioritize getting its name out there on a large scale. TikTok offers different audience-targeting strategies and payment plans based on the chosen objective, so it’s important to know what you’re after before diving in.
Breaking into the TikTok space can be intimidating, especially when you see videos from content creators raking in millions of views, seemingly with little effort. But there’s no harm in asking for a little help. In fact, these creators can even become partners in your marketing campaign.
When looking for the right partnership, prioritize finding content creators who already align with your brand’s marketing goals.
“[In my research] I'm referencing videos, their content, and what they've already posted about,” Maleh says. “Instead of pulling examples from other people, I'm like, ‘Hey, you already talked about using different cleaning appliances. Let's expand on that for LG,’ or ‘you've mentioned that you're looking for a vacuum. Well, let's do a stitch to that video about this new vacuum that LG has that you can test out.’ It’s all about referencing and doing a deep dive about your creators.”
The TikTok Creator Marketplace, launched in 2020, is a networking and matchmaking database for brands and content creators. Companies can find popular TikTokkers based on location, expertise, and more. Reach out to them directly about a potential collaboration. What they create can then be used as a Spark Ad, which appear in FYPs as native content.
Before reaching out, however, it is vital that you do your research.
“I know so many influencers who get asks from brands, and they’re like, “Did they even watch my full video? Or did they just see I used a hashtag like #NFT, but really the video was about disliking crypto,’” says Maleh. “Brands are really doing themselves a disservice. I think it's great that so many companies want to use influencer marketing, but they're not putting in the work to actually look at the influencers that they're reaching out to and thinking if this is a good fit.”
The photo organization app Photomyne worked with 10 content creators who specialized in topics like DIY, art, and parenting. They were each given a brief and had free rein to create a promotional video that felt true to them. In turn, Photomyne saw a 5x increase in video views and doubled their engagement in the wake of the campaign—all while lowering their own production costs.
When the app launched its TikTok for Business platform in 2020, it introduced the following mantra: “Don’t make ads. Make TikToks.” In other words, understand the platform you’re using and make the most of it. TikTok is not the place for a TV commercial or PowerPoint. It’s a place for creative and lighthearted videos from real people. What you put out on the app should reflect that.
Take a trip through your For You page. When you come across an ad, ask yourself: Does this feel like a natural continuation of the types of TikToks I’ve been watching, or does it feel like a commercial break? A high-impact ad will fall into the former category. TikTok users, according to the company, look for spontaneity and authenticity over production value—especially when brands partner with content creators.
“I think brands really underestimate the communities that these creators have,” says Maleh. “They know them, and they know when they're not being authentic. That's why storytelling needs to be at the forefront.”
You don’t need a Hollywood studio; you just need yourself. Take this Taco Bell TikTok that has over 300 million views. There’s hard sell here—just a fun video that uses creative editing (and a burrito).
A movie might have an exciting climax and a musical may have a big first act finale showstopper, but when it comes to TikTok, you need to grab your audience’s attention ASAP. The first six seconds of a TikTok ad are the most critical—that’s the sweet spot where the company’s research detected the strongest physiological response, measuring subjects’ galvanic skin response (essentially, looking at how sweat glands behave to see how excited people get, iMotions explains). A hook can be as simple as a title card that entices viewers to keep watching, like “How to get a FREE mini mascara from Rare Beauty.” Free? We’re listening.
What goes on after those first few seconds is up to you. The longer a user watches an ad, the more likely they are to remember the brand. In a study of aided brand recall, 84% of users indicated familiarity with a brand after being exposed to an ad. About half of those had viewed the ad for 20 seconds or more, but 15% had only watched less than six seconds. So you may have your audience for only a few moments, but an effective ad will captivate them, even in that short timeframe.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to getting noticed on TikTok. Pay attention to what’s out there. What’s performing well? What made you laugh? What are you seeing a lot of? There are many ways to tell a story on TikTok, but these six in particular are what brands find to be the most effective:
- Share the history of your product.
- Highlight the journey to results.
- Narrow your brand down to an elevator pitch.
- Walk through a how-to demo.
- Show your product as part of an everyday routine.
- Emphasize its accessibility.
These frameworks resonate with consumers because they bring them in and share something. Once you know these key strategies for brands, you’ll likely notice them all over TikTok. Take Gymshark, which engages its 3.5 million followers with results-focused narratives, step-by-step guides, and snapshots of day-to-day gym life.
Audio is a key component of TikTok, from the popular AI text-to-speech function to sound bites that take on a life of their own and inspire other content creators. But when it comes to ads on TikTok, consider that not everyone has the sound on. If you don’t have another way to engage with users, they’ll lose interest. Captions add value to videos by making them more accessible and increasing the likelihood that audiences will engage.
There are several methods of adding captions to videos. In 2021, TikTok launched automatically generated subtitles that you can add during the editing process. If you’re willing to do some transcribing yourself, adding captions manually offers more flexibility with fonts, formatting, and positioning.
Captions are especially important when emphasizing a call to action (CTA), whether that be to navigate to a website or buy a particular product. Videos with CTAs in writing (either through closed captioning or manually added text) receive 55.7% more impressions than those without captions.
One of the draws of marketing on TikTok is how well the platform integrates ads into the typical user experience. A successful ad should blend seamlessly into the rest of the content available on the app, so it’s best to dress the part.
TikTok Ads Manager allows videos in three aspect ratios: 9:16 (portrait), 16:9 (landscape), and 1:1 (square). A quick browse will show that the overwhelming majority of videos showcased on the platform, from everyday users to the most high-profile of content creators, are shot in portrait mode.
Vertical videos are essential to getting noticed on TikTok—bringing in 40.1% more impressions than horizontal or square videos—because they are optimized for smartphone viewing. Think of how you normally hold your phone; a strategic TikTok ad isn’t going to make you move or rotate it in anyway—it’s going to use the full screen as its canvas.
TikTok is so attractive to content creators in part for its native, in-app editing capabilities. No one’s using James Cameron–level effects on there, but with some creativity, users can make impressive videos using only their phones. But for marketing, brands may want to consider more precise software to prime their ads for audiences.
Within TikTok Ads Manager is the TikTok Video Editor, which allows brands to put together ads that have the look and feel of mobile content with the precision and flexibility of a desktop editing program. Many of its functions can be accomplished on mobile, but leveling up to a more sophisticated platform will allow you to represent your brand as effectively as possible.
For a TikTok ad to be truly effective, you need to have the numbers to back it up.
TikTok Ads Manager offers customizable data reports to gauge campaigns’ success based on impressions, click-through rates, and more. The portal also provides demographic information to ensure your work is finding the right audience. Want to know if your ad is leading to conversions? Try the TikTok Pixel, which tracks the activity of consumers who visit your site via your TikTok ad.
Identifying these figures and understanding what they mean will allow you to pinpoint what your audience responds to. What works for one brand or campaign may not be the right choice for another. If one tactic is underperforming, switch up some variables or creative and try again. Find your sweet spot and lean in.