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Howard Tullman
The wildly popular app may be a target of a China-wary Congress. But what it has accomplished is something that we can’t ignore.

23-Nov-23 – Leaving aside all the crazy conversations about whether TikTok is really another subversive scheme by the Chinese Communist Party – along with COVID-19 and Fentanyl – designed to poison the minds of young Americans, the fact is that there’s an enormous amount that entrepreneurs and business builders can learn from the popular app. How is it that, rapidly and remarkably, TikTok has taken over online entertainment media, peer-to-peer education, celebrity commerce, news, and even everyday political conversations?

TikTok has become the short-form, algo-driven, sugary sweet, bite-sized attention grabber that is here to stay whatever you hear or think about the Chinese boogeyman. And it’s about a lot more than video recipes for baking drug-laced brownies, fixing your fantasy face, or parkour pranks and bungee jumps. TikTok is a powerful and valuable resource that is changing the daily behavior of tens of millions of people worldwide – an emancipating revelation for young and old listeners and learners as well as a lightning-fast tool for distributing and democratizing news, content, and commerce. More than a third of the users say that TikTok is where they get their daily dose of news and, overall, they open the app on average eight times a day.

The core and critical TT lessons are less about the content – so much of which is admittedly useless crap – and far more about how TikTok emerged, quickly and continually morphed, and set about eating the lunch of the traditional entertainment and media in what I would call a textbook case of Clay Christensen’s vision of disruptive innovation.

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Except today it happens in triple time. Quick and dirty, simple to use, bottoms up entry, ignored and ridiculed by the big guys for too long, constant iteration based on user feedback and very smart technology.

And then, all at once, TikTok is sitting on top of the heap. Creators and visitors today are on the app more than 95 minutes a day on average and about 26 hours a month.

Yet the TikTok takeover wasn’t exactly an overnight success or even much of a surprise to the folks who were watching and living through the process. Anyone who thinks that the TikTok creators are just a bunch of kids rather than the next generation of entrepreneurs simply isn’t paying attention – attention being the critical currency of today and tomorrow. The TikTokers have absolutely mastered the triple talents of grabbing attention, leveraging virality, and engineering authentic engagement. Half a dozen of the TT leaders each have more than 50 million engaged and active followers who are willing to share and spread the gospel daily.

Anyone who thinks that the TikTok creators are just a bunch of kids rather than the next generation of entrepreneurs simply isn’t paying attention – attention being the critical currency of today and tomorrow. The TikTokers have absolutely mastered the triple talents of grabbing attention, leveraging virality, and engineering authentic engagement.

Maybe what spooks the politicians is that TikTok is just getting started in building its economic engine. Already, more than five million U.S. businesses actively use TikTok. Sponsors, brands, and advertisers are welcome, and TikTok is building out management and agency support as well as a marketplace for creators to assist in the process of matching the proper parties with the best messengers. TikTok will be the lead sponsor of the 2024 Met Gala. Creators will soon be able to sell their merch directly. A billion-dollar TikTok Creator fund will provide direct financial payments to attract, support, and compensate new creators. And, in a throwback to the old days of appointment TV, TikTok is launching nightly programming which – just a guess – may be the last nail in the coffin of the very old, stale, and tired late-night TV shows.

So, if you’re trying to build your business and create buzz, here are four of the most important TikTok tactics to keep in mind.

1 Build a culture of support, cooperation, and partnership with your key players.

Only two industries call their customers “users” – tech businesses and drug dealers. TikTok decided early on that even “influencers” was too passive a description and not a strong enough identity. “Creators” meant power, agency, and talent as well as a desire to make something. They are happy to work together, collaboratively, and competitively, and alongside TikTok to make their dreams and desires real. Unlike Uber, which treated its drivers as disposable cogs, or other sites which initially served everyone but the talent, TikTok made creators the central focus of its attention from the outset and the creators returned the favor. More than 80 percent of TikTok’s 1.1 billion monthly active users have posted a video. It’s a two-way partnership and a mutual admiration society.

2 Explain and insist upon a fierce work ethic, accountability, and everyday output.

Creators listen and learn from their peers, copy, and build upon the best work they see elsewhere. They quickly realize that it’s a 24/7 undertaking if they want to keep up, build their base, and hold on to their followers. Everything is about speed and currency and, if you don’t have something new and different to say today, your visitors will quickly go elsewhere.

Interestingly enough, in this rapid-fire world, chunky clunky, unpolished video reads as authentic rather than amateurish. Another lesson the old-time makers never learned. Nonetheless, for the serious creators, it’s still a much higher bar than many beginners realize and a lifestyle that leads to exactly the same kind of rude awakening which many new employees in other startups and high-growth businesses experience as well as early burnout.

Success in this space also requires that the company itself be attentive, responsive, and infused with the same sense of urgency as all of the other parties.

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3 Keep moving the cheese and stay ahead of the competition.

When the competition wakes up, we want them to find our smoldering campfires while we’re already over the next hill. Iteration and constant improvement are the whole ballgame, and no one has moved faster than TikTok. While the traditional players continue to ask their users to fit within their systems, TikTok listens aggressively to its creators’ needs and moves quickly to respond. A great example is the length of permitted videos, which started at one minute, moved to three minutes, and is now at ten minutes. That opened up new opportunities and changed the game entirely. This adjustment was largely creator and data driven. Engaged viewers are far more willing than anticipated to watch their favorite creators’ work for longer periods of time.

4 Make sure your technology is top notch.

While the front ends of the various video players may look similar, it’s what’s under the hood in terms of technology and how the specific content is parsed, selected, and delivered to each follower that really differentiates the competitors. TikTok’s development of the “For You” page algorithm represented a material departure from the way that the game had been played and a major growth accelerant as well as a powerful tool in securing and cementing engagement.

Previous programs fed visitors content from sites that the given viewer followed – a somewhat closed loop and really limited discovery. TikTok’s system listened and watched what you were actually selecting and viewing in full as well as what you skipped over and then – from a vastly larger universe – selected and sent you content that the algorithm thought you’d most enjoy. This was a page taken right out the Steve Jobs bible. His famous quote: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.“

TikTok did just that.

TikTok has plenty of old and new competitors, but no equals on the near horizon. If politics and regulators don’t get in the way, it’s hard to imagine that TikTok won’t overtake Facebook and Google in the next year or two and become the world leader in social media.