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Don’t Make Ads for TikTok; Make Outstanding Content

Khoros Staff

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The days of ad views equaling positive customer engagement are over. Guerrilla Marketing via TikTok can change that.

The term guerrilla gives rise to a select series of images. Cloak and dagger tactics, improvised technologies, or a jungle-fighting 1980s action-movie hero. When we apply this term to the marketing world, an idea blossoms that marketers must invent new ways to constantly evolve and remain culturally relevant enough for customers to engage with what they have to say. 

Much like Mad Men's Don Draper, almost everyone that holds their audience's attention thinks outside the box. Thankfully, the modern world has provided far more than a handful of slick tricks to accomplish this goal.

Photo Owner | DuolingoPhoto Owner | Duolingo

Touted in mainstream media and every conceivable digital marketing blog, TikTok is the popular new kid on the block in the video-sharing ecosystem. Brands have taken various approaches to TikTok content, and many have found success in crafting traditional TikToks rather than ads you might see before watching a youtube video. Language learning app Duolingo and casual clothing company Mango, for example, are finding stunning success on TikTok with hundreds of thousands of followers and over a million total views. Other brands are… well… struggling to achieve their customer engagement goals.

So, what sets the great brands apart? Isn't TikTok a silly little app for teenagers to dance on? Why — and, more importantly, how — could any brand generate hundreds of thousands of followers? For anyone that's never used the app, these questions probably seem unanswerable. But those who've already used TikTok know that this app is whatever you want it to be for all ages. 

Granted, 60% of TikTok users are members of the "Zoomer" or "Gen-Z" generation, which still leaves over 30% of 3 billion users over the age of 25. What does this mean for a marketing team beginning to dive into the magical world of short-form videos? If you want your brand to make a splash and lasting impression, you will need to implement guerrilla marketing tactics on your brand's TikTok page.

 

Good Products Don't Need Ads, Just Good Creatives.

Product ads, product videos, product, product, product. Scattered throughout TikTok are thousands of brands selling products with product-selling ads. These ads can be successful and end up selling a lot of products — but that's the exception to the rule. Most TikTok users don't like sponsored content because it disrupts their For You Pages, and they aren't afraid to call out the brands that create this content. The bottom line is that the younger generations, and by extension most TikTok users, have an extremely keen sense of when they're being marketed to, and they almost never like it. An internal poll conducted among Khoros staff showed that roughly 80% of staff members using TikTok stroll away from product ads within five seconds of realizing it's a sponsored ad. 

 

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The screenshot to the right is the comment section of a telehealth company's TikTok account. While there might be some other struggles with the company itself, their comment section stands as irrefutable proof that TikTok users will call out brands for any and all shortcomings. 

As market research professor of Ulster University Stephen Brown puts it in his 2004 paper O' Customer Where art Thou,  

 

"Today's customers are marketing literate… they can deconstruct advertising campaigns in double-quick time and outmaneuver even the most cunning marketing strategies." 

 

This makes it difficult to use traditional tactics, especially on channels like TikTok, where users are so attuned to them. Most of the Zoomer TikTok users have grown up with advertising blasting in their faces all day, every day. 

In his same paper, Brown deconstructed a type of customer that he called "Corporate Reservists," or what we would call devotees today. This type of customer differs from influencers because the corporate reservists will shout from the rooftops how much they love your brand for nothing more than having formed an honest relationship with your brand. Of course, influencers still exist, but more often than not, they believe in your product or monetary incentives, not your brand. 

Influencers and these unpaid brand cheerleaders are ubiquitous throughout TikTok. Whether it's a paid sponsorship or simply a good opportunity for a video, pages like Simplysalfinds and the hashtag #tiktokmademebuyit are excellent illustrations of Brown's corporate reservist theory. TikTok users know when they are getting sold to, so why not get someone they are already logging on to watch sell for you?

 

A Brief History of Selling Feelings

Before developing your TikTok strategy, ask yourself, "Why are people logging onto TikTok in the first place?" Of course, the specific reason will differ from person to person, but there's generally one overriding reason: to be entertained. To translate cellular signals of pixels and audio waves into positive feelings or empowering knowledge. 

For decades successful marketers have played on this angle, getting potential customers to associate their products with happy, positive feelings rather than simply touting the products' benefits. Look at the Marlboro Man or Coca-Cola for a prime example. Bonus points for using guerrilla marketing tactics. In simple terms, guerrilla marketing uses non-traditional means to market a company in a way that doesn't automatically tell the audience it's marketing.

Rewind for a moment for what could be considered the first example of guerrilla marketing in the United States. Introducing Edward L. Bernays, whom History Today calls "The Original Influencer." During the 20s and 30s, Bernays was hired by the American Tobacco Company to increase cigarette sales among the female demographic.

Now, cigarettes or any form of tobacco is undeniable horrid for your health and we are in no way suggesting or promoting smoking, selling, buying, or marketing cigarettes in any way. However, Brenays's method changed everything we know about marketing today and should be studied as a revolutionary idea.

Photo Courtesy of The BBCPhoto Courtesy of The BBC

At the time of Bernays marketing stunt, very few women smoked and never in public. The social stigma of the 1920s dictated that "manly" men smoked and "dainty" women would never so much as look at a tool of male identity by lighting up a cigarette. 

The 1929 easter's day parade was the perfect opportunity for Bernays to test a brand new marketing tactic. Bernays enlisted his secretary, Bertha Hunt, to pose as a women's rights activist and recruit nine other women to march up and down Fifth Avenue in New York, chain-smoking cigarettes. 

Bertha Hunt (upon Bernays instruction) even went as far as to send a telegram to select American debutants stating,

 

"In the interests of equality of the sexes and to fight another sex taboo, I and other young women will light another torch of freedom by smoking cigarettes while strolling on Fifth Avenue Easter Sunday."

 

This stunt set the press ablaze with whichever angle the publication wished to take. However, neither Bernays nor American Tobacco was ever mentioned in any of the press reports by design. Bernays needed people to believe that smoking was a female liberation action, not just a marketing stunt.

Bernay's guerrilla marketing stunt worked. According to the National Library of Medicine estimates, smoking rates among the female population rose from 5% in 1924 to 12% in 1929.

 

Capture Purpose, Not Attention Spans

Why did Bernays's cigarette girl stunt work? One reasonable deduction is that it was a real "attention-getter" and spoke to the purpose of what kind of lifestyle women wanted at the time. Any marketer will tell you that you only have a few seconds — maybe just a single second — to get someone's attention with any campaign. This idea is repeated, reworked, and regurgitated on college campuses, business seminars, and online courses.

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It's an excellent introduction to the way marketers could be thinking about how they make content, but recent data supports a more nuanced approach. As Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Open University London, Gemma Briggs puts it

 

"Average attention span' is pretty meaningless. It's very much task-dependent. How much attention we apply to a task will vary depending on what the task demand is."

 

Therefore, the time you have to capture someone's attention is based on context. In the context of TikTok, remember why people open the app in the first place: a human desire for entertainment, knowledge, or connection. Ask yourself, "how would my brand's content fit into the TikTok tertiary of entertainment, knowledge, or connection wants? Will my brand's content add or detract from prospective customers' entertainment?" 

 

Brands that Understood the Assignment

One of the most common pieces of advice brands hear about TikTok marketing is "make videos, not ads", this is indeed dynamite advice. You will need to make content that speaks to your audience — and to do that, you'll need to avoid being obvious about advertising or even avoid "advertising" altogether.

What does this mean in the context of guerrilla marketing? It's easy to keep this concept theoretical, but a handful of brands provide outstanding real-world examples.

 

Exhibit A: Mango clothing

Mango clothing posted its first TikTok video in October of 2020, and at the time of writing, its account has amassed over 212,000 followers and 1.8 million likes. One video they posted stands out in particular:

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This video was made in partnership with TikTok user Madelaineturner and stands above the rest as it's not an ad — or at least not a traditional ad. Madelaine's page is full of short-form surrealist skits that blend unsettling themes, cinematic flare from the 40s and 70s, and specific energy that must be viewed to be understood. Most of Mango's other TikTok videos feature various outfits at photoshoots, and that's it. As the viewer, you feel like you have a backstage pass to the creation of outfits that you could wear to impress anyone at whatever social gathering you choose.

In the Madelaine partnership video, there is zero indication that you're watching an ad until the very end. Upon first glance, all you watch is a regular Madelaine video filled with drain cleaner cocktails, nervous energy, and Mango's new spring collection for costumes. The Mango logo only flashes for 1.2 seconds. The video to date has received over 24,000 likes and 100,000 views, and the comments left on the video speak for themselves.

 

Exhibit B: Redbull

Ah, the liquid energy concoction in a can that most people use to study, party, or drive for more than 12 hours. Redbull is synonymous with extreme sports and pushing the human body past its limit. 

Their TikTok page reflects that; the videos exclusively contain lifestyle and guerrilla marketing tactics. Their first ever TikTok, posted in February of 2021, was literally just one of their social media managers typing on-screen saying:

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This video is the distillation of what makes TikTok such a popular platform. The video is casual, unmistakably human, and uses a sense of self-aware comedy that general TikTok users know and love. Bonus points for that it's not even an ad at all. 

The Redbull TikTok account contains zero Redbull ads. Literally nothing about why you should drink Redbull. The only videos featured on Redbull's account are adventure sports and heart-pounding stunts. Their page speaks to the lifestyle Redbull promotes not that you should drink their energy drink. Think for a moment about what problem or desire does your brand solve? What kind of lifestyle do your customers live?

 

Exhibit C: Bed Bath & Beyond

Bed Bath & Beyond joined the TikTok ecosystem in September of 2021 with a more traditional product ad style video of a store opening in New York City. It features commonly used elements of TikToks: Text-to-speech voice, a trending song, the works.

That initial Tiktoks received a few thousand views, which is pretty good for a brand just joining the channel. However, by using a virally trending sound, Bed Bath & Beyond received over eight million views on a single video. The post was simple and had nothing to do with the brand. It was simply a Bed Bath & Beyond social media manager singing The reading rainbow theme song.

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When that video was published, that song had gone viral throughout TikTok, but the Bed Bath & Beyond version had one key difference. The social media manager was plainly singing the song because of the varying copyright permissions for brands on TikTok. This worked well for Bed Bath & Beyond, but these borderline copyright infringement cases can too easily go awry and have page-ending consequences.

 

Using the Khoros Platform to Upgrade your Brand's TikTok Strategy

The Khoros marketing platform can be used to close the gaps in your brand's TikTok strategy in several key ways, including governance, in-app video creation, and organically derived customer sentiment.

Governance

Managing the dissemination of information is challenging for anyone working in a cross-team system, and brands looking to craft successful TikTok content face an additional layer of challenge.

Relevant content on TikTok moves and changes at a lightning pace. A viral sound or trend one day is old news the next. How is an agile, enterprising brand going to keep up? Using traditional approval ladders, creating one video could take a week or more. Using Khoros's marketing governance tools, everyone is on the same page in hours, not days.

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In-app creation

It's no question that TikTok's native video creation tools are impressive, but from a brand's perspective, having six or more people all huddled around a phone screen is less than ideal. Using the Khoros platform, your brand's social media manager could build out the video with traditional video creation tools and have it sync up on the platform before publishing. This way, brands can more easily ensure content quality, gather analytics, and reduce publishing time.

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The Bottom Line


TikTok is a powerful, easy-to-learn new tool for digital engagement, but it comes to the branding world as a double-edged sword. TikTok users are extremely attuned to traditional marketing tactics and will jump, scream, and shout about brands that employ them. If you are not currently using TikTok, a great course of action would be to make an account and use it for at least 20 minutes every few days. The best way to use any tool is to see how other people use it. In no time at all, you'll see what brands are using guerrilla marketing and what brands aren't.

Guerrilla marketing tactics have the data to prove they work on TikTok, increasing engagement and customer sentiment. And these tactics have enormous potential to increase your revenue by TikTok users advertising for you by sharing your content. Remember that the TikTok social ecosystem will harshly punish brands if they slip up or leap before looking. Now that you understand the power of guerrilla marketing on TikTok, it's time to start asking yourself and your team about the next video, not the next ad.

 

Come further your knowledge with our TWO TikTok webinars and Case-study at the links below: 

Talk-walker and Khoros deep-dive 

Rock the Tok TikTok Strategy 

How Randstad USA used Khoros to grow their TikTok audience by 30%

 

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