From dance challenges to lip sync videos, TikTok has united the world through the shared culture of the internet. In just a few years, the short video platform has achieved immense popularity. With approximately 1 billion users, TikTok already rivals the giants of the first era of social media: In 2007, three years after it launched, Facebook had 20 million users; around the same point in its life cycle, in 2009, Twitter had 18 million.
As online platforms have grown faster and larger, so has interest from brands that seek to monetize users’ attention. But whereas older platforms—Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and YouTube—now have established usage patterns (and advertising value), TikTok presents a new challenge for companies. In a society that’s full of distractions and always online, how do you grab somebody’s attention? Better yet, how do you keep your customers engaged, not only as consumers but as unpaid champions for your brand?
After spending 20+ hours watching brand interactions on TikTok (yes, it’s extremely addictive), it’s clear there isn’t one formula for success. Instead, companies have capitalized on the viral video platform with a blend of personality, authenticity, entertainment, and music. While advertisers can’t follow a precise recipe, there are some approaches that seem to work, and companies might remix these strategies to build their own brands. These are a few organizations that have figured out what makes people tick on TikTok:
Among the four major North American sports leagues, the National Basketball Association is dominating on TikTok with 9.5 million followers. What’s remarkable, though, is that the NBA has generated this sort of buzz in a season when its TV viewership has fallen. Despite the fact that football overwhelmingly remains Americans’ favorite sport to watch, basketball is leading the digital race.
It’s hard to say whether the NBA’s online and mobile strategy works because its fans tend to be younger, or vice versa. But the league has continuously embraced new platforms. (Much of this vision can be attributed to NBA commissioner Adam Silver and his predecessor David Stern, who recently passed away.)
On TikTok, the NBA has a built-in audience of basketball fans, but it connects with viewers in ways that go beyond the game. While the NBA’s TikTok account consistently shares highlights and popular archival footage, it also appeals to emotion. Videos often emphasize athletes as people—they’re not just ball players, they’re also dads who spend time with family before games and fans afterward.
A recent clip of the Celtics’ Gordon Hayward adorably playing with one of his daughters collected 64,000 likes, roughly twice as many as the typical highlight. Another of the Grizzlies’ rookie sensation Ja Morant holding his baby on the sidelines scored 98,100 likes. Meanwhile, Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo gifting of game-worn shoes to a young fan snagged more than 580,000 likes. You don’t have to be a basketball fan to love a heartwarming story.
Of course, the NBA benefits from superstars like LeBron James and the Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic—even their warmup videos rack up views—but the league excels by staying true to TikTok’s original craze: the dances and music young users know best. A mash-up of Houston Rockets teammates James Harden and Russell Westbrook dancing amassed 124,000 likes while a freestyling security guard earned more than 940,000. (What does this have to do with basketball? Not much.) But by playing on feelings of relatability and incorporating music, the NBA scores big.
It’s hard to say how much the NBA benefits from its TikTok (i.e., by generating additional ticket and merchandise sales). But the league has dedicated staff to curating clips and setting strategy for its social media accounts. As early as the 2016-2017 season, the NBA created the TikTok challenge #nbahandshakes, encouraging fans to share their own elaborate, pre-game handshakes. By jumping onto the platform early and staying committed, the NBA seems primed to continue growing on TikTok.
The NBA is almost tailor-made for TikTok, but Chipotle, with its 300,000 followers, probably isn’t. Nonetheless, the fast casual restaurant engages young customers with its comedy-driven influencer marketing and “challenges,” an internet peculiarity. Challenges call upon viewers to create their own videos, usually in the form of a dance or silly activity set to music. They often go viral through the use of hashtags (e.g., #posechallenge, #eggchallenge).
This past year, Chipotle used a challenge—#GuacDance—to celebrate a made-up holiday, National Avocado Day, when it gave out free guacamole for online orders. Collectively, #GuacDance videos accumulated over 1 billion views, thanks in large part to influencer marketing, a mainstay of advertising strategy.
With social media partners, like lip sync icon Loren Gray (39 million followers, the most of any TikTok account) and comedian-entertainer Brent Rivera (20 million followers), the #GuacDance campaign attracted 250,000 video submissions, according to Mobile Marketer. Partner posts gathered roughly 700,000 to 800,000 likes each.
Those digital numbers seemed to translate to getting real people in stores: On National Avocado Day, Chipotle gave away 802,000 servings of guacamole, the most guacamole it’s ever distributed in a single day. Chipotle’s marketing team did not immediately reply to a request for comment about its return on investment from using TikTok to advertise.
The song at the center of #GuacDance, released in 2010 by educator and musical artist Dr. Jean, is probably key to Chipotle’s TikTok marketing success. It’s catchy and perfectly meme-able, making it relevant to an adolescent audience. (While it’s technically called “Dr. Jean’s Banana Dance,” the song is often referred to as the “Guacamole Song.”) Chipotle couldn’t have created a better tune for its campaign if it made one in a lab.
The Washington Post
While the NBA typically repackages existing content for its TikTok account and Chipotle has largely pursued influencer-led ad campaigns, the Washington Post goes in a totally different direction. Rather than emphasize its core news product, it prioritizes personable and self-aware hilarity for its 377,000 followers. “We are a newspaper,” the WaPo ostensibly deadpans on its TikTok profile page. It helps, too, that Dave Jorgenson, one of the publication’s video producers, pumps out comedy gold. His colleagues—and the actual news—also make cameos at times.
Stitching together reporting with pop culture references seems to strike a chord. In another TikTok, the WaPo parodies a Watergate flashback—a meeting between reporter Bob Woodward (played by Jorgenson) and ‘Deep Throat,’ using Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again.” The clip garnered more than 30,000 likes.
It seems the Post’s TikTok has been successful because it’s willing to break free from the stuffy, media-trained bubble. Although the Post’s TikTok presence is significantly smaller than the NBA’s, the newspaper is actively courting a younger audience. This effort might not earn it subscriptions today, but in five to 10 years, WaPo could become a go-to source for many of today’s TikTok users. It’s all about the long game.
The paper isn’t alone; other publishers have also begun targeting Gen Z. But for what it’s worth, the New York Times doesn’t appear to have a TikTok presence—handles for @NYT and @NewYorkTimes belong to tiny, unrelated accounts. And the Wall Street Journal seems to have a verified account at @WSJ, but only has six followers and no posts.
With TikTok, brands have an opportunity to connect with a young audience on a personal level, virtually engaging and even collaborating with customers and viewers. Developing that trust requires consistency, attentiveness to what’s hot, and a measure of originality. Putting it all together seems to be more of an art than a science, but with the right combination, there’s a real chance to make it to the top of the feed. At least for a minute.