User engagement is diversifying and brand opportunities are growing. What does this mean for the social platform’s future?

TikTok’s user base will grow by an anticipated 18.3% this year in the US, bringing the app to 78.7 million total. Outpacing its social media rivals, an anticipated 37.3 million gen Z users will flock to TikTok this year, surpassing Instagram’s gen Z users by 4 million.

TikTok is breaching traditional media boundaries, offering users a space for everything from financial tips, to mental health support, to career advice. We’re taking a deep dive into the unique content driving the app’s viewer growth, offering a lens into the future of education, work, creativity and retail—and what it means for brands.

The new mentorship

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@alexashoen courtesy of Alexa Shoen and TikTok
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@jackiecaves courtesy of Jackie Cuevas and TikTok

Gen Z is taking to TikTok for modern career advice. TikToker @Jackiecaves posts answers to open-ended interview questions in less than a minute for her 144,000 followers, and @Alexashoen’s career advice was so popular she’s now written a book for her 141,000 fans. Mia Williams, the 24 year old founder of the career-resource website The Colors of Her Success, is also an avid career-advice TikToker. She told the Wall Street Journal: “[My] value proposition is that I look like you and I’m speaking to you in ways that you understand.” Popular hashtags like #HRTikTok and #careeradvice will lead users to experienced advice on resume writing, interview skills, and career guidance from recruiters and professionals.

Mental health professionals are also taking to TikTok to offer guidance. Therapists use quippy videos with pop music and dances to answer questions about stress, trauma and therapy, and offer lists of ways to express emotions in healthy ways. Introducing millions of people to the benefits of emotional education and wellbeing, therapists—like @Drnortontherapy, who uses TikTok to market his private practice to his 138,000 followers—are gaining followers and clients through their videos.

TikTok holds clues for the future of education, too. With more than seven billion views, #LearnOnTikTok empowers teachers and students to take an active and entertaining look at the way they learn and teach. Videos include quick grammar lessons, math skills and tricks to remember scientific concepts. Education creator @Iamthatenglishteacher posts quick and engaging grammar lessons for her growing 1.5 million followers in addition to her own students, making TikTok a useful tool to maintain the relationship between student and educator.

The new job board

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Nerf Chief TikTok Officer, Sophie Jamison

Savvy TikTokers can check applications off their list. The platform is informing C-Suite positions, and brands such as Nerf have bet on gen Z creatives to market products through the platform’s clip culture.

In May, TikTok reportedly began testing a new job recruitment tool that lets brands post openings and users create video resumes. Chipotle is one company now accepting applications through TikTok. Shopify, Sweetgreen, and even the NBA are others taking part in the piloted TikTok Resume to attract young enthusiastic applicants on a platform they’re already engaging with. “It allows people to showcase more of who they are, which is what I feel TikTok does an amazing job of, because you can actually be your real self,” Nick Tran, TikTok’s head of global marketing, told Forbes. Contra, a creative freelancing network, is actually posting job descriptions with catchy TikToks and has attracted more than 40% of their users through the app.

The new talent

TikTok has no shortage of creators who are upping the content game—and brands are taking note.

Brands are using the app as a talent base to recruit the next generation of creatives. Some brands are choosing to corral those with above-and-beyond talent to bring their own content creation up a notch.

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@elianaghen courtesy of Eliana Ghen and TikTok
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#TheGreatUntold campaign, courtesy of TikTok

Netflix and Adobe are turning to TikTok for next-level creators to collaborate and bring onto their own teams. To apply, applicants can submit “trailers” via TikTok pitches with the hashtag #TheGreatUntold. Those selected will have the opportunity to produce and direct a short film with the companies, who will supply the equipment and crews needed.

YouTube is trying to replicate TikTok creativity on its competitor app, Shorts. They’re offering $100 million to creators to post and grow a following on Shorts to contend with TikTok’s videos. Launched in early May 2021, Shorts cumulates a daily 6.5 billion views globally.

The new business model

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@Shopify: The TikTok Effect, courtesy of TikTok
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Brands are noting an undeniable link between TikTok views and sales. Shopify in particular highlights “the TikTok Effect” on their account, where they take a look at products that seem to fly off the shelves soon after they’re mentioned on the app. New features on the platform are helping brands connect the dots between engagement and purchase.

“TikTok has been testing and learning with e-commerce offerings and partnerships, and we are constantly exploring new ways” to engage and create, a representative from the platform told Bloomberg. TikTok was deemed a “sleeping e-commerce giant” in 2020, and the app has followed through on promises to support brand campaigns and in-app shopping this year.

Strutting into retail, TikTok began testing in-app shopping in May. One of the platform’s first shopping sites will be with Hype, a streetwear brand. As of May 2021, the pilot program in Europe is only the start of TikTok’s ecommerce engagements: they’ve notably tapped brands in the UK as well to test their direct-to-consumer shopping opportunity. In the US and Europe, TikTok is evolving steadily behind its Chinese counterpart Douyin, which made $26 billion from ecommerce transactions over the past year after breaking into online shopping in 2020. TikTok’s success as a digital storefront could upend the established spaces that Instagram and Facebook have dominated.

Taking a closer look at brands on the app reveals the importance of brand awareness on TikTok. Stock and financial advice videos ramped up mentions of brands like Tesla, GameStop and AMC, and deliberate campaigns for companies are hitting even higher view counts.

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#Lulusunrobed courtesy of @allureriah and TikTok
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#Lulusunrobed courtesy of @brookeaandjacob and TikTok

Christine Hunt is the mastermind behind the music-driven campaigns for Lulus and E.l.f. She created a unique song for the brands that users could include in their own videos, presumably while wearing the branded clothing or product. “Eyes, lips, face,” the now-viral song for E.l.f., amassed more than 5 million user-generated clips, and #lulusunrobed has more than 12 million views.

“We’ve seen through our data and through third-party data that a lot of our audience has flocked to TikTok,” she told Glossy in May. The trick, she says, was delivering a “campaign that matched what our audience there was already engaged with.”

TikTok’s modern avenues to business advancements are transforming a youthful social sphere into a thriving business empire. Fabian Ouwehand, founder and director of growth at Uplab, had some app insight to share with Wunderman Thompson Intelligence. “The most important asset of TikTok is their own creators,” Ouwehand says. “They always try to leverage the creator, because if you look at all the trends which have come out of TikTok and how they got very popular, it’s thanks to its creators.” With creators at the center of their offering, brands have a unique opportunity to engage with consumers through TikTok and directly monetize on that engagement through in-app purchases, bridging brand marketing and consumer behavior in a new space.

Main image of the #travelphotography hashtag, courtesy of TikTok.