How TikTok’s unorthodox advertising attracted social misfits and weird niche subcultures

SEP 12, 2021

A compilation of men crying done by @crying_tiktok_users | Instagram

In 'Attention Factory', writer and speaker Matthew Brennan documents the complete story of TikTok and its Chinese parent company ByteDance.

The initial warm reception towards TikTok across various Asian markets was highly encouraging. It seemed Douyin’s success really could be replicated globally. Yet the more successful TikTok became in Asia, the more attention it attracted from competitors; all major internet companies had advanced systems in place to keep track of new trends and changes in mobile usage habits. ByteDance had to move fast to grab the window of opportunity to leverage its advantage. In general, Western internet companies look down upon directly cloning competitors. Even so, if an established giant like Google or Facebook chose to promote a similar product to TikTok vigorously, it could significantly hamper their progress.

Facebook’s success in cloning rival Snapchat’s video feature ‘stories’ demonstrated a fate that may easily befall TikTok. This meant speed was of the essence, and the most effective way to scale up fast was with a combination of massive spending on online app install ads matched with building brand awareness through offline ads.

Usually, when a company wants to spend big on online advertising and introduce a brand to a new market, they will work with a creative agency. Expensive consultants will be hired, veteran advertising professionals with years of industry experience will create smart concepts. The process will involve carefully crafted brand messaging, extensive Gen Z focus groups, professional actors in expensive recording studios, crews of video editors and graphic designers to ensure everything is perfect.

Yiming was never one to keep to conventions. When buying his first apartment in Beijing, rather than consulting with real estate agents, discussing with family or personally visiting housing compounds, he had crawled the web for data and crunched the numbers in a single evening.

When it came to advertising TikTok and the newly acquired, ByteDance found a similar shortcut, but the strategy was somewhat unorthodox — it would simply use videos from the app itself. The platform’s terms of service gave it the right to do so.

After manually identifying and removing potentially inappropriate content, the company implemented a systematic process to experiment with various videos. The adverts didn’t actually say anything about what TikTok was or why anyone would want to use it; they simply needed to pique people’s interest. The goal was simple — find the clips that got the most people to click on a big blue ‘install’ button.

This ad buying process was run from Beijing by the company’s experienced growth hacker teams. There was just one issue — the teams had a laser-like focus on conversion metrics but little understanding of the actual video content. Whatever converted best would be used more, regardless of what the actual video showed. It turned out that wacky, outlandish, downright weird videos worked really well at getting people to install the app. Many of these weird ads were attracting social misfits. When these people started using TikTok, they, in turn, made strange videos that would attract more social misfits and so on.

TikTok’s video classification systems were highly sophisticated and able to accurately identify and classify all kinds of subculture content automatically. The system was also able to tag users more effectively based on their actions and precisely match them with content in a way that had never been able to do.

A prominent example were ‘Furries’, a stigmatized and misunderstood community of people who derive enjoyment from dressing up as animal characters in large fursuits. Furries were big early adopters of TikTok in the U.S. Many built significant followings as the colorful cartoon-like animal costumes proved attractive to the app’s large pre-teen user base, bringing the subculture to a new audience.

Other notable early TikTok adopter communities included cosplayers and gamers. The animosity between these groups led to the ‘Furries Vs. Gamers War’ meme, a lighthearted imaginary conflict which saw gamers pretending to have been kidnapped by furries and roleplaying acts of espionage, feigning to have infiltrated the ranks of the furries.

TikTok contained a duet feature, which allows two videos to appear side by side, splitting the screen. Duet had previously been restricted in, but now users could respond to any video by recording one of their own. With many weird niche subcultures like furries on the platform, the duet feature became popular, quickly transforming into a bullying and harassment tool.

Since merging with TikTok in August 2018, the platform was moving in a vastly different direction, and not everyone was happy about it.

‘TikTok’s early (unintentional) positioning in the states basically was cringe,’ explained an early TikTok employee who wished to remain anonymous. The app had an awful image problem. It was widely perceived as being only for misfits and kids making lip-syncing videos.

‘I haven’t seen one piece of content on there made by an adult that’s normal and good. To be a grown adult doing a cute karaoke video on an app and trying to make it go viral is odd behavior,’ was the brutal assessment of Instagram influencer Jack Wagner, interviewed in one of the earliest American media articles covering TikTok.

The colossal spend on adverts was effective at getting downloads, but they were also ruining the reputation of the platform, leading the then small U.S. based TikTok team to express concerns to the China head offices. In China, Douyin had never had such a problem. The seed group of early adopters had been carefully selected, and the app had built an outstanding brand image with carefully crafted glitzy cinema adverts, savvy viral marketing campaigns, and sponsorships of hit talent shows.

‘If you look at history, a lot of inventions first started with a toy, with things that seem to be irrelevant, but have the potential to become something much bigger,’ offered co-founder Alex Zhu in an interview, echoing an observation previously made by many industry practitioners. TikTok’s early reputation for wacky cringe videos had made it seem like a toy and hard to take seriously. The situation had echoes of the initial characterizations of Snapchat being written off as an app solely for college students’ ‘sexting’ each other with disappearing pictures. Widely criticized and with retention rates in the U.S. rumored to be as low as 10 per cent, TikTok was not seen as a threat to anyone but itself.

Yet those writing the platform off failed to anticipate how fast TikTok would change. The algorithmic nature of the platform’s content distribution makes it easy to ‘tilt the table’ in favor of specific content types. ByteDance could reduce exposure to monotonous videos of teenagers lip-syncing and dancing and instead highlight the growing variety of new content categories such as magic tricks, street comedy, sports or arts and crafts.

Due to the massive influx of users driven by the big-spending on ads, creators found it easy to grow large fan bases quickly. The imbalance between the supply of and demand for good content was another reason. Instagram, YouTube and others were saturated with people competing for attention. TikTok was wide open and began to attract its own batch of content creators and online marketers — eventually, those looking to gain attention online will always follow the numbers. The dynamic was similar to the metaphor Alex Zhu had used years earlier with — to encourage immigration to your new country, ‘some people need to get rich first.’

This excerpt from ‘Attention Factory: The Story of TikTok and China’s ByteDance’ by Matthew Brennan has been published with permission from Westland Publications.