What is TikTok: The complete platform guide for 2023

What is TikTok and how does it work? Well, have you ever come across a TikTok video even though you’re not on the platform? Odds are you’ve probably seen at least one viral lip-syncing TikTok, or screencaps on Instagram or Twitter of meme-worthy TikToks.

One great example of this type of trend spreading across social media is the “It’s Corn” viral trend.

@schmoyoho

intro song for any meal/snack with corn ? – from iconic interview on @doingthings

? It’s Corn – Tariq & The Gregory Brothers & Recess Therapy

Here’s an example of a video that repurposes the song with new, on-brand visuals on Twitter:

This meme originated on TikTok, where songwriter and TikTok user @Schmoyoho remixed the already-viral corn-heavy interview from the Recess Therapy account into an even bigger hit. At the time this article was being written, the song has been used in more than 1.2 million TikTok videos and has more than 10 million likes.

That’s the power TikTok has in the current social media landscape. As marketers see memes and trends take off, it stands to reason that with the right content, the platform can help you reach millions of people and make your brand go viral.

But what is this app? How does TikTok work? And can you actually use it to reach your target audience? By the end of this article, you’ll have a deeper understanding of the platform, and whether or not it’s right for your brand. Feel free to jump to the sections you most want to explore:

  • What is TikTok?
  • When was TikTok created?
  • Who created TikTok?
  • Who owns TikTok?
  • How does TikTok work?
  • Who uses TikTok?
  • Why is TikTok so popular?
  • How to use TikTok for business
  • Is TikTok a good fit for you?
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What is TikTok?

TikTok is a video-sharing social media platform where you can create, edit, share, discover and watch short, vertical videos—from just a few seconds long, all the way up to 10 minutes.

A blue graphic with the definition of TikTok on it.

And it’s continuously changing. While TikTok made a name as a lip-syncing app, it’s become much more. “TikTok as we know it today didn’t exist five years ago, and we anticipate the TikTok of 2027 to look similarly unique. TikTok has been a disruptor in so many ways, so the biggest opportunity for brands at that point in time probably doesn’t exist yet. However, building a strong network and community around your brand will help serve as a foundation for what’s next,” TikTok told us.

When was TikTok created?

While the name TikTok has gained familiarity in the past few years, the basis of the app has been around for a while. It originated as an app known as Musical.ly in 2014, before being acquired by ByteDance in 2017, a tech company based in Beijing who already had an app named TikTok. Musical.ly and TikTok officially merged platforms in 2018.

Who created TikTok?

Half of TikTok, the aforementioned Musical.ly, was created by Chinese entrepreneurs Alex Zhu and Luyu Yang. And TikTok’s original form was created by ByteDance—the company that owns the platform today.

Who owns TikTok?

TikTok is owned by tech company, ByteDance. ByteDance already owned TikTok—called Douyin in China—and merged it with Musical.y after acquiring it in 2017 to create the wildly popular platform we know now.

How does TikTok work?

On TikTok, users can customize their videos with filters, stickers and background music, then share them with the TikTok community. Once shared, people can like, comment on, download or share a video. Content is found by users in three feeds: The Friends Tab, Following Feed and the For You Page, where the TikTok algorithm recommends content based on what you like.

TikTok makes video content creation easy with a number of regularly-enhanced tools. Here are some of those features:

1. Create videos

Users can create TikTok videos by recording them directly in the app, or by uploading videos from outside the app. The video recorder lets you choose how long you want your video to be, with a max length of 10 minutes.

2. Add music

Music is the cornerstone of the TikTok platform. Users can even discover new content by clicking on a track link and conducting a search of clips that use the song. So adding a popular song in your video will increase your chances of trending in the community.

3. Co-create content using duets

TikTok also boasts features like duet, which helps nurture engagement within the community. This feature does exactly what the name suggests—it lets you create a video with another creator and will split the screen in half to show both cameras. Most use this feature to sing or dance to the same song, or they develop corresponding videos much like comedy shorts.

@susan.the.nana

#duet with @andrearea1949 We got this! ? #nana #workout #70 #77

? #PlankChallenge – bing bong

4. Add filters and effects

It’s easy for users to edit their videos with different filters and effects. You can even add stickers, emojis, text, transitions, GIFs and time effects to make your videos more compelling.

@auntieannes

Never let your bestie get hangry. Never. #fyp #auntieannes

? ylang ylang – ?? • Friends

5. Live stream

TikTok also comes with a feature that lets you stream live video broadcasts. But note that this feature is only available for select users with at least 1,000 followers.

Who uses TikTok?

While TikTok is known for its popularity with younger users (47% in the US are between 10 and 29 years old), it’s aging up, with 42% of users aged 30-49 and 20% between 40 and 49. This makes it a great place to reach a wide audience.

A bar graph showing the distribution of age on TikTok.

Source: Statista

As of January 2022, TikTok’s user base skewed 57% female and 43% male—although these reported numbers are not inclusive of all genders. And the platform’s user base is extremely active, watching around 24 hours of content on the app every month.

Most of the app’s users are from the United States, with 136.5 million users as of April 2022. Indonesia comes in second with about 99 million users and Brazil lands in third with 74 million. TikTok’s widespread and growing popularity makes it a valuable app to use if you have an international audience.

Most of us hadn’t heard of TikTok until a couple of years ago. Since then, it’s become a household name, launched the careers of new celebrities, and is a go-to platform for favorite celebrities and brands to create viral moments.

In Q1 2022, TikTok was the most downloaded app worldwide, and surpassed Google as the most popular web domain. In Q3 2022, TikTok broke records again as the world’s highest-grossing app.

Let’s get into some features that fuel its popularity:

Graphic showing the most popular apps worldwide in Q3 2022

Source: SensorTower

Fueling viral trends

One of the reasons TikTok is so sticky is because it’s a discovery machine. It’s often where trends start, as TikTok trends are frequently spread to other platforms, and into popular culture.

If you’re wondering how to go viral on TikTok, there are a few unique elements on the app that fuel trends and user loyalty:

TikTok Sounds

TikTok sounds are a key part of the platform experience—so much so that TikToks with sound perform 2.2x better than those without. People can use songs and sounds in their videos by selecting them from TikTok’s library, or saving them from other videos.

When you use a song or sound that’s trending, you boost your chances of going viral. The songs or sounds that take off can spark new memes, create a billboard hit, inspire cross-platform content or simply become part of the larger conversation.

@sproutsocial

It’s corn. ? #cornsong #itscorn #socialmediamarketing #sociamediamanager #socialmediatips

? It’s Corn – Tariq & The Gregory Brothers & Recess Therapy

Like we mentioned—trends often start on TikTok. If one of your TikTok videos performs well on the app, repurposing that same content elsewhere can help you find success on other platforms, as well. We published the above video on TikTok to jump on the viral “It’s Corn” song, but also published the video on Instagram to keep riding the trend wave on another platform.

But a word of warning: if your video uses a song, avoid copyright issues and double check that you’re legally allowed to use that song on other platforms.

Using a tool can make repurposing content easier by cutting out the need to runaround to each social platform.

With Sprout’s TikTok integration, you can publish a TikTok video solely on TikTok, or publish one video across multiple platforms with the touch of a button.

Sprout Social's Compose post window where you can see that Twitter, Instagram and TikTok are all selected to make publishing one post across multiple platforms easy.

Hashtags

Hashtags are a key part of viral trends and challenges. Using the right ones can give you a major visibility boost.

They’re also a great way to find your community on the platform. #BookTok is a great example. This hashtag connects you to videos about book recommendations, bookstores and more. Tags like this can foster niche communities and become extremely popular among them—the BookTok hashtag has over 80.9 billion views.

A screenshot of the results for hashtag BookTok on TikTok, and the number of views the hashtag has.

Collaborative tools

TikTok is all about connecting with your community and your friends. Their recent move to replace the Discover feed with a Friends Only feed supports that.

Collaboration is built right into their video creation tools. TikTok stitching, for example, allows you to add your own commentary or reaction to existing clips, including viral clips. TikTok user Hank Green often uses this to answer questions or explain the science behind popular videos.

@hankgreen1

#stitch with @hwannah5 #askhank

? original sound – Hank Green

Learning how to stitch on TikTok can help you get started on the platform by piggybacking off of existing content before creating your own.

Challenges

Users and brands alike come up with challenges that eventually go viral and encourage user participation. These challenges are also highly effective for enticing non-users to join the platform.

A viral video of TikToker Nathan Apodaca (aka Doggface208) skateboarding while drinking Ocean Spray cranberry juice inspired the brand to create a challenge, encouraging participants to recreate the video. #DreamsChallenge now has 21.1 million views.

We could mention more. But TikTok moves so quickly that by the time you read this article, there will likely be entirely new ones.

Video format

Put simply, TikTok has the type of content that consumers want: bite-sized videos. In fact, 66% of consumers say that short-form video is the most engaging type of content.

TikTok popularized this format to the point that other platforms added their own short video feeds, like Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts. Appropriately, we’ll leave this section short and sweet.

Video downloads fuel more shares

Users on the platform can freely download videos from other users and share them to other social media platforms to reach more people. This is perhaps one reason why the platform has gained so much popularity so quickly.

Since each video has a TikTok watermark and the username of the original creator, it leaves little room for plagiarism. It gives due credit and when people watch those downloaded videos on other platforms, they’ll know exactly who to follow for more.

How to use TikTok for business

With trends like #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt, and 49% of users saying TikTok helped them make purchase decisions, the app is a prime place to reach new consumers.

However, marketers are still not utilizing TikTok to its full potential. Our latest Sprout Social Index™ found that only 39% of marketers were using TikTok.

Many marketers are still in the process of understanding how TikTok works and how it fits into their social media content strategy, social media marketing strategy and larger marketing campaigns.

Here are a few popular ways brands use TikTok to help get you inspired:

Launch a branded hashtag challenge

We’ve already talked about how using viral trending hashtags can extend your reach. But you can also create your own trends. TikTok challenges are campaigns or trends that encourage people to participate by performing tasks like demonstrating a talent, showing how you use a product, using a filter, lip syncing and more.

In Vogue’s #MakeItVogue challenge, Vogue partnered with TikTok to launch a campaign inspired by the Met’s About Time exhibit. It encouraged people to celebrate fashion history by posting videos recreating fashion of the 19th-century using everyday objects. To date, the hashtag has 3.6 billion views, and the challenge brought Vogue from 0 to 128K followers.

@americanballettheatre

@voguemagazine did we do this right?? ? ? #MakeItVogue #SwanLake #Ballet #AmericanBalletTheatre #ABT #BlackSwan @conholl

? MakeItVogue DIY bustle – Vogue

Vogue also launched a less formal challenge with the hashtag #ifeelstrong. This challenge encourages people to post videos of themselves doing something that makes them feel powerful. This challenge hashtag has amassed 565.3K views.

@voguemagazine

This is how #IFeelStrong by VeronicaYokoPlebani. When do you feel your most powerful?

? I Feel Strong – Vogue

There are a few ways to promote a branded hashtag challenge on TikTok. Officially partnering with TikTok on a branded challenge is pricey, but partnering with creators on the platform or creating a competition can help boost your hashtag. Just ensure you follow copyright laws.

Work with influential content creators

Influential content creators on TikTok have millions of followers and drive tons of engagement that brands can leverage to amplify their efforts. Brands can collaborate with creators on a variety of campaigns, from content featuring their products or services to jumpstarting a branded hashtag challenge and more.

For Universal Pictures, TikTok influencers played a major role in the promotion of their movie, “The House with a Clock in its Walls”. They partnered with 10 influencers who each created ‘magical’ stories using the hashtag #FindYourMagic. These videos garnered a total of 1.3 million likes and even resulted in 19k+ more videos from other users.

The brand also gained 11k+ new followers in just six days. To date, the hashtag has amassed over 80 million views on the platform.

A screenshot of the hashtag find your magic on TikTok showing videos made using that hashtag as well as the amount of views that hashtag has amassed.

Don’t be afraid to experiment

The beauty of TikTok’s fast pace is that if one video flops, you can move on and try again. Bari, social media manager for Auntie Anne’s, recommends reusing old content with new sounds in her TikTok Bootcamp.

TikTok’s status as a fast-moving trend incubator means experimentation is rewarded, and many brands are cementing their TikTok presence by testing new tactics on the platform.

Analyze your tests by using TikTok analytics to identify which of your posts are most successful and should be recreated. While TikTok only saves your data for 60 days, Sprout’s Reporting and Analytics tools don’t put an expiration date on your post performance data. You can measure how your TikTok content performs over time, and even against the content on your other platforms.

Sprout Social's post performance report showing the top TikTok posts for our Sprout Coffee Co account by engagements

Engage, engage, engage

Responding to comments and questions on TikTok is just as important as responding to them on other platforms. Monitor your comments and respond—even a simple response or “like” can mean the difference between gaining a fan, and losing one.

You can even respond to comments with a new TikTok video. This is an innovative and ultra-interactive way of engaging with your community, and filling out your content calendar.

It’s all too easy to lose track of TikTok comments when you’re monitoring conversations across multiple channels. This is where using a social media management tool to streamline comments from all of your platforms into one hub comes in handy.

Final thoughts: Is TikTok a good fit for you?

TikTok marketing can be extremely powerful when executed strategically. Contrary to popular belief, the app is home to a widespread, diverse set of users and brands—from B2C to B2B and nonprofits.

For any brand considering getting started with TikTok, it pays to start with research. Validate that your core audience, or the new audiences you hope to reach, are on the platform. Then, develop a short-term plan for content testing and iteration.

To learn more about bringing TikTok into your marketing fold, check out our essential TikTok for business article to start crafting your plan.

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