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

A compilation of men crying made by @crying_tiktok_users | Instagram

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The first warm reception to TikTok in various Asian markets has been very encouraging. It seemed like Douyin’s success could really be replicated on a global scale. However, the more TikTok succeeded in Asia, the more it attracted the attention of its competitors; all major internet companies had advanced systems in place to keep up with new trends and changes in mobile usage patterns. ByteDance had to move fast to seize the window of opportunity to leverage its advantage. In general, Western Internet companies despise direct cloning of competitors. Even so, if an established giant like Google or Facebook chose to vigorously promote a product similar to TikTok, it could hinder their progress significantly.

Facebook’s success in cloning video “stories” from rival Snapchat has demonstrated a fate that could easily befall TikTok. That meant speed was key, and the most effective way to scale quickly was to combine massive spending on online app installation ads coupled with brand awareness through offline ads.

Usually when a business wants to spend a lot on online advertising and introduce a brand into a new market, they work with a creative agency. Expensive consultants will be hired, seasoned advertising professionals with years of industry experience will create smart concepts. The process will involve a carefully crafted branding message, massive Gen Z focus groups, professional actors in expensive recording studios, teams of video editors and graphic designers to make sure everything is perfect.

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Yiming was never one to stick to conventions. When buying his first apartment in Beijing, rather than consulting real estate agents, chatting with family, or personally touring homes, he scoured the web for data and calculated the numbers in one evening. .

When it comes to advertising for TikTok and the all-new, ByteDance found a similar shortcut, but the strategy was somewhat unorthodox – it would just use videos from the app itself. The conditions of use of the platform gave him the right to do so.

After identifying and manually removing potentially inappropriate content, the company has put in place a systematic process for experimenting with various videos. The ads actually didn’t say anything about what TikTok was or why anyone would want to use it; they just needed to spark people’s interest. The goal was simple: find the clips that most people clicked on a big blue “install” button.

This ad buying process was led from Beijing by the company’s experienced growth hacker teams. There was only one problem: the teams focused like a laser on the conversion metrics, but had little understanding of the actual video content. The best convert would be used more, regardless of the content of the video. The wacky, wacky, and downright weird videos turned out to have worked really well in getting people to install the app. Many of these weird ads attracted social misfits. When these people started using TikTok, they in turn made some weird videos that would attract more social misfits etc.

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TikTok’s video classification systems were very sophisticated and capable of accurately and automatically identifying and classifying all kinds of subculture content. The system was also able to more effectively tag users based on their actions and accurately relate them to content in a way had never been able to do.

A vivid example was the “Furries”, a stigmatized and misunderstood community of people who take pleasure in disguising themselves as animal figures in large fur suits. Furries were big early adopters of TikTok in the United States. Many have built significant followers as the colorful cartoon-like animal costumes have proven to be appealing to the app’s large pre-teen user base, bringing the subculture to a new audience.

Other notable early communities of TikTok followers included cosplayers and gamers. Animosity between these groups led to the ‘Furries Vs. Gamers War meme, a light imaginary conflict that saw players claiming to have been kidnapped by furries and performing acts of espionage, pretending to have infiltrated the ranks. furries.

TikTok contained a duo feature, which allows two videos to appear side by side, dividing the screen. Duet was previously limited in, but users can now reply to any video by recording one of their own. With many weird niche subcultures like furries on the platform, the duo feature has grown in popularity, quickly turning into a tool of intimidation and harassment.

Since’s merger with TikTok in August 2018, the platform was moving in a very different direction, and not everyone was happy with it.

“The first (unintentional) positioning of TikTok in the United States was essentially a step backwards,” said a former TikTok employee who wished to remain anonymous. The app had a terrible image problem. It was widely seen as reserved for misfits and kids making lip-syncing videos.

“I haven’t seen a single piece of adult-created content that’s normal and good. Being an adult grown-up making a cute karaoke video on an app and trying to go viral is strange behavior, ”was the blunt assessment of Instagram influencer Jack Wagner, interviewed in one of the first American media articles. covering TikTok.

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The colossal spending on ads was effective in getting downloads, but it also ruined the platform’s reputation, leading the small US-based TikTok team to voice concerns at the Chinese headquarters. In China, Douyin had never had such a problem. The starting group of early adopters had been carefully selected, and the app had built an exceptional brand image with carefully crafted glitzy cinematic ads, savvy viral marketing campaigns, and successful talent show sponsorships.

“If you look at history, a lot of inventions started with a toy first, with things that seem out of place, but have the potential to grow into something much bigger,” said Alex Zhu, co-founder of, in an interview, echoing an observation already made by many industry practitioners. TikTok’s initial reputation for goofy, squeaky videos made it look like a toy and hard to take seriously. The situation echoed the initial characterizations of Snapchat as an app only for students “gendered” with each other with images disappearing. Widely criticized and with retention rates in the US rumored to be as low as 10%, TikTok was not seen as a threat to anyone but itself.

Still, those who took down the platform didn’t anticipate how quickly TikTok would change. The algorithmic nature of the platform’s content distribution makes it easy to “tip the table” in favor of specific types of content. ByteDance could reduce exposure to monotonous lip-syncing and dancing teen videos and instead highlight the growing variety of new content categories such as magic tricks, street comedy, sports or the arts and ‘Arts and crafts.

Due to the massive influx of users driven by the big ad spend, the creators found it easy to quickly develop large fan bases. Another reason was the imbalance between supply and demand for good content. 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 – ultimately, those looking to grab 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 have to get rich first.”

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

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