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How TikTok won the mobile video wars by breaking all the rules

At the Fast Company Innovation Festival, TikTok’s global marketing head spoke about how the platform brought something entirely new to a crowded space.

How TikTok won the mobile video wars by breaking all the rules
[Photo: TikTok; rawpixel]

In just two years, TikTok went from being a niche app where teenagers post videos of themselves lip-synching and dancing to one of the most dominant cultural forces in the country. In the first nine months of this year, the mobile app was downloaded by more than 64 million first-time U.S. users, according to Sensor Tower, double the number from the same period last year.

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You don’t get to that level of saturation without breaking a few rules, and TikTok succeeded in part because it took an existing space—mobile video—and brought something entirely new to it, says Katie Puris, TikTok’s managing director and global head of business marketing.

“Simply put, it’s full-screen, sound-on video,” Puris said at the Fast Company Innovation Festival on Friday. “That hasn’t existed before for mobile, where people experience an app in sound-on and where the experience that people get—from a user piece of content to a brand piece of content—looks and feels exactly the same.”

In a virtual panel discussion as part of the festival’s closing day, Puris was joined by Chris Denson, host of the Innovation Crush podcast and the author of Crushing the Box: 10 Essential Rules for Breaking Essential Rules. Not surprisingly, Denson also had thoughts about how TikTok is breaking rules.

“For one thing, there’s no central content theme,” Denson told Fast Company deputy editor David Lidsky. “I think most platforms will say, you know, ‘We are for X.’ . . . With TikTok it’s, ‘We just want to give you a break.’ There’s something about giving people a break.”

He added that TikTok was able to improve upon the user experience offered by short-form video platforms that came before it—Vine is the most obvious comparison—but he said that one big element of TikTok’s success is probably just good timing. “Not that that’s a ‘rule’ of sorts, but I think there’s a time and a place when the cultural appetite steps up and is ready for an invention or product or service.”

What happens now?

Ironically, the discussion about TikTok’s rule-breaking comes as “rules” (so to speak) are threatening its very existence. The video-sharing app, whose popularity soared to new heights during the pandemic as people in lockdown sought ways to keep themselves entertained, has been on a roller-coaster ride of uncertainty over its future ownership structure. Privacy advocates have long expressed concern about TikTok’s user data falling into the hands of its China-based owner, ByteDance, and earlier this year, the Trump administration threatened to ban TikTok from U.S. app stores if it didn’t sell parts of its business to an American company. Oracle and Walmart agreed to take a stake, but the deal has been tangled up in red tape.

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Needless to say, there’s a lot riding on how this drama plays out—not just for users, but for marketers and brands as well, which are increasingly eager to embrace the nascent video platform as a way of reaching its vaunted base of Gen Z users. (TikTok introduced its U.S. marketing platform, TikTok for Business, less than four months ago.)

During the panel discussion, Puris had lots of advice for brands experimenting with ways to succeed on TikTok. As one recent success story, she cited Ocean Spray, which capitalized on a recent viral video featuring an Idaho man lip-synching to Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” while enjoying one of its products. Ocean Spray responded by giving the video’s creator a truck full of his favorite flavored juice—and earning the kind of positive headlines no amount of advertising can buy.

It’s the kind of organic interaction that Puris says TikTok was made for.

“We say to brands, ‘Don’t make ads, make TikToks,'” she added. “What we mean by that is to show up in a way that the community shows up, to come and be yourself, to take some chances and potentially take some risks.”

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About the author

Christopher Zara is a senior staff news editor for Fast Company and obsessed with media, technology, business, culture, and theater. Before coming to FastCo News, he was a deputy editor at International Business Times, a theater critic for Newsweek, and managing editor of Show Business magazine

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