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Recently I sent a short video clip to a group of college friends – all of us now in our thirties and scattered across the globe. In it a young man bobs his head out of focus in the foreground while a green screen background shows a photo of a small brown dog. "I can't explain it but golden doodles are just the jewish version of golden retrievers" says the text in the background while a mash-up Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” and the "Hava Nagila" plays in the background. 

When asked for comment, the first reply I got back was: “I open that link and want to close it as quickly as humanly possible. I don’t understand TikTok”.

And while the platform has now a few bona-fide boomer superstars, the fact is that familiarity skews young. For every millennial that joined during the pandemic to see storytimes set to a song about a French nun or jokes about the inability of seeing two attractive best friends, there are plenty who flat out refuse. 

I’ve been thinking about just why people like my friend are so turned off by the idea of TikTok. Curmudgeoness certainly has a part to play, but I believe it goes further. TikTok has an entirely different grammar in how it shows and presents grammar. There are new words and features, trends and bandwagons that don’t exist off the app. This creates a bit of a learning curve, but I also believe it is at the heart of what makes the technology so interesting, and why it’s worth discussion for marketers in finance. 

Don’t worry – I’m not suggesting any of the brands I work with in financial services and marketing pivot to an all TikTok strategy. Rather I think there are lessons to learn from the way storytelling is done on TikTok. 

Lesson #1: Every second counts

A good chunk of the accuracy of TikTok’s recommendations comes from the fact that each piece of content receives near immediate feedback. The second a video starts playing, it is possible for the user to swipe up. Not only does this stop the content, but also it sends the video into the nearly untracebale digital ether. You can’t hook customers on the second or third exposure – either a user chooses to keep watching or that’s the end of it. Failure to watch or favorite content also means it is unlikely to appear in a feed again. 

Lesson #2: Accessibility is in 

Tiktoks are designed to be watched on a variable phone screen, which means limited screen real estate. A set of buttons and tools take up two of the corners, along with descriptive text at the bottom. In spite of these restrictions, more and more users are choosing to manually add subtitles to their content. Even when the material is mostly one person talking to the camera, it’s very common to see the words spelled on screen. 

The rationale here is two-fold – first it allows people scrolling through the application without sound to still take in material. It’s also become commonplace for a generation used to watching Netflix with subtitles. The second reason is around disability access – which expands the audience. This means not only the deaf and hard-of-hearing community can enjoy the content, but also for those who speak English as a second or third language and have reading skills that outpace listening.

Lesson #3: Include a payoff

Tiktoks are short, just 15 seconds to around 90 seconds. The best content figures out a way to end the whole piece in a way that elevates all of the material. Some try what is called a ‘perfect loop’ where the end seamlessly merges again with the beginning. Others follow classic filmmaking technique by introducing a problem at the start only to build and build and build right to a punchline. Once bought into a particular issue – where do these muddy paw prints lead – it’s near-impossible to turn away. And then others simply give a series of points, but save the best, most interesting fact until the very end.

It serves an antidote to so much of what is on LinkedIn. Sometimes I feel that companies have created material to enter in a competition to make 90 seconds feel like an entirety. Rather than slow voiceovers and barely animated wordart, perhaps it’s better to start with the punchline and work backwards?

Lesson #4: Find a format that works 

The biggest misperception about the app is that it is just a barrage of Gen Zs doing various dance crazes over distorted trap beats. What this misses is that Tiktok is no monolith. Rather the nature of the algorithm means that it’s actually millions of different sub-genres, all presented in unique combinations to individual users. (My feed is filled with people driving around the capital of Nunavut, showing what stores look like in the largest Iqaluit settlement, along with deaf people trying to order at fast food restaurants, walks through Pesharwar markets and someone explaining sheepdogging in a thick brogue.)

One of the things that work best are very specific formats that then become the basis of an account. There’s a dog that’s learning to ‘talk’ via a variety of floor buttons. A woman in America is watching and rating every Oscar winner for Best Picture. Someone else is cataloging the queer history of the Roman Empire while standing under red fairy lights. Most of these accounts didn’t start out with this focus, but the immediacy of TikTok showed what content was popular and they were able to specialize. Brands should consider doing the same – rather than working off a calendar made months in advance – rip up the template if feedback shows something is working better. 

A thousand words into a print article about the primacy of a visual medium, I’m now forced to make a conclusion about what this means. Be short. Be engaging. Be provocative. And when you run out of things to say – post a link to seals dancing to chiptune. 

Jon Schubin is a director in the London office