Comment: TikTok and ‘fame velocity’

TikTok is levelling the playing field for social media marketing. Colin Nagy explains how mastering the nuances of the app can give small businesses a leg up.

Colin Nagy is a brand strategist based in New York and Los Angeles.

For small businesses, building an audience normally happens brick by brick. Painstakingly adding email subscribers, posting enough of substance and merit to find Twitter followers, and paying one of the big platforms for likes. It is a predictable enough exercise that takes time and energy, the merits of which are still largely up for debate in marketing worlds.

TikTok, the social video and editing platform, has changed this paradigm and created a phenomenon I’m calling ‘fame velocity’. It is a unique combination of an aggressive algorithm that is good at sniffing out things that will succeed, combined with a huge global audience of hyper-connected kids. 

All of the rules of posting have changed. Facebook, for example, penalises people who flood the zone with their stuff. TikTok rewards it. The algorithm is slicing and dicing and sending things to different people in perpetuity, rather than just the people you would normally reach. Those adept at riding the thermal updrafts of trending topics have a chance to get on the ‘For You’ page: the promised land for growth. 

The poster child for fame velocity is Charli D’Amelio, a dancer and ostensibly normal person – who has amassed 81 million followers in no time, dwarfing superstar celebrities. She’s the breakout. And there are countless other average kids around the world who have built audiences in the millions.

‘You used to have to pay to reach a huge audience and now it is just for the taking with a bit of luck from the algorithm.’

But what does fame velocity mean for an entrepreneur or a brand figuring out where TikTok should sit in the marketing mix? Some brands have cracked the code, notably the Washington Post, the NBA and Nickelodeon who have mastered some of the nuances. On the small-business side, real estate brokers in New York have taken to the platform to transform boring, dusty online listings into personality-charged vignettes that somehow make the idea of finding a place super fun. 

Chefs like Sonny Hu, aka @thatdudecancook, have been building their small businesses with nothing other than their sensibility and have gone from zero to 2.7 million followers in a flash. You used to have to pay to reach a huge potential audience and now it is just for the taking with a bit of luck from the algorithm. There’s next to no production cost to create anything: only pure, unbridled creativity. 

We’ve seen this trick before from large platforms that realise they are giving things away for free: Facebook drastically limited the reach of its Newsfeed, prompting brands to pay up to reach the audience they built. Also, because the TikTok audience is so big and so diffused, it’s hard to know if a small business is reaching those who will actually buy its stuff. It is a bet to hedge, to be sure.  

In general, though, most of the marketing for small businesses and entrepreneurs is an arbitrage play: trying to get the jump on something before it disappears. This time, a random individual or someone starting with just an idea has the potential to reach a monstrous audience for the price of a smartphone and a data connection. For now, such an egalitarian approach and levelling of the playing field is a positive thing. A creative idea, a dance or a recipe can win out over a big-brand network media buy-in when it comes to connecting with people. 

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This article was first published in Courier Issue 37, October/November 2020. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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