Entrepreneurs

Hashtag Challengers – Should SMEs Be Telling Their Stories On TikTok?

Being a gentleman of a certain age, I’ve always worked on the assumption that the youthful attractions of TikTok are not really for me. As Facebook and Instagram have both grown older, China’s contribution to the global social media landscape has remained an outpost where members of the Z and millennial generations create viral memes for an audience of their peers, well away from the prying eyes of their elders.

But of course, from a business perspective, TikTok can’t be ignored. It’s users – mainly 16 to 24-year-olds – are not only major league consumers, collectively speaking,  but many of them will also be starting and running their own businesses. So in theory at least, TikTok should represent an important marketing and advertising platform.

So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that the world’s major brands have been spending more time getting to know a platform that – according to the company’s own figures – has 100 million active users in Europe alone. And it’s not just the usual suspects. Yes, you’ll find the likes of MacDonald’s creating content but less obviously organisations such as the United Nations Fund for Agricultural Development, NBC, and the Washington Post have used the platform to promote their activities. 

Earlier this month, British accountancy software company, Sage got in on the act. It was a campaign with a bit of a difference. Rather than simply promoting itself – although that was a part of it – the company set out to encourage SMEs to raise their TikTok profiles and, thus, potentially find new customers at a time when the pandemic is making it difficult to reach out.  

A Good Place For SMEs?   

But does TikTok really represent a good place for SMEs to connect with a Generation Z and Millennial audience?  

TikTok itself – unsurprisingly – thinks so. “It is a powerful platform for SMEs to engage with customers in completely new ways,” said  Lisa Friedrich, TikTok’s Head of SMB for Europe in answer to a written question..”It gives SMEs access to active users who are constantly talking about their favourite products and sharing new ones. We have already seen a raft of SMEs find success on TikTok”  

Sage’s VP of Marketing Kirsty Waller is also enthusiastic about the platform’s potential as a marketing and engagement channel. As she points out, many business owners are of the TikTok generation. “Sixty one percent of new businesses are created by people aged 18-34,” she says. So, in that respect, we’re not necessarily talking about middle-aged business owners putting on the virtual clothes of younger generations in a bid to appear just a little bit more of-the-moment. Demographically speaking, TikTok holds the promise of genuine peer-to-peer engagement.  

Offering Support 

But why is Sage – a FTSE-100 company – joining the party? Well, the short answer is that the group sells much of its accountancy software to small and medium-sized enterprises. Thus, it has been keen to demonstrate its support for them during a period of huge uncertainty. One element of that support was the creation of a campaign aimed at helping SMEs reach the TikTok demographic.  

Dubbed the Bossit21 Hashtag challenge, the campaign invited SMEs to create and post video content demonstrating how they were thriving in the year of the pandemic. 

“SMEs have had to market themselves during the crisis but they don’t have marketing budgets. TikTok can help them reach customers on an international scale,” says Waller.  

If You Build It Will They Come? 

That last point is undoubtedly true – but with a very large caveat. As anyone who has ever posted a blog or video online and waited for the views to come rolling in may well tell you, you can build something but the audience won’t necessarily come. Posting content – no matter how great, good, or witty  – is not necessarily a passport to mass engagement.   

In that respect, Sage’s campaign highlighted both the potential power of TikTok but also some of the marketing realities. Sage mounted a “hashtag” challenge. In other words, SME’s videos were posted under high profile flag of the Bossit21 hashtag. In addition, Sage paid for advertising and took over the Tik Tok home page for a day, making it more likely that SME creators would get their videos seen by large numbers of people. 

Step away from the world of generously funded campaigns and the process of finding an audience becomes a bit more challenging. A business posting its own content will be in competition with millions of videos all striving to be seen.  The question then is, how do you gain traction?   

It’s probably not a good idea to post content that you’re less than comfortable with, just to fit in. Yes, teenagers lip-syncing to K-Pop may be popular on the platform, but a similar approach won’t necessarily be appropriate for a business selling fine art or electrical supplies online, especially if the founders and staff aren’t particularly tuned in to that aspect of youth culture.

So Waller’s advice is to be authentic. “It is most successful as an engagement platform,” she says. “What we did was to ask SMEs to tell their stories. In that way, you can bring people into the business and its processes.”   

Is it possible for SMEs to cut through? Tik Tok’s Head of SMB cited a number of U.K. companies that had successfully built strong followings on the platform, notably Roccoandthefox and Totesforyou. And in addition to simply posting content, businesses can also take advantage of a suite of advertising tools. Looking a little further down the line, online selling in partnership with Shopify is about to be rolled out here in Europe.  

The Sage initiative made an impact. According to the company, a fairly staggering one million videos were submitted for the hashtag challenge, generating more than 5 billion views. SMEs charting their own course can also find a substantial audience. The previously mentioned Totesforyou and Roccoandthefox – have follower counts of  150,500 and 26,500 respectively.  

So Tik Tok can be useful.  But as with all social media marketing strategies, gaining traction can be tough if you don’t already have a brand that excites passion and enthusiasm among consumers or the benefit of a hefty marketing budget. That said, a bit of ingenuity combined with a feel for what will work on the platform can take you a long way.

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