Everything You Need To Know About TikTok Ads: From Strategy & Creatives To Ad Buying
Authors: Kris Sugatan & Haley Rebennack
CEO & Founder | Video Strategist
April 14, 2022
Introduction by Kris Sugatan
In June 2021, I was faced with the question: is TikTok really as scalable as Facebook has been for the last six years?
$1MM in TikTok ad spend later, we can now say with certainty…
Louder for those in the back: TikTok is here to stay.
It’s most certainly a scalable TOF acquisition channel.
No, not like Pinterest or Snapchat where it shows false attribution to TOF acquisition, I mean really, truly a TOF acquisition channel.
Way back when, TV was the primary source of visual consumption, so TV commercials were all the rage–and effective too.
Then came the internet with Google, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Pinterest… you catch my drift. Today, it’s TikTok.
Social media and the marketing strategies paired with each platform are constantly evolving. But some changes stick around much longer than others.
I see TikTok as the next evolution in the way we consume visual media for at least the next five years.
We saw a similar global shift in social media consumption when Instagram first launched and now, people are dynamically evolving in the way they engage with and on social media once again–especially on cellular devices.
Anything that’s working usually has a shelf life of around six to eight months, maybe a year and a half, and then things start evolving and people start adapting to something new again.
The big difference between when Instagram first started and TikTok’s recent world domination is that people are much more tech-savvy now.
Older generations are catching up and a boom in user-friendly camera and editing apps has made it easy to jump on the TikTok train no matter who you are.
From a visual media perspective, TikTok is now setting the standard. You’re seeing its effects on other platforms too, for example on Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts.
As a CEO speaking to other founders and CEOs, we all know how important it is to adapt your marketing strategy to where the eyeballs are.
So, my biggest advice to you is not to make TikTok ads part of your marketing plan. You already know this. My advice is to stick with it and make it f****ing work!
If you’re worried about TikTok’s longevity, don’t be.
TikTok is going to dominate as a marketing channel for the next five years to a decade.
If you’ve already spent $10,000 on TikTok ads and you haven’t seen the results you were expecting, don’t give up.
Bookmark this article and extract all our dirty little secrets to help you master TikTok ads.
What’s so special about TikTok?
TikTok is in a league of its own for a number of reasons.
“It’s unique because it continuously spits out incredibly engaging, super short-form content that can stimulate your brain for hours on end.” – Haley Rebennack
Let’s look at some clear differences between TikTok, Facebook, and Instagram ads.
The 9:16 format
TikToks should always be in 9:16 format as if shot on an iPhone in portrait mode.
Facebook and Instagram have adopted the TikTok format of 9:16 videos with its Stories and Reels. YouTube has done the same with Shorts.
It’s also acceptable to post TikTok-style videos on Facebook’s feed.
This makes it easy to repurpose TikTok content for Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube Shorts.
But it doesn’t work the other way around. You can’t take a 1:1 Instagram post and reuse it on TikTok. Well, you can, but it won’t perform at all.
So, one of the biggest differences between the platforms is that TikToks should only be created and posted as native content on the platform.
With “native”, we mean content should be recognized immediately as a typical TikTok video with all the trademark tells such as in-app formatting, in-app text, and typical TikTok sound/music.
Video is king
TikTok is primarily a UGC, video-only, social media platform. Therefore, the types of ads on TikTok adhere to these principles too.
Facebook and Instagram are filled with graphic ads or static images, whereas TikTok leans strongly towards video ads with text overlays taking preference over graphics.
Watch this space, because our Graphics team is working on a master plan to revolutionize the use of graphics in TikTok ads.
The TikTok tone
Besides favoring UGC video-based content, TikTok also has a distinct style when it comes to copy and tone.
If you want to be as native as possible with your ads, ensure the tone, sentence structure, font choice, and timing of your ad’s copy match the overall TikTok style.
Music and visual effects
Instagram has incorporated music and effects with Stories and Reels, but Facebook is lagging behind when it comes to adding native music or effects to content.
Music is one of the main features of a TikTok video that makes it memorable, replayable, reusable, and ultimately, go viral.
“I think the biggest innovation is the fact that TikTok has incorporated music and sound effects. That’s where creativity has evolved. The editing features have advanced as well.” – Kris Sugatan
TikTok also has a library of visual effects and filters which are often paired with current TikTok trends.
The type of UGC that you’d typically find in a Facebook ad differs from UGC on TikTok, and that’s partly due to the addition of native effects and music.
You won’t just see a girl talking about mascara in her room. You’ll see a demonstration with a musical overlay (often with the girl lip-syncing to the music), with native copy popping up at certain points, and a surprising transition at the end of the video.
The For You page
“Unlike other platforms, the For You page on TikTok can be extremely random. To an extent, it does cater to the things you have liked and the people you follow, but it’s still going to show you random videos from all over the internet.” – Holly Fischer, Video Ads Director
This is good news for marketers because TikTok’s algorithm can increase your reach on the For You page no matter how many followers you have. More on the algorithm later.
How bright is TikTok’s future looking?
In a word, blinding.
TikTok’s popularity is growing in every demographic. It has even surpassed Instagram’s growth rate.
It is also slowly becoming a source of news just like Facebook and LinkedIn have become for many people.
This mass adoption can lead to a shift in the nature of the content on other social media platforms, meaning TikTok could be setting the new standard across the board.
There’s a niche for everyone on TikTok, whereas Facebook is predominantly viewed as popular among millennials and older generations.
For Facebook to remain relevant to younger generations, a TikTok-born change in the types of content and style might be imminent.
You have to recognize the pattern of social media evolution in relation to demographics in order to speculate about what the future will hold for TikTok.
Remember, change is the only constant.
Facebook started out as a college-only platform, and it started when today’s millennials were young. Now, these millennials are in their thirties, approaching their early forties.
On top of that, the parents and grandparents of these millennials came onto the platform back then because it was a way to see what their kids were up to.
Then Instagram launched and younger people started migrating to Instagram. Now that demographic has also become older.
Cut to 2017 when TikTok launched internationally. We all thought it was only for 13 or 14-year-olds. But we were dead wrong.
Today Sugatan has an anti-aging skincare client that targets people aged 45 and over. They’re spending $150K to $200K per month on TikTok ads and seeing great conversions.
When you look at the historic pattern of social media adoption, you’re definitely going to see a shift into older demographics with TikTok too.
Gen Zs and millennials are getting older, so it is only natural that a new wave of social media engagement will hit us at some point.
For the next five to ten years, a natural change will occur where TikTok adoption will start evolving again and with it, all other social media platforms will need to adapt too.
“I think the type of content will get more serious over time. Right now it’s a lot of entertainment, but you’ll start to see people posting about deeper topics. It’ll become a diary of life, a stream of consciousness, and regular advertisers/marketers will have an easier time creating content.” – Kris Sugatan
TikTok’s popularity rose during the pandemic, so when you think about it from a cultural perspective, it becomes clear that people needed an escape.
TikTok boomed during a time when people needed to forget about the real world for a while and helped many content creators find a creative outlet that didn’t require them to leave the house.
As the nature of the world evolved, TikTok evolved with it and it’s going to continue evolving. It won’t remain a predominantly entertainment-based platform forever.
TikTok has the power to keep you engaged
“TikTok is going to be the next TV, much like YouTube became.” – Kris Sugatan
It has that incredible power to suck you in and keep you on the platform.
That’s not changing anytime soon, but it will influence how other platforms keep viewers engaged.
There are two reasons why TikTok sucks you in.
The first reason is the perpetual anticipation and excitement of not knowing what you’re going to get next, but knowing that it’s going to be good. It’s like a never-ending dopamine fix.
The second reason is credited to the power of music.
Music deeply impacts the emotional part of our brain. This is the reason why TikTok, when you consume it, has such great staying power in your memory.
Music and how it makes you feel has the power to bring back memories for days, weeks, and months after you heard a certain song. It’s almost life-changing.
In comparison, when you look at Instagram, the shelf life of a post is not that long. The same goes for posts on the Facebook feed.
You consume Facebook content and your reactions are along the lines of, “Oh, my friends got engaged, that’s awesome!”
But the things you can learn on TikTok, within a few seconds or a minute, have staying power due to the addition of music.
Best practices for TikTok ads
Now that you understand TikTok as a platform a little better, let’s dive into TikTok ad strategies and best practices.
Traditional marketing principles still apply
Your marketing strategy should always adapt to suit the platform where it will be executed, but that doesn’t mean the fundamentals change.
The same direct-response principles and attention-grabbing or scroll-stopping strategies that worked on Facebook/Instagram still apply.
You simply need to adapt their execution to the TikTok platform and make it native to the TikTok user experience.
One thing worth mentioning is that it used to be common knowledge that you need to grab a viewer’s attention within the first three seconds.
Times have changed. Literally. You now only have one second to stop the scroll.
Not only do you need to grab attention within the first second, but you also need to ensure your video looks native to TikTok in that first second so a user will deem it worthy to keep watching.
Principles like having a shock factor or relating back to a human problem remain great strategies for TikTok ads.
In fact, the more relatable, authentic, real, and well, human, your ads are, the better!
TikToks that contain a celebrity or influencer perform very well, as long as it doesn’t come across as scripted (as is the case on most social media platforms).
In general, showing a person or a person’s face is considered a TikTok best practice.
Be a regular user
You cannot expect to be at the forefront of new trends or to internalize the style of TikTok content to apply it to your ads if you’re not a regular user of the platform.
“The most valuable kind of research you could do is to actually be a natural user and be able to analyze what gets attention. Can you recognize what holds your attention? What’s convincing and what’s not?” – Holly Fischer
TikTok is all about the user experience. If people don’t see your content as typical TikTok videos, they won’t look at it for more than a split second.
Also, the best place to do competitive research is on the platform itself. Look at what your competitors are publishing on TikTok and see what level of engagement they’re getting.
Think of it as a “content” strategy
“I feel like many people drop the ball when it comes to the fact that TikTok ads and TikTok ad strategy shouldn’t really be ads strategy. It should be thought of as TikTok content strategy because the biggest benefit and function of TikTok is the fact that content is king.” – Haley Rebennack
Unlike platforms such as Instagram and YouTube that favor the profile/creator over the content they put out, TikTok’s algorithm doesn’t care who you are or how many followers you have.
If you put out an amazing piece of content that gets tons of engagement, it will spread like wildfire.
Above all else, TikTok is a platform for content creators. So, your marketing team should place themselves in those shoes to put out content in the same formats as regular content creators on TikTok.
It’s not so much about manipulating a buyer as it is about entertaining or surprising them on TikTok.
Best-performing types of content
The types of content that thrive are:
- Profound in some way
- Product demonstrations
Quick Tip: Don’t sleep on organic content. Adopt a mix of paid and organic content to gain more followers and to keep up with the algorithm’s insatiable appetite for daily content.
To reinforce engagement, appeal to a powerful negative emotion, such as anger or disgust.
Here’s an example of an organic post Sugatan created for Arbor Mens skincare. It uses the power of disgust and the comments speak for themselves.
“Anger is one of the primary emotions that keeps people on social media.” – Holly Fischer
What sets Sugatan’s TikTok ads apart?
However controversial it may be to say this, for the most part it is the younger generation (specifically Gen Z) who is dictating what’s trending or what goes viral on TikTok at the moment.
So, one of our biggest advantages is having a team of young, avid TikTok users who understand the content, TikTok’s humor, and how to relate that back to your own creatives.
“Something that we consistently trickle down into our video team is this idea of finding strong content to pair with strong copy and using the user experience as our means of ideation.” – Haley Rebennack
We take a holistic approach with our TikTok ads, meaning we consider every single facet of the creative to produce converting ads.
From the ad copy, headline, and copy inside the creative to the music choice, voice-over, and overall message, we’re pros at putting all the pieces together to create magic.
The cherry on top is to underpin the execution with the user experience in mind. Always consider the person on the other side of the screen.
Relatability is our main aim. If we have a product to advertise and it offers people a real-life solution to a problem they may be facing, we’ll be sure to show the viewer that solution in order to relate to their life.
Watch another TikTok we created for Arbor Mens skincare and tell us it’s not hella relatable.
In the fast-paced world of TikTok, you need a constant influx of ideas.
Our video performance team meets every Friday to talk about new ideas for content and to ensure we stay on top of trends.
The viral ad formula
Let’s face it, you’re here for the juicy bits: how to produce viral TikTok ads.
There’s a viral ad formula for every niche. It won’t be the same across the board because what goes viral depends heavily on who is making it go viral i.e. who is engaging with your ads.
Some trends or principles of virality work on certain products but won’t work for every type of product or brand.
For example, incorporating a trending TikTok dance in an ad for sneakers will be more appropriate than using a before/after make-over style transition.
That’s why you should never just blindly copy TikTok trends.
Your demographic is important. For example, if your target market is an older demographic, the super fast-paced Gen Z type of humor will not work for your ad.
Types of ads that go viral
These are the types of TikTok ads that go viral most of the time:
- Transformations (before/after results)
- Videos that create intrigue or curiosity within the first second
- Profound or controversial content
- Humorous content
- Trends-based content (although, be careful because this ride can be short-lived)
“I would say 95% of videos on TikTok are going to have some sort of humor so that is a huge part of the viral ad formula.” – Holly Fischer
Best practices for viral ads
Pair strong visuals with native and relatable copy.
Be as native to TikTok and as authentic as possible.
“Besides the all-important requirement of posting native content, authenticity is right up there too.” – Haley Rebennack
High-quality UGC (or the perception thereof) always performs well, but if it seems scripted, you’ll lose thousands of views.
Shoot in iPhone-style portrait mode with a 9:16 ratio. Below is an example of an inappropriately sized TikTok (with non-native text to boot).
Repurpose and optimize your ads that have worked before.
Find a balance between posting trend-related, humorous, and pain-point vs solution-based content that shows a transformation.
At Sugatan, we usually post one trend-related TikTok per week for our clients. The same goes for humorous content.
Throughout the rest of the week, we’ll focus on showing transformations or product demonstrations.
How to leverage TikTok trends
The world has never seen this level of trend cycles before! TikTok trends come and go en masse.
TikTok trends are also transcending the platform, becoming real-life trends that impact music, fashion, humor, communication, art, dance, marketing, etc.
But trends typically have a short lifespan, especially on TikTok. They tend to stick around for just four to seven days.
As a marketer, it’s important to stay on top of trends so you can leverage them in your ads. However, jumping on every trend won’t get you very far.
It’s crucial that your content team can recognize a fast-passing trend versus a long-standing one.
Again, it comes down to being regular users of the platform in order to understand these trends.
If you’re googling “what’s trending on TikTok?”, you’re already behind. Do your market research on TikTok itself if you want to stay up to speed.
The one glorious thing about trends is that they can transcend demographics and niches. This makes trend-related content very powerful when it comes to gaining reach and ultimately going viral.
When you recognize a trend that can relate to your product, keep in mind that as soon as the trend’s relevance dies, so will your ad.
The main takeaway with trends is that they can be amazingly effective in getting your ad seen by a wider audience, but the downside is that the lifespan can end up being shorter than expected.
How to go viral with a trending sound or music
This strategy has proven extremely successful for Miriam Zoklat, Sugatan’s Executive Personal Assistant. Her TikToks have gone viral with millions of views, using this exact method.
She refers to it as “sound searching.” As in, searching for sounds or music on TikTok that have the potential to go viral within the next 72 hours.
It’s all about finding a trending sound before it officially takes off. These are the steps Miriam follows:
- Spend roughly 45 minutes to an hour scrolling through the For You page. Take note of the sound used in every TikTok you see. Click on the spinning record in the bottom right-hand corner to see more details about the sound.
- Note the number of videos that have used that sound. The sweet spot is anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000 videos. If the sound has over 10,000 videos, it is still usable, but the algorithm will already see it as a trending sound.
3. Now start scrolling through the top 15 to 30 videos that have used that sound and note how long ago they posted the videos. If they were all posted within less than 16 hours (even better if it’s within 4 hours), then you know that the sound has the potential to make your video go viral.
If the videos are mostly from a week ago, or even four days ago, the sound’s potential for vitality isn’t great anymore.
“This system works similarly to the stock market. You want to get in on a sound when it’s ‘cheaper’ (has a lower number of videos), before everyone else starts ‘buying in’ on the sound. Because once everyone hops on a trending sound, it loses value and the chances of your video going viral become slimmer and slimmer.” – Miriam Zoklat
By using a sound while it’s still fairly new and just gaining traction, the algorithm recognizes your video as a “trend starter”, and shares it with new For You pages.
The more videos that use the sound after you’ve used it, the more likely it is for your video to go viral.
Keep in mind that this strategy works primarily in the US, where the largest amount of TikTok users live. Trending sounds hit other countries later than in the US.
Pain points and solutions
Every social media platform comes with its own list of frustrations. We jotted down a few of our own in the hopes of helping you navigate these pain points with greater ease.
Having a constant influx of content
To tame the TikTok beast, you need to post regularly and consistently, which means you need a constant influx of content to use in your ads.
Haley’s solution is to “create a ton of content in advance and repurpose variations of the same content in various ads.”
The best advice we can give you is to have a dedicated content creator who constantly shoots videos or product demos, so you’re never short on fresh content.
Coming up with new ideas every day
Content ideation can be challenging because you have to post frequently and you have to conceptualize fast.
When you have a winning TikTok ad, you only have about seven days to optimize it.
Our solution is to ensure your TikTok team members or content creators are all daily users of the platform to ensure they stay on top of trends and keep ideas fresh.
You can’t just take any content and adapt it to TikTok
As you know by now, TikToks are unique to the platform and if your content doesn’t look and sound native, you won’t get the results you’re hoping for.
Holly’s solution is to “have a dedicated team that creates native content for TikTok.”
Your team should know how to source the right content for TikTok from start. Don’t try to take a random piece of content and then work your way back to try and make it native.
Not knowing who to hire as your content creator
From an eCommerce owner’s perspective, the biggest problem is not knowing who to hire as your TikTok ads person.
Here are a few prerequisites that will help you make that important decision.
It must be somebody who is a frequent user of the platform. This is generally a younger person.
They should have at least three of their own TikToks with 100K views in their repertoire.
This person should be able to excel through experimentation and autonomy. It’s important to give them autonomy and to be in collaboration with them instead of micromanaging them.
“I think some people have a natural tendency to pick up on conversion-driven principles. Hire people with a natural understanding of all the gears that turn in people’s heads when they watch something online. This applies to every single platform.” – Holly Fischer
Running into copyright issues with music in TikTok ads
Unfortunately, you need to purchase the licence for a copyrighted song if you want to use it for any marketing purposes.
The solution is to use royalty-free music in your ads. You can also create your own music, but that can be time-consuming and it’s not a TikTok best practice for the sake of nativity and steering clear of sounding “salesy” or “corporate”.
The good news is that viral sounds are often creator-made. You can use those sounds or create your own without running into any copyright problems.
A list of don’ts
We’ve given you advice on what you should do to produce great TikTok ads, so how about a recap on all the don’ts?
- Don’t do anything scripted or overtly formulated. Always be authentic and real.
- Don’t post heavily branded content. People immediately recognize it as an ad.
- Don’t use text that is not native to TikTok.
- Don’t post in a format that isn’t native to TikTok. Videos must be 9:16 in size.
- Don’t use a sound or music that isn’t native to TikTok or that is obviously corporate-sounding.
- Don’t do TikTok research anywhere other than on TikTok.
- Don’t just blindly follow trends and assume they will work for your product/brand.
- Don’t post text outside of the readable boundaries. There are small in-app features that can cover up your text–especially the caption when you post ads.
Below is a template that we use when creating content. The white area is the safe zone. The red area indicates where text will be cut off or covered by in-app features.
Media buying on TikTok Ads Manager
Media buying on TikTok reminds us a lot of Facebook four to six years ago.
When it comes to targeting, the learning phase is important. We’ve found that a broad targeting approach works best.
Broad targeting means not setting strict age, language, or gender parameters.
The entire testing process is extremely fast and relatively cheap on TikTok.
There are two strong indicators of a winning TikTok ad:
- You’ve achieved a scaling result of 1.5 to 2x higher ROAS than your KPI within the first 24 hours.
- It was more than sufficient to spend your CPA within the first 24 hours.
Side note: A TikTok rep can serve a very important role in the “creative’s pre-approval” process.
Budget and scaling
Vertical scaling works best.
Campaigns or ad sets are less sensitive to aggressive budget increases after exiting the learning phase.
Your ad set will always spend the full daily “set” budget when scaling or down-scaling.
We’ve noticed a pattern. We unlocked high-quality traffic and could start entering scaling mode only after spending the first $10K to $20K on an ad account.
Our Head of Growth, Matas Kemzūra, will walk you through Sugatan’s tried and tested TikTok ad-buying template, which is guaranteed to help you scale a new account in only a week’s time. Watch it here.
The TikTok algorithm
TikTok is still figuring out its own algorithm, but cheap costs offset the quality of traffic. It’s a quantity over quality situation.
The algorithm favors content over who the content is coming from. That means you can start with zero followers and no prior videos and your TikToks could still end up going viral.
Consistency is key! Posting daily is the optimal way to get a wider reach.
It’s best to post a mix of organic and paid content. That way you won’t need a colossal budget to meet your daily posting quota.
The algorithm prioritizes watch time, the number of replays, the number of shares, comments, and overall engagement.
“If you can create something that is short and replayable, that you would want to watch twice, you’ll be in the algorithm’s good books.” – Holly Fischer
There is no doubt that TikTok is reshaping the digital marketing landscape, and we’re só here for it.
All in all, TikTok is for sure a scalable TOF acquisition channel, much like Facebook has been for the last four to six years.
We see this as the new golden age for media buying.
The most important thing with TikTok advertising is to produce ads that masquerade as usual TikTok content. Make it native!
But don’t let conversion principles fall by the wayside in pursuit of native content.
Keep your marketing hat on and remember to enjoy this exciting journey we’re all on. After all, why should the users have all the fun?
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