Is TikTok just for laughs? Reaching Gen Z authentically.

15 March 2022

Generation Z, the name given to the massive group of individuals aged between nine and 24. A huge, encompassing blanket term that is not entirely helpful to marketers. School children, teenagers, students, and people in first jobs. The challenges facing this audience are wildly different so one of the first things we should ask when targeting Gen Z, is which part of this cohort is core?

The most likely scenario is that a brand will be looking to target 18–24-year-olds. But who are these people and where are they? How can we reach them? Again, the most important thing to remember is they’re ‘not one’. Their interests vary massively and can be conflicting. That’s why it’s so important to paint a vivid picture of your buying group, including everything from what they earn and spend, to their interests. This means we can home in on who we are trying to reach and why.

Undeniably they are consuming most of their content on social media, primarily Instagram and TikTok. But how can brands stand out in such a saturated space? Research from Global WebIndex suggests humour unites this audience. 58% of those surveyed want to see funny content on social media [1]. Whilst Instagram remains the most popular channel with this audience in nearly every aspect from sharing content to engaging with friends, humour is where TikTok really comes into its own.

And this is by no means new news, back in 2018 Kevin Roose wrote in the New York Times that scrolling the app brought him an ‘emotion he hadn’t felt in a long time on the internet’ and that feeling was joy. 81% of those asked use the channel to look for entertaining content compared to 67% using Instagram for the same reason [2]. Brands may see more traction from Instagram, but is that because they are still figuring out how to use TikTok to their advantage?

This is an audience who doesn’t necessarily want to be ‘sold’ to. They value authenticity, and against a backdrop of a global pandemic, war and economic struggles they are turning to social media to switch off and enjoy themselves. Short form video lends itself to humour perfectly. TikTok’s Culture Driver study in 2021 with Flamingo found that 56% of users and 67% of creators feel closer to brands when they publish human, unpolished content. In contrast to millennials coveting images of spotless homes, flawless make-up, and perfect parenting, TikTok users are crying out for gritty, real, and funny content.

There have been so many brand successes on TikTok, but remember, as much as they are there for the laughs, Gen Z has morals and wants to be spoken to with respect. Setting goals of building relationships and making your brand likeable and relatable is key. 41% want to see brands collaborating with LGBTQ+ creators [3], and GWI reports that 37% want to feel valued by brands. Diversity and inclusion, environmental commitments all need to be watertight. But it’s not a whole new strategy to embrace, it’s what PR has been doing for years and years, looking after reputation and maintaining interest in your brand. Whilst there are quick wins to be had on TikTok – it requires the same level of thought as any traditional media campaign.

Simply employing your usual creative process and thinking ‘how can I make the mundane appeal’ also applies on TikTok. Netflix launched the third in a series of teen rom-com movies, ‘Kissing Booth 3’ in early 2021. None of the films have attracted particularly positive reviews. Years ago, interviews in teen magazines would have capitalised on lead Joel Courtney’s presence. And really, things are not so different now. Teens still want that same ‘access’ to their idol’s lives, it’s just they don’t need to buy a magazine any more. Netflix live streamed Joel’s reaction to watching the movie’s trailer, tapping into that ‘need’ to witness real and authentic content and feel close to their heroes – this appealed massively to the target audience. It wasn’t big budget or complicated, but it hit the mark.

Perhaps then more important than ‘funny’ is ‘real’. Re-claiming words and topics that are not even necessarily funny or traditionally suited to social media. One example would be the rise of ‘FinTok’ fuelled by interest in crypto-currencies and Gen Z’s general desire to make their own money. We would never have assumed a platform driven by having fun would become such an important space for financial advice, yet research from investment firm Hargreaves Lansdown shows that 46% of 18- to 34-year-olds have become more interested in investing over the past six months, and one in five attributed this newfound enthusiasm to TikTok.

In recent weeks TikTok has played a huge role in the reporting of the Russian war on Ukraine. When used correctly, critics argue that the platform has an important role to play, showing the reality of the situation, and letting anyone with a phone share their experience. But when used wrongly, we see a lot of damage. Footage edited over, using sound or imagery from previous war scenes, and spreading fear and inaccuracy.

Trust comes back into play. Young people discovering war videos on their ‘for you’ page interspersed with dance challenges, it can be difficult to know what to believe and to have any kind of context. With TikTok’s algorithms pushing this kind of content without filtering the truth from fake, it’s a tricky place for anyone to consume news, but especially this generation so committed to knowing the ‘truth’.

Gen Z does not disappoint though, creators such as Abbie Richards, a self-proclaimed ‘disinformation and extremism researcher’ is dedicated to hunting out content that isn’t real and putting people straight. Another new breed of influencer, born from a need to separate the truth from widespread media. Richards calls out; "Stop saying TikTok is 'usually just an app for memes and dancing, not serious issues.' Remember when TikTokers supposedly trolled a Trump rally? That was 21 months ago," she writes. "TikTok's been a political tool for as long as it's been used by people who care about political issues."

TikTok is evidently not just for laughs, and neither is that the only way we should shape our approach to reaching Gen Z. We should try not to generalise, but we do need to recognise certain themes that appeal. Authenticity is important, as is reacting to your audience. Brands they love, are brands that care, brands that create a voice and personality for themselves on social media. Whether that’s through reactions, replying to comments personally or taking it one step further and genuinely responding to feedback in a positive and inclusive way. GAP went as far as re-introducing a vintage brown hoodie to its collection because it went viral on TikTok, and then allowed users to vote for a new colour too. TikTok is a place where brands can have fun, but they can also make a point and be taken seriously.

[1] GWI Zeitgeist September 2021 1,359 Gen Z social media users in Brazil, France, Germany, India, Italy, UK, and the US
[2] WI Core Q3 2021 28,335 Gen Z TikTok users and 36,772 Gen Z Instagram users aged 16-24
[3] Relatable

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