The Swell is Here - Prepare for the Next Big Marketing Wave or Face the Washing Machine

Other than running from charging half-ton bulls, the time I feared most for my life was surfing an apartment building sized wave, and realizing I was about to wipe out. I shouldn’t have looked down.

As a novice surfer, I waited approximately two hours, wasting most of my energy on smaller waves. But even the least talented ocean reader could see the massive wave that was approaching.

There is a technological opportunity inbound large enough to inspire a similar unmistakable mixture of fear and excitement. A proof of work network that came after Ethereum, with a billion monthly active users - TikTok. 

My brother and I founded milunova because we are inspired by our dogs and the ones we foster to cherish every moment. We help parents have the best possible relationship with their pets by developing thoughtful products that inject joy into their moments together.

When we started our bootstrapped company, we weren’t very agile. To avoid manufacturing hang ups, we worked on multiple products simultaneously. We focused on R&D intensive products for about a year and a half only to table them after hitting technical dead ends and resource constraints.

While walking the dogs one day, however, we had an idea of a way to add delight into the worst part of dog ownership. We decided we wanted to add a bit of joy to - believe it or not - picking up dog poop.

Originally, we thought we might make the bag dual use to play with your pup before picking up their waste. The prototypes had mixed results. We focused instead on an even greater problem - running out of bags when you least expect it.

The last three bags on our rolls would change color from green to yellow to red. It gave an intuitive indication of when you were going to run out, and it would improve the user experience. We called them Stop & Go poop bags. We found a manufacturer in the US willing to work with us and went from idea to product in six months.

We started building our brand on TikTok nine months before the launch of our first product. We were introduced to an Instagram veteran, Weissbro, who urged us to focus on TikTok. Neither of us particularly excelled at social media, but he explained TikTok in a language we understood. Every video was an experiment, and with the data provided by TikTok, we had a feedback loop that allowed us to approach content creation akin to using the scientific method.

The first video we posted showcasing the product got almost 2M views. We knew we had something sticky, but there was no call-to-action.

We implemented the learnings from the first video for our second iteration and the results were unexpected. TikTok sold out our entire production run in less than 12 hours.

The viral product video has over 9M views and counting. We gained 50k followers after a year on the platform, and are now up to almost 70k.

Here is the framework we developed to create viral videos:

TikTok viral video structure by milunova

With milunova, we quickly realized content is still king. As engineers, we had the most fun inventing, prototyping, and designing new products. We did not realize the sheer amount of time and work it would take to generate all that content.

Dharmesh has said that next-gen software companies will have media companies embedded inside (Hubspot has since acquired The Hustle). I expect this trend to extend to all growing companies. 

Dharmesh tweet: Modern media companies have a software company embedded inside. Next-gen software companies will have a media company embedded inside.

But the landscape is changing. For the first time last year, TikTok dethroned Google as the most visited website.

Its recommendation algorithms are so good, that it is more than twice as engaging (by average session duration) as the second place social media network, Pinterest.

Graph of average session duration of different social media platforms showing TikTok is more than twice as engaging as the second place platform, Pinterest.

It is so engaging in fact, that it is the only social network I know of that actually tells you to stop using it.

And it’s not just Gen Z posting lip syncing and dancing videos. At the end of 2021, there were more people over 30 years old using TikTok than under 30 in the US.

Graph showing age distribution of TikTok users in the US showing there are more people over 30 years old using TikTok than under 30.

The first generation AirPods were released three months after TikTok’s launch. The convenience of wireless audio devices has worked hand in hand with the rise of video-first social media. Its success can be partially explained from a data density perspective.

According to Facebook, people spend 1.7 seconds with a piece of content on mobile (2015), and it only took 0.25 seconds of exposure for a person to recall mobile feed content (2016).

At an average reading speed of about 240 words per minute, it is equivalent to reading a short sentence. That assumes the amount of time a person spends judging content has not decreased since Facebook last shared data in 2016.

‘Images are processed between 6 and 600 times faster than language.’ In the same amount of time, a user can scroll or swipe past 3-5 image posts. With video, using the standard 30 frames per second frame rate, that is equivalent to about 50 images in the same amount of time. That the higher data density of video results in paradoxically higher engagement for TikTok may be a testament to the quality of their artificial intelligence recommendation algorithms.

The increased data density of video forces a new paradigm for marketers and is changing the competitive landscape, especially with ecommerce. Instagram photo sharing elevated visual appeal on social media. In order to be successful on TikTok, the polished rules of Instagram don’t apply. TikTok is changing it to authentic sensory appeal.

Instagram launched Reels in 2020, their competitor for short format video. Last year the head of Instagram said they are no longer a photo sharing app. Now, video and shopping will be two of their four priorities. Last year we also saw the launch of Idea Pins on Pinterest and Shorts on Youtube. A different interesting angle is Amazon Live - live streamed video selling which re-launched in 2019. I expect increased competitive overlap between TikTok and Amazon in the future. Last year, TikTok partnered with Shopify to add product links directly on videos, and now on live streams.

These video features come at a time when Apple’s privacy changes are impacting advertisers.

The final tide change undertones the appeal and promise of Web3: a decentralization and shift in value capture from platforms to creators. TikTok has recently begun removing the Discover page from its app - the place where users go to find trends, and the prime spot for advertisers. It has been replaced by a Friends page, and now TikTok is redirecting those ad dollars to its Creator Marketplace, where brands can partner with influencers. TikTok is disrupting itself - putting creators at the forefront instead of ads.

So long as you can manage the ever changing opaque algorithm, TikTok offers equitable discoverability and organic recommendations. It removes the burden of placing unwanted ads on a user's social feed, and places the responsibility on creators.

It is a responsibility we have to approach sincerely as designers, creators, and marketers. Using our video data provided by TikTok, we see that people have spent nearly 10 years watching our top four videos. With an understanding of these new mediums, there is an opportunity for great content and great products to thrive online and find new audiences for those brave enough to try.

As our account grew, we realized we needed more insightful engagement data to inform our marketing strategy. We started with a comment exporting tool which we built in house and productized, and it is evolving into a powerful data visualization platform. If you are interested in understanding your (or your competitors’) TikTok engagement data, share your email to get early access.

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