[ICYMI] The TikTok survival guide: Exploring the latest frontier in games marketing

TikTok, it turns out, is more than just an app designed to remind millenials that we’re no longer the young generation, and that the world has left us behind.

At least that’s the impression I’ve been left with over the last few months, as lockdown boredom drove me into the dark depths of TikTok’s terrifying algorithm, never to return. I don’t want to come back, there’s cat videos and less industry discourse here. It’s a better place.

I, like many others, was somewhat cynical about TikTok before I installed it. I’d seen the lip syncing videos, the vlogs, the dancing teenagers… TikTok was not an app for me, and certainly not an app for gaming content. Or so I thought.

Despite its reputation, TikTok is actually remarkably hard to pin down to one particular genre. There are often common themes to videos that make it big on the app, but the topics and types of video vary more often than some might think.

I casually browsed my ‘For You’ page, the main area where users discover new content on the app, while writing this article. In just a short sample, I stumbled upon a parody sketch of working conditions in the games industry, political discussions, comedy Skyrim content and… yes, okay, a dancing video. But since the video in question was a senior gentleman dancing to an anime soundtrack, I’m still calling it a win.

This misconception of TikTok, that it’s an app for tedious dancing children, is one that belies the opportunities available  – as well as the demographics of its user base, as MJ Widomska, founder and director at YRS TRULY, explains.

“This may come as a shock for many, but TikTok is no longer a platform for lip syncing teens,” says Widomska. “Its user base has expanded greatly in 2020 (quarantine boredom surely helped) and is still very much on the rise. While you may, at least initially, see younger users when you download TikTok, that’s just because they’re more likely to create content instead of just consuming it. In reality, the demographics of TikTok’s user base are not that far off from other platforms you may be more familiar with.”

NICHE COMMUNITIES

MJ Widomska, YRS TRULY

As discussed, it’s not that TikTok doesn’t have lip syncing teens – it very much does. But it’s a much broader platform than it’s often given credit for, with the potential for building communities around increasingly niche interests.

“In reality, I would say the TikTok audience does skew a bit younger, but it’s a massive platform with users in all age groups that just keeps growing at the moment,” notes Thomas Reisenegger, founder of Future Friends Games. “Content-wise, TikTok is also very varied and really good at creating small content niches, from Microsoft Excel tips and hacks to fan-made musicals, cute indie games and skincare tips.”

And those content niches, of varying sizes, are where the real opportunities for TikTok marketing lie. Far from being scared away that your game won’t appeal to the lip syncing demographic, we should instead be focusing on how TikTok can create communities around anything. I once stumbled upon a TikTok discourse between people who collect human bones. If that can get millions of views, your game certainly can too. And best of all, you don’t need an existing audience in order to hit it big on the app.

“TikTok’s discoverability is fantastic,” says Widomska, “you can genuinely get tens, hundreds, even millions of views with no followers. Whenever you post a video, the vast majority of people seeing it aren’t your followers anyway – TikTok tests the water by showing it to a few people to see how they react. If they watch it several times in a row or engage with it in any way, it sends a signal to the algorithm to keep pushing it to other users. With consistency and a little luck, your TikTok account can become your strongest awareness driver.”

“At the moment it’s the platform where organic growth without a big pre-existing following is possible for the very first time,” adds Reisenegger. “We have had a few instances where a first post got upwards of a million views and resulted in thousands of followers. That’s pretty much unthinkable on most social media like Twitter and Facebook today.

“The only platform where similar organic reach is possible right now for games is Reddit, I think, but posting content is way more difficult due to strict rules, mods and the fact you can only post semi-regularly. Opposed to YouTube and Instagram, TikTok also doesn’t push users too hard to post on a regular schedule – so you can take longer or shorter posting breaks and still grow your channel.”

That growth potential on TikTok is, partially, thanks to the terrifying power of the TikTok algorithm. The reason people are often so surprised at the variety of content on TikTok is thanks to this. In almost no time at all, TikTok’s algorithm worked out what content I wanted to see and delivered it straight to me, with an almost unsettling accuracy. Unlike on other social media sites, like Reddit, you don’t need to meet the users where they are. TikTok will deliver you to them, all being well.

“At the moment the algorithm is extremely good at finding people that would like your content but are not your followers yet,” says Reisenegger, “so that’s great for especially smaller companies and newcomers on the app.

“On the flip side, I believe the follower count matters a bit less than on other socials – though it can still give you a headstart. Basically, if you have a post that people like and interact with, TikTok will push it to your followers and to a lot of new viewers. But if your post doesn’t get the traction, it’s buried pretty quickly –  even towards your own followers and only the top followers will get it, if at all.”

SHOW SOME PERSONALITY

Thomas Reisenegger, founder of Future Friends Games

“[The algorithm is] very useful, but it does indeed have downsides,” adds Widomska. “It’s great at finding highly relevant audiences and putting your content in front of people who are most likely to engage with it, which also makes it perfect for building communities.

“Though, as most brands and creators will eventually find out, success on TikTok can be fleeting. The algorithm is in a ruthless pursuit of the newest, hottest thing, so if it deems your content less relevant than it used to be, you could lose views as quickly as you gained them. It’s not the end of the world though – it’s more like moving to a ‘phase two’ of TikTok success, where your videos will pop up in front of people already familiar with you.”

The concern with TikTok is less about what your content is, and more about how you communicate it. TikTok videos are often personality-driven, with the creator front and centre of the experience. While this isn’t an absolute rule to the app, it’s nonetheless something worth keeping in mind.

“TikTok is a huge platform and there’s certainly space for both,” says Widsomska. “For indie games, personal stories seem to work really well: starting your videos with something like “I’m making my dream game” brings stronger engagement and more views. TikTok users also seem to be interested in how games are made, so any prototypes, concept art or demos are usually well received. On the other hand, this strategy won’t work for more mainstream games: so, stream highlights/gameplay clips/’top 10’ lists can still do well on TikTok, as long as they’re formatted for 9:16 instead of 16:9. But, a personal touch goes a long way, so you’ll find that even these videos start with a quick selfie cam introduction from the creator compiling them.”

“I tend to do educational TikToks and those are the ones that tend to do best,” says Rosa Carbo-Mascarell, lead game designer at Loveshark. “There is a large audience of people out there who are interested in how games are made but don’t know where to look. So a TikTok from a real game designer showing them how games are made is fascinating to that audience. It also feels personal. This isn’t some company carefully calculating how to best market and sell a game. It’s a game designer in her home or at her desk, showing the practical and messy behind the scenes.”

It’s often tempting to assume that high production values will wow your potential audience, but standing out in such a way could be actively detrimental to your campaigns. With that said however, there’s certainly a market for more gameplay-oriented videos too.

“I would say, what we traditionally call high production value, is not the most popular content on TikTok,” says Reisenegger. “It’s about being authentic and making TikToks that look like TikToks. That means understanding how good clips are passed, certain tonal nuances, using the right font within the app etc. It can be a lot of work to make a video look authentic, find the right angle and really make a video pop in the first five seconds (which is super important on TikTok) but the time doesn’t go into the traditional “polish” but more into the ideas.”

An interesting point, and one worth noting, is the culture of TikTok compared to other social media platforms. I’m certainly not claiming that abuse and harassment don’t exist on TikTok – but it is nonetheless a more welcoming space for women than some of the other platforms out there. Which, for an app that values authenticity and direct interaction with the user behind the videos, is certainly attractive.

“On Twitter I’m always worrying that if a tweet ends up doing too well, it’ll end up in front of the wrong people and I’ll have to go private,” says Carbo-Mascarell. “Especially as a visible woman online. I’ve never had that issue with TikTok. Some of my TikToks have been viewed over 400k times and I never have to worry about abusive behaviour.”

MEME COMPLICATIONS

Rosa Carbo-Mascarell, lead game designer at Loveshark

When making a TikTok, you’ll doubtless be tempted to play into the app’s unique meme culture. But this can be rife with problems, particularly when it comes to audio. It’s common practice to play other people’s audio over TikToks, a practice that can potentially fall foul of copyright law if you aren’t careful. How careful do users need to be when marketing their games?

“That is an extremely tricky question but we are still working on finding an answer for it,” says Reisenegger. “We often work with tiny teams that just want to break out of their bubble and currently the worst case is that a sound gets taken down retrospectively, making the post a bit useless in your backlog. As of now, that is a small risk to take but things might change in the future or might be different for bigger games. We also worked on multiple accounts that only used their in-game music which is a totally viable strategy and eliminates the whole music licence risk.”

That all assumes you’re producing your own TikToks, however. If you’re working together with a TikTok influencer, things can get more complicated. Now, dealing with influencers is often a different skill set to dealing with press (who are all handsome and sophisticated, of course). This is potentially even more the case with TikTok – as, although the demographics are broader than stereotypes suggest, TikTok influencers often tend to be younger and less experienced than on other platforms.

“We’ve been working with TikTok influencers for over two years now, and there’s certainly been a massive shift in that time,” says Widsomska. “TikTok creators are still often very young and inexperienced, they may struggle with accurately quoting for their work, some of them may be scared to sign a contract. But, in the past year, we found that TikTokers are thankfully getting a bit more savvy.

“Still, the nature of the platform means that you can quite literally find overnight success, so there’s a constant influx of new popular creators, most of them completely new to working with brands. It’s vital to ensure you’re compensating them for their work fairly, as some creators may quote far below what their content and influence are actually worth. TikTok is certainly worth exploring in your content creator marketing strategy, but be prepared – your experience working with TikTok creators may not be as smooth as working with YouTubers or streamers of comparable size (who all have agents, too).”

“A lot of TikTok influencers right now in the gaming world are former or current YouTubers or streamers and a lot of native TikTokers also seem to branch out onto other platforms,” adds Reisenegger. “Overall we treat them quite similar to other influencers I think. In terms of younger users, we do adapt content a bit – use easier to read language and tone, don’t reference an in-joke from a 90s TV show, etc.

“We also see a lot of content doing well that gives a look behind the curtain of how games are made. Here we try to really make them easy to digest and not require too much prior game dev knowledge. For example, on Twitter, we would maybe make a post of what is special about a hitbox in a video game that is being made, whereas on TikTok we would probably first explain what a hitbox is in general and how it works in the game.”

However you decide to approach TikTok, it’s obvious that the enormous potential of the app will continue into 2022. And while many might be behind the game, your gaming rivals are bound to catch up sooner or later.

“TikTok is easy to understand but hard to master, and while I think many brands in the gaming industry are beginning to experiment with it, few have mastered it,” says Widomska. “TikTok still seems to be more popular among indies than the bigger players, who are probably all busy right now strategizing how to best approach it in 2022. Its potential still remains largely untapped, but as interest in TikTok is growing, I expect we’ll see more brands take the plunge very soon.”

About Chris Wallace

Chris is MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer, joining the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can regrettably be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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