TikTok and its power in the attention economy

Oct 26, 2022 | Publications

In recent years, a variety of cultural phenomena that are distinctive among Indonesian youth audiences have flooded social media. Starting from the pargoy dance trend (short for partai goyang or dance together), to Citayam Fashion Week – the massive adoption of TikTok contributes strongly to the emergence of various popular culture references among Indonesian audiences.

TikTok, a short video platform founded by Chinese tech company ByteDance, was first launched in Indonesia in late 2017. After overcoming a series of obstacles, including governmental ban in 2018 and getting type caste as an “uneducated dance application“, today, TikTok active users in Indonesia has reached 99.1 million (as in 2022) and is second only to the United States for most users in the world.

Although 40% of TikTok users come from the 16-25 year age group, adoption growth among older age groups is consistently going up – proving the platform’s ability to serve digital consumption across generations.

The soaring growth of TikTok certainly cannot be separated from the shift in audience’s media consumption behaviour. Social media is now an inseparable part of everyday life. Consuming digital content has become a necessary part of our everyday lives from the moment we get up to the moment we go to sleep at night.

Given the omnipresent nature of social media, a brand new market has been created where technology firms, business organizations, and the audience itself can compete in making profits out of an increasingly scarce resource – our attention. Herbert A. Simon, an economy and psychology expert, explains this as “Attention Economics,” where he views attention as a “currency” or valuable resource due to the information overload resulting in the decrease of audience’s attention span.

As the dominant contender in this attention-grabbing arena, TikTok has become known for its primary feature, a short vertical video lasting only for 15 to 60 seconds. However, the nature of the video format is certainly not the only key to TikTok’s success.  More than that, there is a complex constellation of algorithms, user experience design (UX) and an abundance of content.

Deliberate practice of algorithm

The TikTok algorithm is a central key in the platform’s operations.  For You Page (FYP), TikTok’s  ‘mysterious’  algorithm-driven home page, offers limitless and personalised video consumption based on users’ personal preferences.

My FYP is getting too specific!”  – an expression commonly found in the comment section of TikTok videos, depicting users intrigue for discovering videos that they believe so accurately represent themselves.

Passive consumption through seamless design

TikTok user experience (UX) design, which is found to be effective in grabbing audience’s attention, then supports the formulation of the algorithm. TikTok’s front page view differs from those of other sites like Instagram and YouTube. Other platforms will welcome us with a variety of options for features and content, forcing us to make decisions; What YouTube videos do I want to see today? Should I see my friend’s Stories or Feed Posts first?

TikTok on the other hand, will instantly welcome us with random video content that has been selected by its algorithm – eliminating the decision-making process that we must go through when opening other platforms. The FYP design, which centres the user’s attention on a single clip in full-screen format, as well as the absence of apparent button displays, is also effective at capturing users’ attention. This elimination of decision-making process eventually enables passive consumption – luring users to spend hours scrolling through FYP pages.

Abundance of content choice

Previously recognizsd solely for dance and lip-sync videos geared towards teen audiences, TikTok has evolved into a significant source of entertainment and news.

With TikTok currently attempting to market itself as “more than a dance app,” the platform’s reputation as a “tacky” and “uneducated” teenage platform has gradually faded away. TikTok’s initial steps in repositioning their image can be seen from the #LearnInTikTok campaign in 2020. It is clear that TikTok made an effort to promote the educational value of the platform by inviting users to do more than just consume and share entertainment content; they were also encouraged to learn new things, develop new skills, and be creatively inspired.

According to TechCrunch, the report presented by Google even claims that 40% of the youthful audience in the US is now switching from Google search engines to TikTok when looking for information, particularly when it comes to references to lifestyle. It is safe to say that TikTok is today regarded as a ‘one-stop place’ that not only satisfies the demands for entertainment but also collective needs for information.

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Creating a distinctive identity through authentic self-expression

TikTok’s effort in repositioning its image have succeeded in encouraging audiences to not only consume, but also actively participate in content creation – resulting in massive quantity and variety of user-generated content circulating on the platform.

The question that arises is: if all are free to express themselves on TikTok and audience’s attention span is getting scarcer, how can one creator stand out among the others?

To be able to convert content creation to engagement, and even monetisation – distinctive images of identity through self-expression can be adopted in the creator’s effort to stand out among the crowd. It seems that even the enigmatic TikTok algorithm is in favor of creators who are willing to consistently display their authentic and distinctive identity.

We can take a look at Jill Shine, a TikTok creator who has recently become an internet sensation. Jill Shine, a home business owner who sells room curtains, has now become a popular figure in Indonesian media since her TikTok account went viral in the early 2022. 

She initially utilises TikTok as a means to promote her business. However, rather than taking a regular hard-selling approach and focusing solely on the products, Jill succeeded in creating a very distinctive and compelling public persona, eventually forging an emotional bond with her audiences.

Referring to herself as Kak Jill (or big sister Jill)she constructs her self-identity with precision and consistency. She often appears confidently with her unique appearance and distinctive ‘Kak Jill’ makeup. Her self-presence, including her unique voice intonation, face expressions, and intricate body gestures are consistently accentuated as part of her personal branding. This is then heightened with the verbal jargon that comes out repetitively when she promotes her curtain products in her TikTok videos.

Along with her increasing business sales, Jill Gorden now has more that 2 million followers on TikTok,

Making her a great example of how an audience may successfully consolidate creativity, authentic self-expression, and capitalise on the opportunity given by the TikTok algorithm.

In the end, the massive adoption of TikTok has not only contributed to the emergence of internet figures and popular culture references that are distinctive to Indonesian audiences, but also the opening of new arenas for business entities to interact and forge relationships with consumers.

What does it mean for brands?

We have dissected how the technical principles of TikTok have enabled the platform to become a leading source of entertainment and information in this age of attention economy. Then, the values of authenticity and consistency become principal for creators who aim to stand out in the midst of the hustle of the TikTok arena. This can finally be adapted by brands in emphasising their presence on the platform.

Brand personification eventually becomes important in this scenario. An excellent illustration of how to use a brand personification strategy is delivered by Duolingo – a technology company that provides language learning apps.

Through its TikTok account, the company gives a ‘face’ to the brand by featuring an owl mascot called Duo. Instead of selling their product services in a straightforward manner, Duolingo adopts the ‘language’ of its audience by producing ironic humorous content, capitalising on viral trends and engaging with customers directly in TikTok’s comment sections.

The Ministry of Health of the Republic of Indonesia also demonstrated an effective way to capitalise on authentic identity construction on TikTok. The entity has been successful in shedding the authoritative and ‘distant’ image associated with the governmental institution by involving members of Generation Z, displaying references to Japanese popular culture that are appealing to young audiences, and consistently adding humor to educational content about Covid-19.

Therefore, it can be said that the brand’s ‘conventional’ strategy of presenting a polished and curated self-image is now becoming less relevant. Especially in the context of TikTok which emphasises the value of entertainment and freedom of self-expression.

Consumers are growing weary of exposure to direct advertisements and brand promotion efforts in the social media sphere. In this case, brand personification that places emphasis on authenticity and relevance is becoming more significant. Brands are now expected to bring their identity to life and position themselves as part of the bigger TikTok collective – instead of just selling products.

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