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TikTok’s organic reach has been a boon for small business owners. The app has fueled the ability of users to discover niche products, with #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt boasting more than 19.5 billion views. Even though many brands can’t necessarily pinpoint exactly why a video goes viral, there are some strategies that can help.
TikTok has taken note of the small businesses utilizing its platform to build their consumer base. In 2020, TikTok provided small businesses with $100 million in ad credits. It also started a series of 20 workshops that provide small business owners with the tools and tactics to grow their brand on TikTok. A more recent program launched this year, called “Follow Me,” gives small businesses six weeks of emails on how to set up a TikTok business account and run the first campaign, and provides advice from other small and medium business owners.
Still, many businesses get their start on TikTok as an experiment or because they can’t afford paid media on other platforms. After interviewing dozens of small businesses, we take a look at the top five strategies they use to land on your “For You Page”.
With TikTok fueled by music and audio trends, choosing the right sounds can be a boost to small business videos. Even if the video is not of your staff doing the latest TikTok dance, setting a TikTok to popular audio can surface it faster.
Music is such an important driver of views on TikTok, that the same video set to different sounds can often perform vastly different from one another. Shea Ehresman, the artist behind Made by Shea, which makes hand-made earrings from polymer clay, found that a certain TikTok tune helped catapult one of her videos showing her making her earrings. That video, set to “Love You So” by Big Khan and BBQ Show, garnered over 7 million views, while another, very similar post got just over 1 million views when set to “That’s What I Want” by Lil Nas X.
“Most of my content is recycled, so sometimes I post the same kind of video, but with different music. They still did really well,” Ehresman said. “That’s what happened to two of my viral videos. I think they just had the right sound.”
Kaly Owens, the owner and creator of String Art by Kaly, posted a video in January of her creating a string art piece of a cactus set to the “Glee” version of “River Deep, Mountain High.” The video has over 8 million views, with one viewer commenting, “Just like for the song, I miss Naya Rivera,” and another writing, “glee” with several smiley-heart emojis.
The music doesn’t always even have to be audible to make an impact. The Marshmallow Co., which makes gourmet marshmallows, made a video showing how they make their co-owner’s favorite flavor—rainbow bubblegum. The video was set to a popular Frank Ocean song, but one trick is to turn the volume of the song down very low, so that viewers can hear the video being narrated. Even though viewers can’t hear the song, this tactic can help ride trending audio. The hack helped the video garner over 1.3 million views.
The Red Chickz, a hot chicken restaurant in Los Angeles, leans heavily on hip hop and rap music to set the brand’s tone. All of the videos feature menu items in various forms—chicken fingers, sandwiches, chicken and waffles—and viewers let it be known when they like a video’s music. Comments in a recent TikTok to PGF Nuk’s “Waddup” included, “The song bruh” with a laughing cat and fire emoji, and “the song tho” with two dancer emojis.
TikTok users seem to love going behind the scenes of small businesses, with posts revealing how a best-seller gets made to what goes into creating the design. Even videos of orders being packaged tend to perform well on the platform and ultimately even end up influencing business operations.
Hannah Perry is the owner of Floof Cotton Candy, which is known for its signature cotton candy cakes. Through TikTok, she learned that she could also sell the hardened sugar that remained on the side of her cotton candy maker. This realization came after she posted a video detailing how she cleans the candy maker and received multiple comments requesting to try the hardened sugar Perry removed from the cotton candy machine. She sold 150 bags of the so-called “unicorn bacon” the first day it was released.
Ilona Lin of stationary business Milkteanco has found success in showcasing the tools she uses to run her small business. Lin made a video comparing a key piece of equipment for her stickers—a cutter. Lin was unhappy with her Cricut machine, which still wasn’t cutting properly after multiple calibrations. She made a video comparing the Cricut machine to her new Cameo machine. Despite being a niche video, the TikTok went viral with over a million views for showing the differences and why she ultimately went with Cameo. She posted another recent video about unboxing her new printer that got over 13,000 views.
TikTok users also seem to like watching videos about business updates, be it moving offices, or taking a business risk. Elyse Burns, the artist and owner of Elyse Breanne Designs, made a video highlighting a recent risk she took in ordering a shipment of planners three times larger than her usual order. The video got 2.6 million views. Burns has also been honest about what it’s like being a small business that goes viral on TikTok, and how it can be stressful to keep up with inventory and get orders out on time.
Making video series is another way to find video styles that customers like to see. To test if viewers like their video content, brands sometimes ask them to, “Like for a part two,” or to let them know in the comments if they would like a follow-up video. This can be a way to have video content driven by viewers.
This was the case for the Sani sisters, who make South Asian-inspired clothing like saris and pajamas. Ritika Shamdasani, one of the co-founders, made a video showing off what pieces she would wear to an Indian wedding. Fans loved it, and the series became a great way to promote multiple saris.
Stephanie Zheng, owner of skincare brand Mount Lai, focuses on gua sha techniques, a form of facial massage that uses a tool to lift and smooth skin. Zheng made a TikTok series called Gua Sha 101 to show customers how to hold and use tools, and proper skincare prep. One video focusing on gua sha techniques for the jawline has reached 1.5 million views.
Other companies have leaned into more informational series. Flags for Good, which makes flags and donates a portion of all sales to a relevant charity, is run by Michael Green, a vexillologist, which is a person who studies flags. Green has made a series that redesigns state flags to make them more design-friendly or more representative of the state. While they aren’t necessarily the top selling items, the educational component keeps viewers interested, with many asking to have their state flag redone.
Most small businesses have a video explaining how they started their company. These are often some of the best-performing TikToks because customers and brands love to see the story behind a small business.
Mount Lai was born from Zheng seeing her grandmother’s skincare routine. The video, which has been viewed 2 million times, starts with Zheng thanking customers who commented on celebrity gua sha videos recommending Mount Lai. She then explains why the brand was inspired by her grandmother, and what it’s been like growing a small business. Zheng eventually quit her full-time job to focus on Mount Lai.
Contour Cube owner Sarah Forrai made a “how I started” TikTok, using a popular audio and text on the screen, to depict her business growth. Forrai wanted a better way to hold ice cubes for her ice facials, so she created her first prototype in December 2020. Forrai is animated in the quick-cut video, which has 2.4 million views. She has since added new colors and created a mini-version (which also went viral at 1.7 million views.)
Elyse Burns, the artist and owner of Elyse Breanne Designs, made videos explaining why she was going to keep up her small business despite recently graduating from law school. During her second year of law school, Burns realized she would be focusing on her business full-time, rather than going to a traditional law firm. She’s also addressed misconceptions around the price of law school and pursuing a different career; that video reached 5 million views.
Small businesses can find success on TikTok with videos that highlight both the highpoints and the lows. There are plenty of viral videos that come from revealing the more frustrating moments. For Burns and Lin, this can mean sharing when products come in with defects. Both small businesses have received shipments of orders that had misprints, residual glue, or were off-center. While they didn’t want to sell them at full price, they also didn’t want to waste the product. They ended up offering to sell them at a discount, and some customers commented they would never have been able to tell there were flaws.
Jazeena Baez, the founder of body treatment candle company Jazeena, even went on TikTok to explain why being featured on “The Today Show” may not be that good for business. The segment would be a minute and a half of airtime and would have required Jazeena to have 3,000 candles ready to go. After breaking down the cost of labor, the number of units that had to be sold, and the show’s cut, Baez was only looking at a little over $2,000 in profit.
Sometimes showing what doesn’t work can also garner attention. Flags for Good’s Green decided to make a video that showed their worst-selling flags. Even after two years of business, the intersex flag, Pride flags with city airport codes, and a redesign of the Okalhoma state flag aren’t flying off the shelves. But Green says they still keep them, just in case.
Testing out these strategies are just a few ways to help small businesses find what resonates with their audience. Part of TikTok’s power is quick feedback, which can help owners hone in on what works. The majority of businesses Ad Age spoke to said that some of their quickest-made, “thrown together” videos tended to do well. Posting the less-glamorous, behind-the-scenes moment with the latest trending audio could be what makes a splash.
In this article:
Erika Wheless is a technology reporter covering social media platforms, influencers, and esports. She was previously the e-commerce reporter for Digiday, and is a graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.