The first time I opened up TikTok was an overwhelming experience, even for an app-savvy older millennial like me. I keep a spartan phone; I do not want to know when I receive emails, or texts, or anything, really. I clicked the blurry stylized T, or whatever it is, and slapped together a profile.
I’m officially old, I thought, but hip! I’m on TikTok! I’ll be TikTokking ‘til the cows come home.
I watched the setup behind a viral video filmed at a local mall; I watched a teenager pelt her dad with tennis balls; I saw a dog in a lobster costume. It was hard to imagine anyone could make money off of this, much less launch their brands into viral Valhalla with on-trend hashtags, dripping levels of snark, and the algorithmic alchemy to turn those LOLs into followers, followers into cash flow.
But succeed they do, and in vast numbers. TikTok is the most used social media channel from tweens to teens – 12- to 17-year-olds – according to a 2021 Forrester Research survey. In 2020, that title was held by Instagram, and Meta and Instagram owner Mark Zuckerberg did not mince words when asked about the nascent platform – he told investors and the public that he’d focus on the Reels function to directly compete with TikTok.
And anyone can do it. But they need to be a little smart, a little lucky, and as authentic as possible.
The Most Valuable Currency in 2023: Trust
“Size doesn’t matter on TikTok,” said Ryan Pamplin, CEO at BlendJet, in an interview with The Food Institute.
“You can have ten million followers and get no views, or ten followers and get millions of views. In other words, TikTok is the most level playing field in social media. You could be one TikTok video away from becoming the next viral sensation.”
Pamplin said that authenticity is key and that over-polished and “perfect” often won’t cut it. The perfect is the enemy of the good, and for brands on social media, probably a digital death knell.
“Find your niche and own it,” he said. “Your content needs to be really creative, original, and made for the platform. It needs to feel authentic. Trust is the currency of Gen Z, and they can see right through overly polished content.”
Authenticity on TikTok is exactly what helped make Dan-O’s Seasoning into the social juggernaut and 13,000-store product it is today. Dan Oliver is the founder, and after years of bringing seasoned chicken into the bar where he worked as a bartender, he decided it was time to do something different. He realized it wasn’t the chicken he wanted to share – it was the homemade seasoning he brought to coworkers, family, and friends. He had $8,000 saved; “I can start a business with $8,000,” he told The Food Institute in an exclusive interview.
From 2017 up to the pandemic in 2020, Dan-O’s Seasoning was a one-man show as Oliver traveled the country to state fairs, hunting shows, “to anywhere people could eat and sample the product.” That’s how he survived until COVID fell, and scrambling for a solution to move his product, he watched a Gary Vaynerchuck seminar on marketing. The topic: the next social media platform few had heard of at the time.
“Do Something Controversial”
Oliver had accounts on Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook, but needed to move the needle; in his own estimation, he needed $200 a day just to survive.
“I’d spend $150 on food ingredients, grab a 12-pack of beer, and make one video after another until the sun came up,” he recalled, “then came the crab cakes.”
Using one hand to cook and one hand to film, Oliver made crab cakes with his signature seasoning and posted to TikTok, where the Atlantic Coast crowd decided to troll him – you can’t make crab cakes without Old Bay seasoning!
He responded to almost every comment and coined one of several signature phrases: “LOL, well you don’t know till you DanO.”
@danosseasoning Crab cakes! Boom! #danosseasoning #crabcakes #fire #food #recipe #foryou ♬ original sound – Dan-O’s Seasoning
Within a few days, the video racked up over half a million views and sales jumped to almost $1,000 per day. So he decided to “hit ‘em with another.” And another. And another.
“Do something controversial,” Oliver told The Food Institute. If it’s authentic, if it’s unique – if it’s clearly fueled by passion – you may find your audience.
Pamplin agrees. “The magic of TikTok is that it very quickly learns your taste, and knows what you like better than you do, which creates an experience users can’t put down,” he continued. “TikTok is not based on followers, but on behind-the-scenes metrics like completion rate and number of loops. The algorithm tries to put accounts into a bucket along with an audience that likes that kind of content. Because of this the algorithm really favors redundancy, and when you deviate from the thing that got you into that bucket, your metrics tank, and so do your views. Even if you go back to your niche with future TikTok videos your views won’t recover right away, or potentially ever.”
The secret of success on TikTok is far from random, though maybe random isn’t the right word: perhaps deliberate. Deliberate videos of unique skill sets, hot takes, sizzling recipes – even spices and seasoning – can help introduce something the market has never seen before, reaching consumers in the most modern way possible and blending the lines between B2B and B2C marketing.
Everyone can follow a successful influencer or brand, after all, and it’s just one more click from there to their website (and to their saleable products and services).
How to Make Videos & Influence People
Oliver soon found a business partner to run the business part of Dan-O’s, leaving him the time to focus on the fun part – the cooking. Oliver still produces everything as the face of the business, though he now has a camera crew and features guests to help move the needle a little more. They shoot every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and the goal is to produce four videos per day.
“I’m lucky I love to cook because if I didn’t love cooking and sharing recipes, I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “I’m cooking for millions on TikTok.”
One year ago, Dan-O’s Seasoning was in 500 retail stores and grocers. Now it’s in over 13,000, and he employs a bevy of freelance influencers to help spread the word.
“When we do a massive launch, we increase the budget big time and might send out gift boxes to hundreds of influencers,” he said. “We’re starting influencer marketing for other brands, as we were one of the pioneers of that. You can open TikTok any day and you’ll find a Dan-O’s video that’s not me; brands will come to us because of our connections.”
Many Dan-O’s influencers are known quantities in the TikTokverse. In the #TokWorld. Whatever. With influencers such as jerkyking (506,000 followers), Fireman1231 (871,000 followers), and albert_cancook (11.2 million followers), Oliver doesn’t have to sweat every video and every would-be follower; he’s got others doing that work for him.
“We can thank TikTok influencers for their hand in creating word-of-mouth buzz,” said Christy Pyrz, chief marketing officer at Paradigm Peptides.
“The second an influencer speaks highly about a product on the social platform, it will likely sell out in a matter of days. Small businesses need to focus on their PR strategy and include product sendouts to these influencers. It takes one person to rave about your product, and the rest will come.”
Oliver employs an influencer manager and several others to handle all promotions, influencer video creation, and payout paperwork (fees are based on an internal algorithm mostly dictated by number of views per video).
“People may say I got lucky because of TikTok, but I was grinding for years prior,” Oliver recalled.
“TikTok was the opportunity and I maximized the opportunity. I was already struggling and doing the hard work. If I had known about it earlier, maybe the same thing would have happened – maybe not – but it’s the struggle that shows you who you are and helps you appreciate what you have and what you can do.”
And what you can do on the platform is limitless. It just takes a little time, a little patience, and the most valuable currency in the game: authenticity.