Perhaps it all really started in 2019, when the genre-defying song “Old Town Road” song went viral on the app and propelled rapper Lil Nas X to fame. The 20-year-old Atlanta musician went from college dropout to record-breaking superstar virtually overnight. Dozens of independent artists have been signed to major labels thanks to their popularity on TikTok, and five of the app’s most popular songs reached the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2020.

TikTok isn’t just disrupting the music industry. It’s transforming the role that sound plays in our daily lives. This might come as a surprise if you’re not one of the 689 million people who regularly use the app. To most Americans over 40 years old, it’s just another social media platform. If you’ve spent time on it, you’ve probably realised that it’s something different entirely.

TikTok places audio front and center

While older generations of social media platforms were built to facilitate communication through imagery and text, TikTok places audio front and center. Pull out your phone to scroll through the app’s For You page, and you’ll notice that every video includes either TikTok sounds or original audio. If you scroll and hear a particular sound twice, it’s likely because it’s trending. And if a song is trending on TikTok, you’ll probably hear it on the radio, TV, and other social channels.

TikTok isn’t wholly unique. Many people will notice its resemblance to Vine, one of the first apps to feature short, user-generated videos in a vertical-scrolling interface. But what defines TikTok the most is its emphasis on sound, which has helped make it one of the fastest-growing apps in the world.

Unsurprisingly, other social media channels are trying to replicate TikTok’s recipe for success. In August 2020, Instagram introduced its own video-sharing feature called Reels. This addition lets users create, share, and discover short video clips with audio and visual effects. Recent updates allow users to save their favorite sounds, share collections of Reels with a specific audio sample, and search for sounds and music — features designed to help Instagram compete against TikTok.

What does all of this mean for you as a marketing or advertising professional? In short, audio is the next big thing. If you want to pull ahead of competitors and prepare for the future, then you need to master TikTok and Reels.

WTF is a sonic brand?

It’s the sounds that convey your company’s tone and personality. When your sonic branding is unified and refined, you’ll create a familiar audio landscape that listeners associate with your company. A sonic brand includes four principal elements: voice, music, sound effects, and a sonic logo. At least one of these four elements should be present in all marketing materials, including your TikTok and Reels videos, TV and radio commercials, interactive voice response system, in-store channels, and website.

On a more granular level, each of these four primary elements consists of unique attributes that help distinguish your sonic brand from others. For example, your brand voice could be broken down by gender, age range, accent, and delivery style (e.g., sincere, sarcastic, or witty). The music that reflects your sonic brand could evoke a wide range of feelings in listeners depending on its genre, tempo, and scale. A song played in a major key, for instance, would typically sound more upbeat and positive than a song played in a minor key, which might sound melancholic or ominous. These are all artistic choices that must be made intentionally to catch people’s attention — especially on TikTok and Reels.

The audio experience should be carefully considered during the creation of social media videos, podcast episodes, and any other content that involves sound. Just as professional photos stand out for their use of color, space, and symmetry, creative audio captures listeners’ attention and makes a lasting, positive impression. If you’re using cheesy stock songs and insincere voice overs, then you’re doing your listeners — and your content — a disservice. TikTok users will be especially quick to scroll past branded content that feels inauthentic or forced.

The role of sonic branding

Advertisements are thoughtfully ideated and crafted, incorporating the latest in digital and print design, animation, typography, special effects, and more. However, a lot of these efforts are lost on audiences. Modern consumers are constantly bombarded with brand messages, so they don’t have time or attention to spare for content that doesn’t interest them. In fact, a recent study revealed that 86% of people experience visual “banner blindness.” If you want to reach audiences, you’ll have to stimulate a different sense: sound. But before you start, you’ll need to work on your sonic branding.

Exploring each social media channel

It would be a mistake to assume that the same tactics that work on other social media platforms will work on TikTok and Reels. Instead, be patient and take time to get acquainted with each channel’s features and user behaviors. If you’re going to use TikTok and Reels as branding tools, you’ll want to research and understand how your potential audiences use them.

Explore the latest challenges, which encourage users to do things like perform choreographed dance routines, prank their friends, and throw cheese at babies. (Clearly, not every challenge is going to be right for your brand.) Get to know influencers favored by your audiences and consider partnerships that will allow you to tap into their followers organically. Collaborating with these creators will lend you credibility, make you easier to find on the platform, and give you the opportunity to learn more about the people you want to reach.

When you do finally dive into TikTok and Reels, make sure people can recognise you. This starts with your sonic logo (aka the unique phrase, jingle, song, or other noise associated with your brand). As a best practice, consider including it in all forms of media that have an audio component. This will help you stand out from the endless stream of content on all channels and mediums, including TikTok and Reels.

Of course, you won’t always use or rely on the same sounds to engage audiences. A five-second sonic logo would take up a valuable chunk of short-form video content, after all. This is where other sonic branding elements come into play, like music and voice over. Some TikToks and Reels trends feature songs as the only auditory content while people dance or point to text that appears on the screen. Users might be reading the words and watching the video, but it’s their sense of sound that’s being primarily stimulated.

If you’re showcasing a product in a video, consider the sounds associated with it and whether they might serve as a sort of audio anchor that will draw listeners into your message. Companies like Apple and Mastercard have included various product sounds in a wide range of media with great success, making ringtones and other effects synonymous with their brand identities. As a marketer on TikTok and Reels, your audio selections will play a major role in shaping your brand identity, so make sure to learn the basics before you get started.

Comparing TikTok and Instagram Reels

When thinking about your approach to sonic branding on TikTok and Reels, there are several platform nuances to consider:

  • Length. Natively recorded videos on TikTok can be up to 60 seconds long, and videos using imported audio can be longer. In contrast, videos on Reels are limited to 30 seconds. In the marketing world, losing those 30 seconds can make a big difference. On Reels, you’ll need to think carefully about which audio elements you want to include before you create content.
  • Music. Currently, business profiles can’t use Instagram’s music feature on Reels. If you want to share a Reel with music, you’ll have to create and edit it yourself. On TikTok, you can access the platform’s entire sound library and incorporate trending original sounds into your videos. And if users want to save your videos to share or watch later, the music is saved with them. That’s not the case on Instagram, where Reels saved to your camera roll only include the video without the music.
  • Editing. There are numerous tools and editing features available on TikTok, including fun effects, templates, and filters. Moreover, the platform offers voice effects and voice-over tools that you can use to further customise your audio. On Reels, the editing interface is more limited; you can still record a voice over, but you won’t be able to add any special effects.
  • Paid Advertising. For companies, the goal is to create content that’s not only discoverable but also marketable. Creating a well-known sonic brand depends heavily on outbound tactics like paid advertising. TikTok offers several options for advertisers, including in-feed ads, branded hashtag challenges, branded effects, and more. Until Instagram decides otherwise, companies on the platform can’t roll out any paid ads on Reels. Instead, you should consider working with creators and influencers on Instagram Reels to reach more users.
  • Demographics. Despite their similarities, the user demographics on TikTok and Reels aren’t identical. TikTok users tend to skew younger, which means you’ll want to make decisions about music and other audio elements with a Generation Z audience in mind. On Instagram, your content and sonic branding should relate to Millennials.

Three audio strategies to use

If you’ve been avoiding TikTok and Reels until now, it’s time to change your tune. These channels present amazing opportunities for marketers who know how to use them, and many brands are already capitalising on them. Here’s how you can do the same:

  • See what’s popular. On TikTok, you can click the audio icon at the bottom right corner of the screen to see how many videos have been created for a specific sound or song. On Reels, click the music icon on the left side of the Reels creation screen to see what’s trending. Start testing out new sounds and making an inventory. Typically, using a sound that 500,000 other videos use will get more traction than one that only shows up in 2,000 videos.

    One brand that has capitalised on social media audio trends is Ocean Spray. After TikTok user Nathan Apodaca posted a viral video of himself skateboarding to work while drinking the juice and singing a rendition of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” Fleetwood Mac experienced its best streaming week in history. Ocean Spray jumped on the trend by responding with a number of marketing stunts leveraging the platform, ultimately reaching millions of users and sending its stock skyrocketing.
  • Create trends. Trends move especially fast on TikTok, but that’s part of the app’s appeal. It’s possible to start one yourself if you’ve got a catchy enough idea. You might not get 500,000 people using your unique sound or music, but any traction is a win when you’re first starting. Peruse each channel’s current trends and think about what you could create that could possibly go viral.

    The original song “Butter Gloss Pop” by NYX Cosmetics garnered plenty of attention when used in the company’s social media campaign. The makeup company challenged consumers to apply its new product while playing the song for a chance to win $1,200 in cosmetics. If you have the resources, consider producing your own sounds or music. This will be especially valuable on Reels, where Instagram encourages users to stop recycling TikToks and create unique content.
  • Be inclusive. While audio is becoming increasingly important in branded content, it’s critical to keep your entire audience in mind. By adding closed captions to your videos, you can make them more accessible to people who are deaf or hard of hearing. You can naturally do this by tapping into trends that only use text, images, and music.

    Adding captions on TikTok is relatively straightforward, and it will help with accessibility as well as engagement. On Instagram, you can use threads. The in-app captioning function will produce text automatically while you’re shooting your video.

Marketing on TikTok, Reels, and other emerging platforms is going to come with a learning curve as you get to know each platform’s features and audiences. But if you can develop a strong sonic brand and emphasise audio, you’ll be prepared for the future of social media marketing. Carefully craft and select your voice-over, music, sounds, and sonic logo. After all, the world is listening.

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