What TikTok can teach us about collaboration

From passive to active consumersim

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August 25, 2022
”We put the customer at the centre of our business”.

This is quite possibly the most overused and underdelivered corporate phrase about. What it usually means is that a business needs to ensure they listen to what their customers want, in case it turns out not to be them.

For most businesses the customer is simply an end-point in a customer journey, the point where we get paid for all the R&D, production, supply chain and retailing that has gone before. They are not the centre of anything, they are the terminus.

We produce, they consume

Despite what all the advances in technology have given us in terms of connectivity and immediacy, there is still very much an US and THEM attitude in the provision of product and service. Companies produce, market and push. Consumers browse, buy and consume. This is the model that exploded into being post WWII as the system churned out affordable-for-all quality product and society at large was told their happiness rested in the acquisition of material goods.

But something has started to shift. This passive model of consumerism, where the consumer is just that – someone who consumes, is beginning to crumble. The lines between producer and consumer are blurring and Collaboration is becoming a key success value in modern consumer culture. We are moving from Passive to Active Consumerism, and by active consumerism I do not just mean sustainability or eco agendas. Active Consumerism is where the consumer plays an active role in the value chain, beyond the simple consumption of the product.

Dance Monkey, Dance

I have become very interested in the social and anthropological behaviours around the TikTok platform. I had the honour of keynoting their Asia Pacific conference toward the end of 2021, and leading up to that, I had spent some time reflecting on why the platform was the fastest growing social media app globally.

Firstly, let’s take the TikTok dance virals. Now internet virals have existed for a long time. There is some debate about which one has the honour of being the first with scale. Having earlier seen the 1992 Jesus v Frosty ‘Spirit of Christmas’ animated short movie on bootleg video, 3 years later in 1995, Fox executive Brian Graden paid then college students Trey Parker & Matt Stone $1000 to make an animated movie he could email to friends for Christmas. These were the first animated shorts that would later become the hit TV series Southpark. It was sent out to 80 of his friends but quickly shared on email servers everywhere. In 1999, Graden’s ‘Jesus v Santa’ gained even more cultural capital when an EA employee hid an uncensored AVI version on the Tiger Woods PlayStation game disk, requiring a 100,000-unit recall.  But that AVI version was shareable and again it found its way onto emails.

For Southpark fans, that link is below. Caution – Southpark humour is crass, racist, xenophobic and not for everyone. You have been warned.

Another contender for the first video/meme viral on the emerging internet is the 1996 ‘Dancing Baby’, created as a sample source file for 3D animation software by Character Studio.

Finally, there is the 1997 ‘Bad Day’ the infamous clip of a seemingly disgruntled employee smashing his desktop to pieces in his cubicle. It is actually a staged sample video, shot by employees at Durango to showcase their new digital video surveillance system. It was handed out on CDs at trade shows and quickly found its way around the world on email due to its compact size.

25 years later, the internet viral is a well-established area of social and cyber behaviouralist study. But to consume a video is still just that, a consumption moment, passive. Attaching and sharing videos on email gave way to sharing platforms such as YouTube, and these ‘consumption’ moments multiplied.  While YouTube catalysed mass creation (anyone can shoot and upload and own their own channel), the majority of YouTube interactions remained consumption moments.

Tune In, Take Part

As social media evolved, so too did the viral concept, and we began to see the shift from passive to active. The 2014 Ice Bucket Challenge remains a very good example of the power of the network. You ‘consumed’ a video of a friend completing the challenge, they then nominated you, and you had 24 hours to complete and post on your own social media feed.  The chain expanded; you took part in the process beyond simple consumption. Virals had begun to be somewhat collaborative.

ice bucket challenge in 2014

Flash forward to 2020 and the global lockdown and with it the TikTok dance crazes exploded. Bored at home, craving connection and creativity, hundreds of thousands were copying and posting dances such as Renegade, Like That or Say So (if you don’t know what I’m talking about there, get with the programme and go bust some moves!).

What was once owned by Gen Z and Gen Alpha begun to creep out to society as a whole. Mums, Dads and crazy Uncles were all at it. Of course, not everyone does it well (if you’d like to lose 3 minutes of your life watching TikTok bloopers and dance fails, click here 😉)

But these viral challenges are collaborative. This is the hive mind at work. Well maybe more at play. But the collaborative nature of these virals are very different from the passive consumption models of old. This is our insight into the collaborative nature of the next generation of consumers. And then came DUETS.

You Produce, I Build

I use the DUET feature on TikTok to truly explain the nature of collaboration in society today. DUETS are where you take one person’s TikTok post and add your own content, either side-by-side or consecutively. What starts out as one post morphs into something quite different. Originally designed as a music sing-a-long feature (and still very popular as that), they spawn highly creative and unusual TikTok collaborative chains.

Here is one of my favourites, that starts off as a simple ‘Num Num’ Cat sound. One contributor lays down a beat on Duet, another follows. One by one other musicians lay down Duet tracks as the piece gains viral presence, finishing with lyrics and an amazing singing track. This is a perfect example of what can happen when creativity meets collaboration inside an unrestricted network. At some point, the original beginning is lost and the ‘product’ becomes a thing of beauty, a circle, with no real star or sole producer. You need to watch these 2 minutes to truly understand this:

If you enjoyed that (of course you did, how could you not?), then watch a few minutes of another TikTok chain. Here contributors keep parodying around the edges. What is amazing is that something is once again produced from nothing.

Now while these are all amazing (and yes, you can now lose half-a-day falling down the rabbit hole of watching TikTok chains), the point is this. Gone are the days of us and them, of one producer and a consumer. Gone is the passive consumer. Today’s consumer expects to collaborate.

Let’s go back to the DUET metaphor and take it literally. 5 years ago, a music artist could release their video on YouTube or Vevo to be consumed. It was a one-way street, us and them, from the passive consumerist model.  They recorded it and we watched it. If it was good, we shared it within our peer networks. Today, that same artist can put out a TikTok music video where the fan gets to harmonise on the song, basically gets to star in the video. They can become part of the product, not just the consumer.

This changes everything. The sooner we realise that the consumer wants to play a bigger role in the process, the sooner we can arrive at these collaboration moments. We have been playing around the edges of this in consumer goods for a while. Consumers get to come up with and vote for new Lays chip flavours. We get our name written on the Coke can. You can design your own KitKat, from ingredients to wrapper.

But this isn’t about some clever marketing collaborative trick. This is about understanding that Customer Centricity is about putting the customer at the centre of everything. Asking yourself tough questions as to how you can invite the customer in to all aspects of the business – R&D, marketing, planning, production, compliance. How can we make the customer feel they belong to the brand and not just as a ‘user’? Collaboration is about being part of a team, having a shared objective. Do our customers feel that from us?

If the answer to some of those questions above is no, then you have some work to do. Time to get your TikTok dancing shoes on and collaborate. Going it solo is so last season.

The content above is drawn from Ken’s new speech ‘Love is a Verb’ which focuses on what brands need to action to build deep and meaningful customer lifetime value relationships.

Book the speech now, with live on-stage or virtually, for your next event.

Ken Hughes is now considered one of the World’s leading speakers on the subject of customer experience, consumer values, organizational change, leadership and agility. His virtual and live in-person keynotes are famous for their high-energy, thought-provoking content as well as their impactful and inspiring delivery.

He is also a failed TikTok dance sensation.

This article first appeared on Ken's blog, read that and more here

Ken Hughes
Ken Hughes
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August 25, 2022