The post-Covid era seems to be heralding a travel boom in many parts of the world, and with it a boom in the use of social media such as TikTok for travel marketing. There are a number of reasons why travel companies are keen to team up with TikTok.
Firstly, it has enormous reach. Since 2017 the number of users has grown more than fourteenfold, reaching over 1 billion in 2021.
TikTok users 2017-2021
TikTok also seems capable of providing high levels of engagement. TikTok content usually consists of snappy videos, using effects, filters, on-screen captions and music, and using hashtags and categorisation to get discovered by users. Videos are up to 60 seconds long, usually containing very fast-paced clips. These short clips can go viral, increasing user engagement and generating high levels of content interaction. The user feed (For You page), is based on the interests of the individual users, which is picked up by TikTok’s algorithm, increasing relevance for users.
Older platforms such as Meta and YouTube have also noted a ‘video pivot’, which is luring users towards animated content. The core audience for TikTok is also relatively young, with 40% in the Gen Z category that is a key target for advertisers and increasingly for travel suppliers. The importance of TikTok among younger audiences is underlined by a recent Ofcom report, which shows that TikTok has now become a major source of news for the under 25s. The reach of TikTok as a news medium has now reached 28% among the under 16s, and TikTok saw the largest increase in use of any news source between 2020 and 2022. Increased use of social media such as TikTok also increases the role of friends and influencers in content consumption. Almost 3 in 5 TikTok users ‘see videos about news stories’ from friends/people they follow.
TiKTok is owned by the Chinese company, Bytedance, who developed the video-sharing social network app called in 2016. Douyin still exists separately in China, while the international version of was dubbed TikTok when it was released in 2017. This means that TikTok still has an enormous following in China, with 600 million daily users. This is also one of the reasons that TikTok is popular with travel brands – they are also keen to get a foothold in the Chinese market. In fact, nearly 80% of TikTok revenues are generated from China.
Many tourism organisations are therefore jumping on the TikTok bandwagon, including Visit Scotland, Qatar Tourism, Tourism New Zealand and Ryanair. One of the attractions of TikTok for these advertisers is the relatively young age profile of TikTok users. Roughly 43% of TikTok's global audience is between 18 and 24 years old. 32% of TikTok users are aged between 25 and 34. Only 3.4% of TikTok audience is older than 55. Travel marketeers aiming to target Gen z are therefore particularly keen to use TikTok to get to younger (potential) travellers.
What makes a good TikTok travel video? It seems that music, emotion and humour are the biggest draws. We asked TRAM’s social media curator to select some of her favourite TikTok videos and explain why these resonate with her. First up was Ryanair, which put a face to its planes and adopted a humorous take on low cost flying.
Qatar Airways plays to the relatively high end youth market with its student member club video, highlighting advantages including extra baggage allowance, free Wi-Fi and date flexibility.
Easyjet is slightly less materialistic in claiming travel is a lifestyle and a form of ‘self-care’: “When somebody asks you why you travel so much – it’s called self-care. Look it up.” We did actually, and we found that the World Health Organization defines self-care is "the ability of individuals, families, and communities to promote health, prevent disease, maintain health, and to cope with illness and disability with or without the support of a healthcare provider." Obviously not quite what Easyjet had in mind…..
Easyjet also has what they call a 'relatable video’, which uses the refrain from Elton John’s Rocketman “I think it’s gonna be a long long time” (not the obvious Gen z music choice) with the overlay: “When you’ve been in the air 5 minutes and someone asks when we are landing”. This video generated a lot of responses along the lines of ‘I love Easy Jet’ or ‘I hate Easy Jet’, probably depending on the amount of delay on their previous flight. Among the more creative responses was: “flight got cancelled cos they were filming tiktoks”. Clearly the TikTok audience has also noticed how much travel companies are using the medium.
The final selection was Spanish rail operator Renfe’s video showcasing the city of Zaragoza. In common with many destination videos, this features a series of highlights of the city, in a rapid montage. The music is a remix of the deep-house track “Roses” by Guayanese-American rapper Saint Jhn, which is clearly more important than the images of Zaragoza, as one viewer pointed out: “random video but remember when we were obsessed with this song?”
This personal selection of favourite TikTok travel content already highlights some of the basic principles of TikTok marketing. Make sure you have good, catchy, memorable music. Use humour wherever possible, and don’t be afraid of self-deprecation. Most videos also feature people, whether customers or staff, increasing the ‘relatability’ of the content.
TikTok relies heavily hashtags, which allows the algorithm understand the content of videos, and therefore categorise it and identify the target audience it would interest. TikTok advertisers often run hashtag challenge campaigns, in many cases linked to influencers for extra impact.
One interesting example of TikTok tourism marketing is Visit Scotland’s Keep Scotland Unspoiled campaign, which was targeted at irresponsible visitor behaviour in the countryside. As with many such campaigns, it was targeted at younger visitors, who were perceived to be one of the main culprits of bad countryside behaviour. The campaign offered advice about how to enjoy Scotland safely and responsibly focusing on issues of water safety, wildlife disturbance and wild camping. They also created a visitor promise to inspire people about how to #respectprotectenjoy Scotland. They used TikTok to reach younger audiences, securing a reach of 570,000 users. This was combined with around two million impressions on Facebook, and a series of adverts on local radio.
In line with the growing role of local communities in the development of travel experiences, TikTok is also being used by some locals as a means of bypassing the travel industry and communicating directly with potential visitors. A recent paper by Senyao and Ha (2022) in the Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change reports on the use of TikTok by villagers in Tibet, who are posting videos to draw attention to themselves:
I can post videos of our village on Tik Tok to let more people know my hometown and attract more tourists.
To what extent do you think visitors are attracted by videos like those you post?
At least it attracts more tourists than government propaganda. We were so proud if tourists mentioned that they were attracted here by the vlogs published on Tik Tok. Also, I think that we have the responsibility to use [social media] applications to let tourists know the real Tunda. Sometimes the government’s propaganda will be exaggerated. If so, Tourists will be disappointed. But what we attract are tourists who are really interested in us.
Tunda may seem relatively remote, but Senyao and Ha found that over 73% of villagers were using TikTok for more than one hour per day. TikTok therefore has potential as a marketing tool not just for major travel companies, but for a wide range of commercial and social actors.
The accessibility of TikTok and its high reach with young audiences make it a particularly attractive medium. However, as with other social media companies, TikTok faces potential political vulnerability. For example, Donald Trump threatened to ban TikTok in the United States in 2020 unless Bytedance let an American company buy TikTok in the US. TikTok was also banned by the Indian government in 2020 due to a border clash between India and China. TikTok also still has to earn a reputation as a trusted source of information. In terms of news content, Ofcom found that TikTok was only trusted by 30% of UK users, compared with 80% for BBC News.
Senyao, S., & Ha, S. (2022). How social media influences resident participation in rural tourism development: a case study of Tunda in Tibet. Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change, 20(3), 386-405.