In a video, Austin Keithley slowly lowers a white car engine part into a tank of water.
It sinks through a thin layer of ink on the water’s surface and emerges covered in brightly colored design. Keithley then holds up the newly hydrodipped part while an electropop song plays in the background, and the video ends.
Within hours, that 37-second clip amassed millions of views on TikTok.
“Without social media, I would not have gotten to the point where I am now,” Keithley said.
Keithley, the owner of Keithley Kustomz & Liquid Graphics in Battle Creek, is one of many Michigan entrepreneurs who have leveraged TikTok to grow their businesses. The social media platform that hosts a variety of videos—from dance routines to comedy sketches and even life from war-torn Ukraine—can also be a powerful marketing tool.
One video from a Shelby Township Dairy Queen showing off a Jack & Jill sundae (soft serve ice cream with hot fudge and marshmallow sauce) has been viewed 36 million times. Schuler Books has nearly half a million people following their book recommendation videos. And an influencer’s post about Kookys N Cream netted the Lapeer cookie shop 600 new orders last year.
“The playbook has always been the same,” said Scott Cowley, a Western Michigan University professor who specializes in digital marketing. “You’re figuring out how do I hook somebody within the first few seconds and do something unique through this video channel that people are not going to find anywhere else.”
Keithley responded to his viral moment by posting more videos of the hydrographic process. In one, a white hard hat comes out of the water splashed in color and in another, an eagle figurine gets coated in American flags.
People then started mailing Keithley Kustomz car parts and video game controllers to be dipped. The experience opened Keithley’s eyes to how TikTok could expand his now four-year-old business.
“If you’re starting a business and you’re not using social media, I think it’s really going to hurt you,” he said.
Although social media marketing is not a new tactic, TikTok provides businesses the opportunity to gain attention quickly. As one of the fastest growing platforms with a billion users, TikTok’s For You Page can put posts from any user, regardless of their follower count, in front of many eyes.
“The pro for any company is that social media does allow you to reach a lot of people where they spend time already,” Cowley said.
An unlikely influencer
For Schuler Books, TikTok has led to big returns.
The independent bookshop in Grand Rapids and Okemos launched its TikTok when marketing assistant Hailey Ciesluk started posting book-themed videos in March 2021.
“We always try to be authentic,” said Alana Haley, Schuler Books marketing director. “We don’t ever try to be anyone that we’re not. We don’t just hop on a trend, we don’t dance on TikTok, we don’t use all of the sound bites that are trending. We basically just put out who we are and what we do every day.”
According to Cowley this approach is a key to TikTok success.
“If I had any advice for small brands, it would be to figure out what it is that you can uniquely provide people that not everybody else is doing,” he said. “And that you are willing to keep that up for an extended period of time.”
After months of steady growth, Schuler Books saw their consistency pay off.
A two-minute TikTok blew up in March of this year, garnering 17 million views. It shows four staff members hustling around the store, grabbing books off the shelves and describing why they wish they could read those titles for the first time.
As a result of that post, Haley said Schuler Books sold out of those titles “over and over again.” And the Michigan bookseller found itself in the unlikely position of influencing book sales for national retailers.
“They were all books that had been out for some time, and they sold them out nationwide,” Haley said. “They were sold out on Amazon. They sold out at major retailers. The publishers didn’t have any more to send.”
In addition to TikTok bringing in direct sales, Haley says the rise of “BookTok” has also brought more customers through the door. Schuler Books now displays books that are trending on TikTok at its two Michigan stores.
“It brings us joy everyday to make the content and put it out there,” Haley said.
How to make an ice cream cake
After graduating from college, Chelsea Mazzetti couldn’t find her groove.
She bounced around a few jobs but eventually landed on opening Modern Cone in St. Clair Shores four years ago.
The ice cream shop drew in customers through Instagram and Facebook, but Mazzetti didn’t see any return when she first started posting on TikTok. Then seemingly overnight, videos of her ice cream cakes took off and have since been shared to millions by Buzzfeed and Tasty.
“I think that social media is the only way pretty much to be successful as a new business because no one’s going to know about you,” Mazzetti said.
In one, viewed more than 4 million times, a Modern Cone staff member assembles a dessert by slicing a three-gallon tub of ice cream and topping it with cake. A sequel video shows the cake being decorated with pink soft serve ice cream, cheesecake bites and buttercream frosting.
As a small business owner, Mazzetti says it can be tricky juggling multiple social media platforms.
But TikTok demands the most.
“They want to see you consistently post. If you don’t post, you’re not relevant,” she said. “I have to prioritize today: do I want to make stuff for the store, or do I want to film a YouTube video or do I want to make a TikTok.”
While social media helps build brand awareness, Cowley warns about banking entrepreneurs on a big TikTok moment to gain customers. Businesses should first focus on improving their website, cultivating positive online reviews and building an email marketing list.
“I could see companies getting too caught up in trying to be cool on TikTok that they actually end up just putting a lot of time into something that will ultimately not deliver any revenue,” he said.
TikTok ‘saved our business’
Jessica Thompson planned to open her zero-waste shop Bee Joyful in April 2020.
But COVID-19 brought her plans to a halt.
Saddled with bills, long days and a store full of merchandise, Thompson started making informational TikToks about how to cut down on waste. Those videos quickly turned into sales.
“For the first three months, TikTok actually saved our business,” she said. “The sales we got from TikTok during those three months paid our rent, our utilities and some of the bills that were coming in on products that we had purchased.”
Related: Kalamazoo’s zero-waste shop expanding to second location in Ann Arbor area
Thompson doesn’t focus on pushing merchandise on TikTok.
Rather, the mom of five uses the platform to “educate, encourage and inspire” her 60,000 followers. In one post, Thompson applies a SpongeBob audio clip to show how bulk refilling works. A customer walks in the door while Thompson grabs a reusable jar, puts it on a scale and pumps it full of shampoo.
“Creating that genuine spirit, being very authentic and not selling things, people want to buy from you,” she said.
When Bee Joyful finally opened in July 2020, customers drove from all over the Midwest to visit the shop they saw on TikTok. Thompson said one family road tripping from Washington to Maine even detoured to Kalamazoo to stop by.
“When people say, ‘oh TikTok is just a dancing app,’ I like to very quickly correct them that it’s an amazing platform,” Thompson said. “It’s an amazing way to reach people and build community.”
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