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Scrolling for insights: Communication researchers examine TikTok behavior

Two professors from the College of Communication are exploring advertising strategies and user habits

Silhouette of a person holding a phone and scrolling with a finger
(Charday Penn/iStock)

The viral short-video app TikTok has amassed tens of millions of users in the United States. With the exploding popularity, advertisers are following. The app is believed to have surpassed Snapchat and Twitter in annual advertising revenue, according to reporting from the New York Times.

Content on TikTok that is authentic and personalized leads to more engagement, either through shares or purchases, according to research from two DePaul University faculty in the College of Communication. Shu-Chuan (Kelly) Chu and Tao (Tony) Deng are exploring how advertisers and users behave on the platform, and they are particularly interested in what kind of content performs well and why.

"We hope the findings of our study will offer insights that will be useful for designing and implementing effective viral campaigns on TikTok," Chu says.

Their work could also contribute to policymaking, particularly as lawmakers look closely at how young people use the platform.

"Gen Z is a special group of consumers that share vastly different internet-use behaviors than the earlier generations," Deng says.

In this Q&A, Chu and Deng discuss findings from their paper, "The impact of personalization on viral behavior intentions on TikTok: The role of perceived creativity, authenticity, and need for uniqueness," published in the Journal of Marketing Communications, as well as their upcoming research.

Your paper examined the type of content that performed well on TikTok, which could help companies that want to advertise on the platform. What were your most significant findings?

Headshot of Kelly Chu
Shu-Chuan (Kelly) Chu is a professor of public relations and advertising and professional communication, in the College of Communication.

Deng: Our model predicts that personalizing TikTok brand content can lead to significant increase​​s in viral-sharing behavior and in likelihood of purchasing. Secondly, if the personalized brand content were perceived as authentic and creative, it would lead to an even larger effect for the sharing intention and purchase intention.

Chu: This finding reflects how TikTok is different from other social platforms in that it has become a creative community that allows young consumers to meet their needs for fame-seeking, self-expression and social recognition.

When I think of studying TikTok, I imagine you watching hours of videos. How did you conduct the research?

Chu: Study participants answered questions regarding their TikTok use and questions about brand videos on TikTok. We asked them to think about a brand video that they had seen on TikTok, including those created by TikTok users (e.g., including a branded hashtag in a video) and those created or sponsored by brands. They then answered blocks of questions about personalization, perceived creativity, authenticity, and need for uniqueness.

In an upcoming paper, you compare behavior on TikTok across a few different countries. What did you learn about the similarities and differences about how young people in these countries use this new social media platform?

Deng: In the new study, we compare TikTok users across the United States, Spain and Chile—three countries that are vastly different in cultural values. TikTok users in Chile and Spain, both collectivistic cultures, favor TikTok as a socialization tool more than users in the individualistic USA. However, we found that, despite Chile having the most TikTok followers, Chileans are less engaged in TikTok than their American and Spanish peers. Chileans also tend to avoid self-expression and archiving on TikTok, compared to Americans. In addition, we also found interesting gender differences in TikTok use, highlighting women's active engagement in the social media, more so than men across the three countries.

What is next for each of you in this research?

Headshot of Tony Deng
Tao (Tony) Deng is an assistant professor of public relations and advertising in the College of Communication.

Chu: Dr. Tao Deng, Dr. Juan Mundel (Arizona State University) and I conducted a follow-up study looking at how consumer socialization processes are related to TikTok intensity and addiction among young social media users. Given that young users tend to tell their peers what videos to watch on TikTok and spend a lot of time talking about the videos, TikTok could be considered a socialization platform that facilitates the reinforcement of certain behaviors. This paper has been accepted for publication at the Journal of Communication Technology.

Studying TikTok addiction is important as it offers useful information about how personal characteristics and consumer socialization processes affect TikTok use and whether certain personality traits can lead to TikTok addiction. This information can help reduce a societal problem associated with TikTok addiction while providing marketers insights into developing responsible messages.

Deng: I proposed an eye-tracking study as a follow-up to qualitatively observe TikTok use in real time with Gen Z subjects. We will look at TikTok scrolling behavior, attention spent on various TikTok content—including advertisements and other brand messages—and users' engagement actions, such as liking, sharing and commenting.

The eye-tracking technology enables us to record eye fixation duration on screen content, eye gaze plot, eye movements, and eye positions. Such objective eye-tracking data would be more valuable than self-reported data that are prone to biases. Through the eye-tracking study, I hope we can shed more light on Gen Z's actual browsing behaviors on TikTok, the potential factors that could contribute to TikTok addiction and some ways we can reduce the harm while promoting the good and using the platform for an advertising purpose.

Mary Hansen is a manager of strategic communications in the University Marketing and Communications division.