Tampa Bay businesses hop onto TikTok as the social media app rises


On a Wednesday morning at Armature Works, videographer Nick George asked Muchachas owner Stephanie Swanz about her opinion on Yelp.

Swanz glared at him before discussing how review sites can affect independent restaurants. The goal was to figure out how to frame the topic before filming a video for the Tampa taco restaurant’s TikTok account, which has nearly 15,000 followers and posts with up to two million views.

“What if we ask you the question and it’s you staring at the camera in awkward silence?” said marketing consultant Kiera Andrews.

Part of Muchachas’ strategy is to toe the line between controversy and playfulness so people will comment their thoughts below the video. They hope it will boost views and potentially translate to sales. As TikTok has grown beyond an app known for young people dancing to viral songs, it’s quickly becoming a platform where people get their information from — and some Tampa Bay businesses like Muchachas have taken notice.

Swanz, 37, first approached Andrews about getting her restaurant onto TikTok after realizing the addictive qualities the app can create. Andrews, the 29-year-old owner of Taste of Social Media Co., was originally hesitant as the app lacked features like geotagging, which is great for small businesses since it allows an account to attach a location to their online post. It doesn’t matter much if you go viral if the people watching aren’t from Tampa Bay. But as TikTok rolled out more features, Andrews said the video platform shows where social media marketing is going. Now, she’s trying to get the rest of the businesses she works with to get on the app.

“Back in 2021, it wasn’t worth the time commitment and the investment. But now, it is 100%,” Andrews said.

The Beijing-based company ByteDance launched a lip-synching app in 2016 under the name Douyin in China and later merged with another lip-synching app Musical.ly, debuting globally as TikTok in 2018. TikTok exploded in popularity during the pandemic.

A Pew Research Center survey found news consumption on TikTok has increased 11% from 2020 to 2022, while the amount of American adults getting their news from social media sites like Facebook and Twitter have either stagnated or declined. About a third of US adults said they get their news through TikTok.

Videographer Nick George, 25, holds a microphone wire during a break from creating content for Muchachas' TikTok account inside Armature Works in Tampa on Thursday, November 17, 2022.
Videographer Nick George, 25, holds a microphone wire during a break from creating content for Muchachas’ TikTok account inside Armature Works in Tampa on Thursday, November 17, 2022. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

The app uses an algorithm that suggests videos on the “For You Page,” or FYP, based on a user’s viewing habits. TikTok is really good at finding content for individuals and continuing to serve it to them, said Kelli Burns, social media expert and associate professor at the University of South Florida’s Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications. It’s becoming a place where both entertainment and information content intermix together.

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“It naturally flows because users are spending so much time on the platform, that they are seeing product recommendations and places to go in their city,” said Burns. “The more you’re exposed to the content, the more you think about TikTok as a resource for searching it out yourself.”

While brands catering to younger people were on the app first, Burns said now users of all ages are adopting the app and brands are seeing an opportunity to connect with them.

Muchachas aims to mix the information and entertainment aspect into their content. The team makes sure they don’t come off as a traditional advertisement for their audience, which consists primarily of adults in their 30s and 40s.

Videos just showing off the food typically don’t perform well, Swanz said. Swanz owns both Muchachas and Empamamas inside the Armature Works food hall in Tampa. Instead, their videos highlight employees’ personalities, answer questions left in the comments or show how their dishes are made.

Muchachas frequently uses a TikTok feature that allows them to repost comments into a video. After someone asked “I’m so confused why are we eating Chipotle out of a Doritos bag,” regarding their dish Walkin’ Taco, a burrito bowl in a bag of Doritos, staffer Heath North started off the video repeating the comment, stopping short of saying Chipotle and referred to the chain as “the c word” before explaining why they invented the dish. The video posted in June had more than 45,000 views. After they first posted a video of the Walkin’ Taco online, they saw sales jump 40% week over week, Swanz said.

Muchachas Owner Stephanie Swanz, left, interviews Heath North, center, as Nick George, 25, right, films them while they create content for the business' TikTok account at Muchachas inside Armature Works in Tampa on Thursday, November 17, 2022.
Muchachas Owner Stephanie Swanz, left, interviews Heath North, center, as Nick George, 25, right, films them while they create content for the business’ TikTok account at Muchachas inside Armature Works in Tampa on Thursday, November 17, 2022. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

For Andrews, she advises her small business clients to focus on original content rather than chasing the trends TikTok is famous for. Especially since many trends might not make sense for a specific brand.

“You should have a strategy where it’s 80% to 90% of original content or ideas that you’re coming up with. And then the other 10% can be a trending thing that’s going viral on TikTok,” Andrews said. “But I see a lot of small businesses trying to do every single trend, and if you look at their videos, they’re not getting nearly as much reach as the original content.”

It’s also competitive to keep people’s attention on the app, so videographer George’s rule of thumb is to fit the word “you” within the first sentence to grab attention.

As TikTok has grown, other social media platforms have tried to copy the app’s features, including Instagram which introduced its video version Reels in 2020. But Burns at USF said no app has been able to replicate the high-energy culture that’s on TikTok. Unprofessional and more authentic videos typically perform better and businesses looking to get on should spend a lot of time on the app to figure out the style of content.

“You can’t create a video where you have a long intro, a little song or some rambling. One thing with TikTok is that you have to hook people within the first few seconds or they’re just going to swipe to the next video. It’s got to be very loud and engaging quickly,” Burns said.

Kiera Andrews, 29, left, Hanna Cileli, 19, center, and Nick George, 25, right, share ideas while creating content for Muchachas' TikTok account inside Armature Works in Tampa on Thursday, November 17, 2022.
Kiera Andrews, 29, left, Hanna Cileli, 19, center, and Nick George, 25, right, share ideas while creating content for Muchachas’ TikTok account inside Armature Works in Tampa on Thursday, November 17, 2022. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

TikTok quickly became the primary driver of online sales for Pop Goes the Waffle, said Sara Fludd, 53. In the last quarter, 50% of the Gulfport restaurant’s website traffic came from the video app while 30% came from Instagram and the rest from Facebook and Twitter.

Since Meta’s Instagram pushed hard for Reels, Fludd said Instagram hasn’t been delivering the same results for her business as it used to. Pop Goes the Waffle has 20,000 followers on TikTok, more than double their Instagram account. Instead, she’s been reposting her videos for TikTok onto Reels.

“I don’t even do promoted ads to push sales anymore,” Fludd said. “I’m really focused on trying to get it all on TikTok.”

But the problem Fludd has with TikTok, is it’s hard to know what will catch the algorithm and take off. Pop Goes the Waffle typically takes an hour out of the week to brainstorm and film ideas. Most of their popular videos caught Fludd and her employees by surprise.

“With social media, you never know,” she said. “And the thing is that we laugh about the ones that take up a really long time to do are usually the ones that don’t perform as well.”



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