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The Art (and Science) of Going Viral on TikTok

E.l.f.'s chief brand officer Laurie Lam said the brand's winning strategy requires the right mix of data and intuition at the WWD Beauty Digital Forum on Jan. 24.

For one of beauty’s digital pioneers, the secret sauce is a mix of three factors: community, entertainment and intuition.

“Our gut really led us to TikTok,” said Laurie Lam, chief brand officer at E.l.f. Beauty, during WWD’s Beauty Digital Forum on Jan. 24. “Had we just relied on data and science, we actually wouldn’t have gone.”

Lam, in addition to Movers + Shakers’ cofounder and chief executive Evan Horowitz and beauty influencer Stephanie Valentine (a.k.a. @Glamzilla), outlined the three key insights that led E.l.f. to partner with Horowitz and tap creators like Valentine to create TikTok’s most viral beauty campaign ever.

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“We knew we had a community of 3 million people talking about TikTok, we knew we had a second camp who was over it, and a third who didn’t even know that E.l.f. stood for ‘eyes, lips, face,” Lam said. “If you draw the constellation between those data points, your gut kicks in. It’s that beautiful balance, and gut is what takes you there.”

Horowitz, whose agency has created the first-ever crowdsourced movie on TikTok and the first TikTok-native reality show, noted the importance of always keeping his finger on the pulse of what’s next. “Our job is always to be looking at, ‘where is culture moving? Where is that customer going, and what’s cool and relevant?’” he said.

To that end, he’s seen TikTok content iterate beyond challenges to more “intricate” forms of co-creation, like duets. That culminated in E.l.f.’s TikTok movie, which Horowitz said generated 3 billion immediate impressions and helped E.l.f.’s primer launch become the second-bestselling primer in the following quarter.

Even before TikTok reached its current status, Valentine described the platform as a “breath of fresh air,” adding it jibed with her content strategy. “I want to be a risk-taker and be somebody involved in something new and refreshing. If I’m tired of something, my audience and community must be, too,” she said. “It was the right brand, I didn’t have to change who I was, and I just shared the products that I loved. It was all organic, even though it was fabulous.”

The strategy has taken on a life of its own, with Horowitz describing E.l.f. as an entertainment brand.

“What goes viral is never decided by us — it’s 100 percent community led,” Lam said, noting that the platform can transform any launch into a hero stock keeping unit. “We have about 15 or 20 products that we consider as viral, and we qualify that as anything that has 10 million to 15 million views right off the bat. All of our key products, which we call holy grail products, have achieved this status.”

For Horowitz, it’s not easy to get lightning to strike twice. “E.l.f. has been a TikTok billionaire many times… but there are a lot of brands that have wasted a lot of money with TikTok challenges that are hard to do. It’s an art and a science and it’s not well understood. There’s been this big shift in marketing to entertaining advertising, but the next frontier is what I call participatory entertainment.”

Lam said she treats each social platform with an equal amount of attention — E.l.f. was among the first beauty brands on BeReal last year — but did add that TikTok is a key engagement driver with the brand.

“It does allow us to be entertaining, and it does allow us to expand our orbit. We have an orbit of over 14 million consumers and it’s expanding every single day,” she said. “That platform is especially important too, along with BeReal, because we allow ourselves to go on this platform and we want to break down boundaries. If you want to listen and understand the unique needs of your community, you’ve got to be where they are.”

E.l.f. also tailors its content strategy to each platform, and seldom cross-pollinates across platforms. “One of the reasons that E.l.f. wins is that the way E.l.f. shows up on TikTok is totally different from how they show up on Instagram – and Instagram Feed is very different from Instagram Reels. You need to make sure you’re customizing your creative approach to fit so that you feel like a friend engaging with friends, versus a brand advertising to you,” Horowitz said.

Valentine has seen a similar shift from her viewers with a heightened focus on reality and less on manufactured content. “It’s just about the human experience and relating to people that we like, or maybe we don’t like, and that’s the power of social media — being social and sharing what we like,” she said. “We’ve lost track of it because people are trying to curate going viral, curate making a product sell out. But it doesn’t happen like that. It happens by just being a girl in a room, sharing what she likes or going to Target. It’s moments like that, that if you do good storytelling, you can captivate your audience and turn that into sales.”

Her own philosophy is values-led, focusing on honesty with her follower count. “Loyalty is one of the most important things in this industry, and truly sticking to your values and morals,” she said. “But it’s also changed — we’re talking now about 30-second videos. To evolve continuously as content creators and brands is so important, and we need to be able to connect authentically first to create something bigger than what we have now.

“Over the last five years, we’ve seen a shift in how content creators are gifted or the opportunities they get — it’s brilliant to me,” Valentine continued. “Before, beauty bloggers were tired of the press trips or of the overly intense gifting. But it’s a new generation. Gen Z wants to know that in the end, is it good or bad?”