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Big Business is learning how to be a TikTok influencer

October 7, 2021, 9:30 AM UTC

For a fateful week in early August, the social media universe was focused breathlessly on daily reports coming out of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. For once, the suspense and fascination had nothing to do with Alabama football coach Nick Saban or his Crimson Tide, though the defending national champions were again picked as the preseason favorites. Rather, the world was captivated by the #BamaRush TikTok craze.

In a development that could probably be fully understood only by TikTok’s all-knowing algorithm, videos posted by incoming first-years going through the high-stakes sorority rush process became a national obsession. TikToks in which the young women revealed their #OOTD (“outfit of the day”) garnered millions upon millions of views—and spawned additional videos about the phenomenon that further boosted the hashtag. As a graduate of the University of Alabama myself, I was as surprised as anyone by these developments. But I was also intrigued by the power of the ultra-addictive video-sharing platform that now dominates so much of our collective attention. 

It’s an increasingly potent engine for commerce too. With more than 1 billion monthly users and off-the-chart engagement metrics, TikTok has emerged as the flagship of what’s known as the creator economy—a $104-billion-and-growing ecosystem of self-propelled entertainers, experts, and everyday folks ranging across the social media landscape. And according to TikTok, it now works with hundreds of thousands of advertisers, all of whom, no doubt, are hoping to go viral—in a good way.

We asked longtime Fortune contributor Jeffrey M. O’Brien to go deep on what makes TikTok, well, tick. And his richly entertaining story is full of insights about what works on the app, and what doesn’t. Jeff learned a couple of core lessons from his conversations with creators and marketers. “First, don’t be shy,” says Jeff. “Be yourself.” Creators who succeed tend to do so by being totally authentic. “Because of the power of the algorithm,” he says, “if you create something universally funny or wise, it will pop.”

TikTok’s radical bias in favor of authenticity of all types makes for a vibrant landscape—one captured wonderfully on this month’s subscriber cover by artist Rami Niemi.

COV.11.21. Tik Tok Cover
Illustration by Rami Niemi

This issue is also filled with stories about leaders who wield their influence far from the spotlight of social media. That includes the executives in the 24th edition of our Most Powerful Women in Business ranking. Five of this year’s top 10 have become CEOs since the pandemic began, including our new No. 1, Karen Lynch of CVS Health. And this year’s Change the World list (publishing online Oct. 11), our seventh, profiles a total of 64 companies that are harnessing the power of capitalism to improve the world around us. Now that’s a creative economy.

A version of this article appears in the October/November 2021 issue of Fortune with the headline, “Under the influencers.”

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This story is part of Fortune‘s Creator Economy package.