Can TikTok prove the effectiveness of influencer marketing?
First there were YouTube stars. Then there were Instagram influencers and Snapchat Lens makers. Now, TikTok is fostering a new class of online creators and catering to its stars with a budding influencer marketplace that promises to make them money with ad deals.
The TikTok Creator Marketplace, a portal to the app’s hottest talent, allows brands to search through hundreds of top creators including Zach King, Josh Sadowski (aka LaughWithJosh) and CJ OperAmericano.
Launched last year and still in beta testing mode, the marketplace lists more than 1,000 TikTok stars. Brands can search the marketplace using a variety of filters: the number of followers a creator has; location by state; and topics, including beauty, arts, sports, comedy, technology, video games, pets, food, music, fashion and others.
The marketplace also provides insights into audiences that follow creators, including country, gender, age and device, so advertisers can get a sense of the type of people they might reach.
The marketplace is a sign that TikTok is learning from the experiences of U.S. rivals like Snapchat, Instagram and YouTube, as it seeks to nurture a community of power users and keep them creating for the platform.
But the program still lacks sophistication, according to social media advertising agency executives. There is no automation in the marketplace, for instance, and TikTok provides fewer metrics than YouTube and Instagram.
“The data that they’re offering is not significant,” says Gil Eyal, CEO of HYPR, a social media marketing and analytics firm. “What marketers really want is data that resembles traditional marketing.”
The marketplace, for instance, shows that popular TikToker Zach King has a reach of 22.9 million people with an average view count of 19.3 million.
“Average views isn’t a good metric,” Eyal says. “What if an influencer has only one or two videos that went extremely viral with everybody watching? It skews the numbers.”
Instagram, on the other hand, shows how many people viewed a post or video, how many commented or otherwise engaged with it, and how many clicked through to their Instagram pages.
TikTok declined to comment for this story.
What marketers want
Marketers rely on automation and measurements to set up deals and understand whether their ad spend is working. And the influencer marketing landscape is notoriously opaque, even with major tech companies like Google and Facebook serving as its backbone. TikTok creators, too, are struggling with the quirks of the app, as some videos generate massive views and others fizzle.
Despite—or because of—these questions, influencer marketing agency executives want TikTok to go further than U.S. social media platforms to prove the value of its creators.
While TikTok is starting out with fewer tools, it could catch up quickly to its U.S. counterparts, according to Ryan Detert, CEO of Influential, a company that has used the creator market.
“All the other platforms took years to understand the value of creators,” Detert says. “But TikTok seems to get it pretty well, and I think they’re in a good position. They want more dollars coming into their ecosystem. They care less about the monetization piece of their own platform. It’s more about getting enough brands that are spending money and when that happens, you can start putting more paid ads.”
TikTok doesn’t make money from the marketplace, but it can be a gateway for brands to experiment with its service. Advertisers pay creators, and if a media play works, the advertisers might buy other TikTok products, including promoted hashtags and takeover video ads.
As marketers struggle to measure influencer ROI, understand the spontaneous nature of social media celebrity and fret about influencer integrity and transparency, the depth and sophistication of data is critical.
“It’s so volatile,” says Eyal. “One video can have 2 million views and the next from the same creator can have 100,000. I don’t know how brands plan for that.”
Brands want the language of digital advertising to translate to influencer markets, with measurements like viewability, click-through rates and cost per a thousand impressions (CPMs), Eyal says.
None of the platforms—not YouTube, Instagram or Snapchat—has fully satisfied advertisers, Eyal says, but since TikTok is still so new, it is the furthest behind.
For instance, TikTok’s marketplace lacks automation, according to marketers. Brands and agencies can search the platform and find the basic stats behind the accounts, but they have to contact the creators outside the platform. On Instagram, creators and brands can collaborate directly.
Also, Instagram creators can plant digital tags on posts that signal they are participating in brand campaigns, which gives the sponsor the ability to see stats about how well those posts perform. Brands see how many people viewed a post or video, how many people commented or otherwise engaged with it, and how many people clicked through to their Instagram pages. There also are paid advertising opportunities on Instagram to spread the posts to more people, rather than just relying on the free reach from the creators’ accounts.
Snapchat has focused mostly on augmented reality to attract a cadre of core creators. There is a growing community of popular users who design the AR filters, which are digitally animated lenses that people place on their selfies. Snapchat has developed ways to connect those digital artists with brands to collaborate on campaigns.
As for YouTube, it has been fostering a community of creators for years. The video stars split ad revenue from commercial breaks with Google, which owns YouTube.
YouTube has some of the most advanced data available to brands, according to Eyal. YouTube provides the average view time on videos, which gives a sense of how long consumers watch a given campaign. Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok do not give such a detailed breakdown.
YouTube also has the strictest definition of what counts as a view on ads and creators’ videos, Eyal says.
TikTok should go even further than these U.S. companies to support its creator class, Eyal says. “TikTok as an up-and-comer has a chance to offer marketers something other platforms aren’t offering and gain a real competitive edge,” Eyal says.
If TikTok stars hope to work with major brands, then the platform needs to instill confidence in the stats it provides marketers; it needs to make it easier for brands to measure the effects of their spending; and it needs to automate the process through new technologies like an application programming interface (API).
“That would allow TikTok to scale far more quickly across the market and offer greater levels of monetization opportunities for its preferred creators,” says Adrienne Lahens, chief operating officer at Influential, the social media marketing technology firm.
An API would allow agencies to build software to analyze the platform and detect behavior, but it’s also a potential privacy problem. Facebook, which owns Instagram, had to rein in marketing partners that took advantage of APIs by harvesting personal data on users.
Inroads with influencers
TikTok—under a U.S. security review over its Chinese ownership and the types of data it collects on Americans—is making its mark in the wider world of influencers even if the app is hard to master. Earlier this month, one of its top stars, Charli D’Amelio, 15, signed a contract with United Talent Agency. She was picked up for her popular TikTok videos that showcase her ability to master dance trends, lip-sync pop songs and frame perfect selfies.
Creators get paid by brands rather than by TikTok, and companies like Chipotle are building relationships with these budding stars. The Mexican food chain recently catered for D’Amelio’s TikTok friends at the Hype House, a hangout for teens and twentysomethings in Los Angeles, where they fine-tune their online personas. The Hype House was recently featured in The New York Times.
Chipotle’s appearance at the creator collective was an example of how brands hope to capitalize on the attention these youngsters generate. “Working with TikTok creators is a huge part of our social strategy,” says Tressie Lieberman, VP of digital and off-premise marketing at Chipotle.
TikTok also just opened a new office in Culver City, California, where it plans to build a content studio for creators, a place to shoot videos and work with brands, similar to YouTube’s studios.
TikTok has more than 800 million users worldwide, according to a leaked advertising pitch deck obtained by Ad Age last year. There are more than 30 million users
in the U.S.
At a conference last week, Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel praised TikTok, saying it was made for broadcasting talent, perhaps more than most social media. It’s for “people who have spent a couple hours learning a new dance or think about a funny new creative way to tell a story, and they’re really making media to entertain other people,” Spiegel said.
Challengers for creators
TikTok’s influencers, who not only create hype but get caught up in it, are still navigating the app in an attempt to secure brand business deals, deliver consistent results and steer clear of hostility from other creators.
Signa Mae, 16, a TikTok star with 5.5 million followers, says the app seems to favor videos from newcomers, giving creators a taste of popularity when they see the number of likes on their videos rising. There’s a sense that anyone can become a breakout star.
“I think it’s really happening because they are new to the app,” Signa Mae says. “Like one of their videos blew up and people just decided to give them all the love, and then they hate on them for having it. That’s definitely something that goes on with new people. Most people have had ‘the hype.’”
On TikTok, users play with hashtags like they do on Twitter and Instagram. They are a way to pile into trends, by adding them to the captions in videos where TikTok’s algorithm detects them. (Videos often come with a #FYP, meaning For You Page, which is the mainstream of videos all users see, and it’s tailored to each person’s viewing habits.)
There are certain tricks that creators and brands can use to plan for consistency and longevity on TikTok, Signa Mae says. One is to pay attention to the hashtag trends, and even plan for them.
TikTok gives advance notice to the top talent and brands when it plans special hashtags, according to creators and influencer marketers. Also, Signa Mae suggests interacting with followers in the comments below videos, a time-tested tactic on most platforms where the stars are trying to foster community, like on YouTube.
Also, try to time TikTok videos wisely, Signa Mae says. “[Activity] in the middle of the night is much lower,” she says. “People are sleeping.”
CJ OperAmericano, 23, who has 715,000 TikTok followers, is already a veteran of social media marketing, and she has built followings on Instagram and Snapchat, too. “I have my audience to offer,” says CJ OperAmericano. “I also specialize in creative storytelling for brands. I make their brands look good.”
In the past six months, she has done deals with Taco Bell, Alba Botanica, Missguided US clothing and others.
Advertisers pay TikTok stars anywhere from $1,000 to tens of thousands of dollars for videos, say creators and talent managers interviewed for this story.
“It’s not like an ad that someone would want to click away from,” says CJ OperAmericano. “It’s not just an informational boring ad. It’s an actual story that makes the viewers want to participate in the product or the activity that I’m advertising.”
She says TikTok does offer a way to measure the effectiveness of campaigns, even if it is a roundabout solution. Brands can see when people buy their products when the consumers make videos using those products, copying the influencer. “With a hashtag trend, you can actually see followers going out and buying the product and making that challenge themselves,” CJ OperAmericano says.