TikTok

It’s official — President Trump issued an executive order that bans any U.S. transactions with TikTok.

For consumers, the news is devastating — especially as the platform has thrived during COVID-19, providing a feeling of connectivity, a thriving opportunity for influencers, and simply, something new and exciting to do. But for brands and retailers struggling to connect with consumers who are adapting to a new lifestyle during the pandemic, this ban may serve as a further blow to some of their marketing strategies.

But wait — do brands really need TikTok to thrive? Especially with Facebook on their coattails, launching Instagram Reels the week of Trump’s executive order? Was it smart for brands to wait this one out or did early adopters win big? Here, we’ll look at two major life lessons that we can all learn from this TikTok ban.

Lesson #1: Choose wisely between brand safety and user-generated content

TikTok launched globally in 2018 and captivated the younger Gen Z audience who was losing interest in Facebook and Snapchat. Before COVID-19, TikTok struggled to attract older users who didn’t connect to watching strangers on a For You page. While great for budding influencers, this provides a double-edged sword for brands.

The biggest challenges that any brand or retailer face with user-generated content (UGC) is the ability to reach their target audience and appearing near content that violates platform guidelines but is never caught. UGC poses brand safety risks, including association with negative or extremist content, forcing brands to respond when platforms don’t.

Let’s take it back to 2017 when YouTube was flooded with offensive content, including terrorist videos and extremist materials. The platform wasn’t able to ensure advertisers wouldn’t appear next to these types of content, forcing brands to reevaluate their marketing strategies. Either pull back their spend or eliminate it completely. A few months later, most of the brands were advertising again. And the same can be said for the Facebook boycott. While many major brands chose to participate in #StopHateForProfit for the month of July, some, including The North Face, Eileen Fisher, Puma and Vans, have chosen to reignite their spend as they continue to reevaluate their campaigns. And these examples are from more mature platforms with previously trusted brand safety controls.

We’ve learned this lesson before, but it is worth repeating — UGC is something that has to be navigated carefully. As with any platform, being able to regulate content and provide a brand-safe environment isn’t always easy. But for brands who do choose to advertise on these platforms, conducting in-depth research into the inner workings is key. Having a specific roadmap or guidelines in place to what is within the realms of comfortable content eases some of the burdens, along with ensuring consumers will not be offended.

Focus on safety and creating trust with the customer through branded content and engagement, on the right platforms, not just the ones that are “hot” at the moment. But if you are going to test the “hot” platforms, make sure you have the right protocols set up. To put it in perspective: don’t just follow everyone into the pool without checking the water.

Andrew Furman, Outbrain

Andrew Furman, senior vice president, North American sales at Outbrain.  Courtesy Image.

Lesson #2: Engagement that goes beyond social

I know what you’re thinking — TikTok provides a great outlet to build brand awareness and connect with audiences of all ages and types, on a massive scale. Take Spikeball, who uses their TikTok profile to create engaging content that truly connects with their audience while showing off their product. Or E.l.f. Cosmetics, who commissioned a song for a TikTok-specific campaign.

While exciting and fun content might work in increasing engagement, the real task at hand is to create a marketing strategy amplified through all digital channels and across the entire funnel. One that goes beyond social media. If a good amount of energy and effort went into creating content specifically for TikTok, it doesn’t mean it won’t achieve the same level of engagement or resonate with people through other tactics. Depending on your target audience and proposed creative, there are ways to ensure strategies are platform-agnostic.

Continuing to focus on specific touchpoints throughout the customer journey, including personalized campaigns and promotional materials, goes a lot further than top-of-the-funnel acquisition strategies, like TikTok.

Whether on a macro or micro scale, targeted marketing has the power to strongly influence a consumer’s perception of a brand. The lesson here is not to limit yourself. Consider how the creatives can be utilized across other avenues.

So, what’s next?

The real questions this ban has forced us all to consider are: what happens next, and how do we learn from this?

While Trump’s executive order against TikTok might threaten the platform, it appears that the industry is keen to ensure it’s here to stay. Microsoft has previously announced plans to purchase the platform within the U.S. And now Twitter and TikTok have held preliminary talks about a potential combination. Adding Instagram’s Reels into the mix, and it’s clear that TikTok is doing something right.

Brands have an appetite to figure out how to correctly connect with audiences. But it’s also critical to understand that the brands are the ones in the driver seats, setting up the guidelines. We learned our lesson from the Facebook boycott — and there’s no need for Facebook 2.0.

While we might not be able to predict what the future holds, we do know that with TikTok up in the air, it gives competitors the opportunity to step up. For brands to stay successful, it’s more about understanding how to connect with audiences, rather than jumping on the bandwagon because your competitors are.

Andrew Furman is the senior vice president of sales at Outbrain, overseeing North America.

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