TikTok—the now infamous app—initially launched back in 2016 but didn’t gain its massive following until 2020 when it hit over 2 billion mobile downloads. The platform makes use of the same concepts as earlier apps like Vine and Musical.ly, allowing users to record short-form videos ranging from 3 seconds to 10 minutes in length. Creators can lip sync or dance to the latest trending audios, make newsworthy content with a green screen feature, and edit in anything from text and GIFs to AI filters and interactive games. Users can “like” and comment on each other’s content and also “duet” or respond to TikToks in their own videos.
What’s so unique about TikTok is its algorithm? A user’s “For You” page is specifically curated to the topics, creators, and trends that they follow, “like,” and watch. That’s part of what makes the app so addictive … You keep being shown content that you’re interested and invested in, so #swifties, tap dancers, cat-lovers, bodybuilders, deep cleaners, makeup aficionados, quarantine cooks, and Britney Spears conspiracy theorists can all deep dive into their uber curated digital worlds. TikTok has served as a launching pad for creators and brands with trends including the Sprite challenge, Tarte’s influencer excursion to Dubai, Amazon fashion and makeup “dupes,” Crumble cookie taste tests, the Wednesday Adams dance routine, and the rise of regular teens-turned-celebrities such as Charlie D’Amelio and Addison Rae.
Before we dive into the controversy surrounding TikTok, let’s first highlight a few significant statistics.
Quick TikTok Stats:
41% of users are between the ages 16-24 (“Gen Z”) and they use TikTok more than Instagram.
TikTok has 100 million monthly active users in the United States and 1 billion monthly active users globally.
The United States, Indonesia, and Brazil are the top 3 countries for TikTok usage respectively.
The average daily TikTok user spends 85 minutes on the app, opening it around 17 times per day.
TikTok is the highest grossing non-game app.
Influencers on TikTok see an average engagement rate of 15.86% (For reference, the average engagement rate for an influencer on Instagram is 4.84%).
55% of TokTok users have purchased something after seeing the brand on the app.
Macro influencers (100K—1 million followers) charge anywhere from $151-$793 per branded TikTok post. Mega influencers can charge upwards of $1,000.
TikTok’s CPM (cost per thousand impressions) is half the cost of Instagram, a third of the cost of Twitter, and 62% less than Snapchat.
TikTok users are twice as likely as users of other channels to recommend something they found on the platform.
TikTok will generate an estimated $18 billion in ad revenue in 2023.
That’s pretty impressive. So, if TikTok is so great, what’s the debate about? Let’s break it down.
Data, Data, Data
TikTok’s complex algorithm is critical to its success. An algorithm is a process of instructions to solve a problem. Any algorithm needs data inputs, but TikTok’s requires a lot of data to function efficiently. These data inputs come directly from the app’s users.
We collect certain information about the device you use to access the Platform, such as your IP address, user agent, mobile carrier, time zone settings, identifiers for advertising purposes, model of your device, the device system, network type, device IDs, your screen resolution and operating system, app and file names and types, keystroke patterns or rhythms, battery state, audio settings and connected audio devices.
Arguably, users are less consumers of the TikTok app and more like mice in an experiment, their every move being watched and calculated—maybe even directed?
Who’s Getting My Data?
Here’s where the worry arises. While we’ve experienced privacy concerns and data breaches with other US-based tech companies like Meta, TikTok is owned by the Chinese internet technology company ByteDance. According to the AP, there are growing concerns that ByteDance “would give user data—such as browsing history and location—to the Chinese government, or push propaganda and misinformation on its behalf.” In this regard, it’s not just about our personal privacy, it’s a potential threat to national security.
Former President Trump attempted to ban TikTok while in office, but after significant legal back-and-forth, President Biden revoked the proposed ban in 2021. The app has, however, been banned on federal devices and state government phones in 33 out of the 50 US states. Additionally, some public universities have banned the app from being accessed on campus Wi-Fi and university-owned computers. Besides the fear of the spread of misinformation (as we witnessed with the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 election, Russian invasion of Ukraine, and other events), concerns also surround the app’s propensity for addiction, cyberbullying, and negative impact on mental health—especially for its target young audience.
Globally, TikTok is banned in countries including India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Taiwan for reasons ranging from pornography and human trafficking to the spread of misinformation.
At present, congressional representatives still worry about the narratives that Americans are being told (or not told) via TikTok, but many cybersecurity experts attest that there is no evidence that the Chinese government is interfering with the app’s algorithm. Senators Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Angus King (I-Maine) recently reintroduced a bipartisan legislation called The ANTI-SOCIAL CCP (Averting the National Threat of Internet Surveillance, Oppressive Censorship and Influence, and Algorithmic Learning by the Chinese Communist Party). The Act is “aimed to protect Americans by blocking and prohibiting all transactions from any social media company in, or under the influence of, China, Russia, and several other foreign countries of concern unless they fully divest of dangerous foreign ownership.” When it comes to TikTok, the Act proposes two options: 1) that TikTok be banned in the United States, or 2) that the app be sold to an American company. TikTok’s CEO, Shou Chew, offers another option entitled “Project Texas.” This proposition “would move the entire TikTok operation to the United States under the supervision of Oracle, an American company.” The situation is still unfolding…
What Should Brands Do?
So, what’s Media À La Carte’s take on the TikTok buzz? We feel pretty certain that TikTok will NOT be banned because so many major businesses with money to lobby the government are on the app and rely on it for marketing purposes. Additionally, a TikTok ban would likely be ruled unconstitutional in that it goes against the First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Still, the issue remains up in the air.
One thing we’re certain of: never have all your eggs in one basket. If your brand uses TikTok, it’s not a bad idea to save ALL your content (*You can now save videos without the TikTok branding) and encourage your audience to follow you on multiple platforms (Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, etc.) or subscribe to your email marketing newsletter. You’ve worked hard to cultivate your following and want to make sure it doesn’t rely on one app to sustain itself (whether that’s TikTok or another social media platform).
When you invest your money, it’s best to have a diverse portfolio to mitigate risk. The same is true for social media marketing. Whatever happens with TikTok (or any social media platform, for that matter), your brand needs to transcend beyond reliance on a single app.