Influencer marketing without TikTok? 

It’s hard to imagine, but brands and agencies in the US are doing just that, knowing they could find their social media blueprints yanked out from under them should TikTok’s Chinese owner, ByteDance, not meet the Biden administration’s ultimatum to sell the app

Federal officials have told ByteDance to divest its interest in the hugely popular app because of Chinese laws that could compel it to share information with Beijing. If the company doesn’t comply, the Biden administration is threatening to ban the app in the US

ByteDance CEO Shou Zi Chew is testifying in front of Congress on Thursday. In the hearing, he has distanced the app from the Chinese government. This week, he used the app to warn about a possible ban and rally users to its cause in a short-form video of his own. 

Heather Rottner, director of social media at Coyne PR, says the fallout in marketing shouldn’t be underestimated. 

“Active campaigns will take the brunt of the impact, as well as brands and agencies who have gone all-in on TikTok as their primary social driver,” she says. 

The damage would not be limited to influencer marketing. “There are implications for overall search, small business and politics, including grassroots activism,” she says, adding that Coyne PR “has contingency plans based on our clients’ needs.” 

With 150 million active users in the US, up from 100 million in 2020, and an algorithm that is unrivaled for content discovery, TikTok has become a powerful trendsetter and cultural driver. 

Charlie Hart, EVP of integrated media at Current Global, says TikTok’s possible sunset is a major concern for brands and influencers. 

“A channel-centric influencer strategy should be a thing of the past,” she says. 

The reality, however, is some brands haven’t diversified their social media strategy and are heavily focused on TikTok. “Brands need to stop thinking about influencers as conduits for isolated channel engagement and more as media properties themselves that can be deployed across integrated marketing plans,” says Hart. 

Many brands are attracted to TikTok creators’ huge fan followings and loyalty. Comedy content creator Jenn Melon’s TikTok account, for instance, has 2.3 million followers. On YouTube, she has only 13,300 and on Instagram 131,000. Hannah Schlenker, who rose to fame on the platform as a lip-sync content creator and partnered with brands like Aerie’s crossover leggings, has 838,000 TikTok followers. By comparison, she has 88,700 on Instagram and appears to have a dormant presence on YouTube. 

There is even a significant drop-off in followers of even the biggest TikTok stars in comparison to their accounts on other platforms. Khabane Lame, a former factory worker in northern Italy who has collaborated with brands like Italian pasta maker Barilla, has 155.7 million followers on TikTok. While still massive, his Instagram following is 97% less than on TikTok, with 79 million, and 492,000 on YouTube. 

The app also appears to be immune to economic worries. This month, WARC upgraded its 2023 ad spend forecast for TikTok by almost $2 billion to $15.2 billion, noting that 75% of marketers plan to increase their activity on the platform. The forecast would mean a 52% jump in ad revenue for TikTok from 2022 and would account for almost a third of Instagram’s advertising business, which is expected to generate about $50 million this year. 

Another factor behind TikTok’s rise is its strategy for boosting influencers on the app. “Anecdotally, the TikTok Creator Fund is one of the most lucrative for creators,” says Hart. “It is also the platform where an unknown influencer can quickly rise to fame, although in reality for most influencers, it takes years of consistent effort to build a large, engaged audience that will stick around.”

Launched in 2021, the Creator Fund “is not a grant or ad revenue sharing program,” the company said. “Creators receive funds based on factors from their videos, and creators will know that performance on TikTok is dynamic—it changes naturally—so your funds will ebb and flow in the same way.” 

Creators need at least 100,000 authentic views in the last 30 days to be eligible for the fund and must be based in one of six countries, the US included among them. The fund started at $200 million with plans to grow to $1 billion in the US by 2025. 

In an America without TikTok, where will these short-form video influencers go? YouTube has Shorts and Meta’s Instagram introduced Reels in 2021. 

“We find the larger TikTok creators also have been growing their Instagram and YouTube channels,” says Joe Sinkwitz, CEO and cofounder of Intellifluence, an influencer marketing platform. “Those two social networks, in particular, stand to gain the most from the disappearance of TikTok.” 

Hart agrees, but adds that brands and their agency partners should keep track of more obscure platforms.

“We’re always looking at where creator communities are popping up online, and the absence of TikTok could lead creators to some interesting places that brands can use to their advantage,” she says. “Potentially, some of the smaller players will benefit, too, like BeReal.” 

The once-a-day photo-sharing app has more than 53 million global downloads since its 2020 release. 

Rottner says that predicting the next big platform would be one of the most difficult aspects of influencer marketing should a TikTok ban become reality. 

“The challenge will be predicting where their target audience will migrate once the dust settles,” she says. “There would be so much ad revenue up for grabs that we anticipate new players will also take the opportunity to emulate TikTok’s meteoric rise, Retailers, like Amazon, may take the opportunity to go all in on their own media networks.” 

“With Reels, Meta stands to gain the most from the TikTok ban, but YouTube Shorts and Snapchat’s Spotlight could also gain ground based on the demographic,” Rottner says. 

Influencer partnerships and activations moved from TikTok to another platform would need to be re-evaluated, she adds. 

“Some influencers will be able to translate their success onto secondary platforms, especially if they are already creating on multiple channels,” Rottner says. “Others may not be able to capture the same attention. It will be interesting to see who is poised for success in the short-term.”

Mae Karwowski, CEO and founder of Obviously, an influencer marketing agency that has worked with Converse, Bumble and Lyft, says the next big thing could be the platform that best cultivates a collaborative relationship with creators.  

“TikTok has done a fantastic job of helping to elevate a lot of creators’ careers and growing their audiences really quickly,” says Karwowski. “The big X factor if hypothetically this happened would be for creators, ‘Which platform is most advantageous for me to devote time?’ That would be interesting to see.” 

“If another platform is able to emulate TikTok’s algorithm, create incentives for influencers to create content and bring their audiences, they will be successful and ingratiate creators,” says Ryan Detert, CEO of Influential. 

Yet he, like many of the influencer relations experts interviewed for this story, don’t think TikTok is going anywhere.

“Back in 2020, TikTok was also at risk of being banned,” says Detert. “Fast forward to 2023. I think brands believe it’s unlikely we will see a ban and that some solution will be reached.” 

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