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  • Gina Michnowicz

TikTok: Are the Brand Benefits Worth the Potential Risks?

Social media platforms are open environments where people can share their lives and opinions, offering brands significant opportunities to engage their target audiences in a real way. But paid media and organic algorithms are making it more and more difficult to reach people on social, let alone engage them—with one notable exception: TikTok.

TikTok, which launched internationally in 2017 but really started to blow up in 2018, can deliver phenomenal results for organic challenges. The October 2018 #BigMacTikTok challenge from McDonald’s Malaysia has over 12 million views, while two recent campaigns from the NFL and Ralph Lauren show even more impressive numbers: The NFL’s #WeReady challenge has already garnered more than 920 million views, and Ralph Lauren’s #WinningRL challenge has over 750 million. (However, the Ralph Lauren challenge actually reveals the need to see past the overall views and count only authentic engagement. The actual challenge ended in September, and many of those videos could be from “trolls,” people who hopped on the challenge to get engagement for themselves.) TikTok doesn’t only deliver big numbers, though. In addition, since its Chinese owner Bytedance purchased and absorbed those accounts into TikTok, TikTok offers the opportunity to tap not just Gen Z but also the tween market, which is historically difficult to reach due to regulations in targeting that age group. With its great international reach, TikTok has the potential to become a strong rival to Facebook if its growth continues. So it’s not surprising that brands from a wide range of industries have hopped on the TikTok bandwagon. 

But is TikTok safe for brands?

Our creative shop recently worked with TikTok on a campaign, and the more we worked with them, the more concerned I became. TikTok seems to be having issues scaling with demand, which can be a real problem for brand safety.

Most platforms have policies in place to try to make sure their environments are free from hate, bullying, or even worse situations for userssituations that brands don’t want to be connected to and don’t want their audiences to have to deal with. There are usually clear ways to report violations. Still, platforms need to make sure the content adheres to the policies, and we’ve seen several of them fall short. (Even artificial intelligence did not uncover or stop the pedophile ring on YouTube or the political quagmire on Facebook quickly enough.)

It is still early days for TikTok. Not all the safety nets are in place, which isn’t a huge surprise since all the other platforms have also struggled with this—and still are to a certain extent. In addition, the number of conversations for the platform to track is immense. 

On top of that, there’s the recently announced U.S. government security review, which Reuters reported as stemming from U.S. lawmakers raising questions about how TikTok stores personal data as well as their concern over whether the Chinese company is censoring politically sensitive content. While we don’t want to deal with the politics, we do want to understand the outcomes of the probe. 

In the meantime, I’d advise that brands look a bit deeper before they leap into a TikTok campaign. You should consider the following:

  • How safe is the data? This is a big unknown. We should find out more after the security probe, but I’d guess that TikTok’s data security doesn’t follow the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation and other recent privacy laws. Recently, TikTok provided a set of videos with tips to help keep users safe, which is a step in the right direction, but many more measures are needed to protect user data. 

  • Will TikTok ensure that brands aren’t aligned with undesirable users and content? Right now, TikTok doesn’t have the safety controls in place to give brands assurance that they won’t be aligned with less-than-desirable users and recommended content. It’s difficult to control that aspect with how the app is set up, but TikTok does have a great opportunity to build its ad manager to include greater protections. However, given that Facebook had to be wrangled to do the right thing and still continues its unsafe brand and user practices, I’d say this is highly unlikely in the near term. (And no matter what platforms brands are on, they need to actively monitor their ads and complementary suggested content.)

  • Does TikTok deploy safety measures to protect a brand’s intellectual property? Beyond user safety, brands need to also be concerned about their owned content. At this point, some brands we work with won’t use TikTok because of these concerns. I recommend being careful with what content you publish on TikTok. Make sure it’s OK for others to use. After all, the platform is a hotbed for creators, so if you post it, it’ll most likely be used. If you aren’t fine with that, consider this a deal breaker. 

While TikTok is a great platform for engagement and international reach, brands will need to use their discipline to not just leap for short-term results but instead truly evaluate what the right move is for them. 

If you do decide to go forward with TikTok, know that it could take a lot of effort to protect your overall brand, and make sure you’re comfortable with what intellectual property you’re exposing. For now, it might be best to wait for the outcome of the security probe and, as always, be diligent in monitoring your communities and ads for any brand issues across all platforms. 

And remember, people do exist outside of social media! Your brand could also look into other, safer tactics to tap these harder-to-reach audiences, such as creating memorable in-person experiences. Feel free to reach out to us. We would love to brainstorm whether it makes sense to add TikTok to your marketing strategies and campaigns. 


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