How TikTok’s uncertain future and COVID-19 are transforming influencer marketing

Since July, influencers have prepared for a potential ban of TikTok in the U.S., with some testing rival platforms like Triller and Instagram Reels. Though there likely won’t be a mass exodus of creators from the popular social video app amid the ongoing saga related to its ownership, competitors are using this opportunity to woo big-name influencers and position themselves as a safety net should the Oracle-Walmart bid for TikTok fall through, sources interviewed for this story say.

Charli D’Amelio, TikTok’s most popular creator with 87 million followers, announced last week she’s joining Triller. She’s not fully cutting bait on TikTok, but the deal suggests the app’s uncertain future may be having an impact on the evolution of influencer marketing.

“As for the ability to create the same quality content, competitors like Reels are getting there with their offerings in terms of creative capabilities, audience engagement and content recommendations, but replacing TikTok’s algorithm and creator base alone will require a lot of work,” said TJ Leonard, CEO of stock media service Storyblocks.

In early 2020, apps like Instagram and Snapchat began to dabble with features popularized on TikTok to capture some of its meteoric growth and lure creators back to their established platforms. Brands tuned in, leaning further into bite-sized video that younger audiences craved through hashtag challenges or influencer deals. The coronavirus pandemic hit just months later, escalating the “TikTok-ification” of social platforms and paving the way for brands to consider influencers as critical to strategy rather than extensions of existing campaigns.

Coupled with the pandemic’s impact on society, uncertainty and confusion around TikTok’s future may fast-track the shift in influencer strategy for brands.

“COVID has changed the type of content that’s being created. We crave connection online because the real-life kind has been taken away from us,” Leonard said. “DIY creativity is at an all-time high. People, brands and everyone are so starving for human interaction that the content we’re seeing now is a little more honest, a little more direct, a little more personal and human.”

Values backed with action

Some of the content resonating on social media these days includes frank conversations about racial justice. Regular users and influencers used features like Instagram’s Carousel format as a teaching tool to spread awareness of social issues. This trend of activism slideshows has continued and may suggest how creators are maturing beyond delivering escapist content, according to Natalie Silverstein, SVP and head of innovation at influencer marketing agency Collectively.

“It’s become much more about getting to know the world better and learning about different ways of understanding what’s happening,” she said. “We’re seeing brands that think they can’t tell those stories through their organization’s voice align themselves with influencers who share those values, or creators who are pushing the boundaries and are outspoken in ways brands might not think they have permission to be.”

This links back to the pandemic’s early days where many brands retooled their messaging strategy away from product and toward expressing values.

“We’re in a moment when you cannot be silent on the point of view you have on the world,” Silverstein said. “It’s really important to convey your values as a brand and to back those up with action.”

Values-based partnerships will only gain importance as influencers become more deeply integrated into campaigns — especially as election season and the holidays approach, Silverstein predicts.

“Brands will continue to use influencers to translate and expand the story of what they believe in the world,” she said.

Democratizing content creation

Countless brands have parlayed creators’ large followings into a springboard for hashtag challenges that aim to extend a campaign’s reach. Adobe, for example, teamed with the United Nations last month to raise awareness about climate change and pollution. The software maker created app lenses and selected influencers to urge followers to share their digital creations with the hashtags #OceanLeague and #GlowingGone.

Popular during the pandemic for their affordability, hashtag challenges encourage consumers to engage with a brand by sharing user-generated content (UGC). However, they’ve shown to have limited appeal, with 75% of surveyed Americans saying they’re unlikely to share a hashtag from a company’s social media post. Asking influencers to lead the hashtag charge is one way for brands to jumpstart participation and inspire UGC, Storyblocks’ Leonard said.

“As we consume more and more content, many people are wading into the waters of actually creating it.”

Social platforms, where these hashtag challenges live, are responding to consumers’ creation cravings and adding app tools to make short-form content easier to produce than ever. TikTok has an easy-to-use interface with built-in recording, editing and sound effects for simple storytelling. Instagram in August rolled out Reels — a feature that closely resembles TikTok — to boost favor with younger audiences that prefer short-form, music-centered videos that ByteDance’s rival service helped popularize.

Winning platforms will be the ones that offer a shallow learning curve, making content creation more accessible to the average consumer, according to Leonard.

“That’s the real magic of TikTok,” he said.

“People, brands and everyone are so starving for human interaction that the content we’re seeing now is a little more honest, a little more direct, a little more personal and human.”

TJ Leonard

Storyblocks, CEO

At the same time, democratizing content creation isn’t a silver bullet for platforms. Those that make concerted efforts to help brands create and measure campaign impact will likely win out over rivals. TikTok is keeping an eye on the money with a marketing program announced this month that includes a measurement suite powered by Kantar. This is the latest expansion for TikTok’s ad platform, which launched in June, and represents how the social video app is doubling down on tracking tech to keep marketers in its ecosystem.

Setting up safety nets

Despite its meteoric ascent, the ByteDance-owned platform faces an uncertain future as the governments of China and the U.S. spar over who should control TikTok’s rich trove of consumer data, forcing brands and influencers in the U.S. to prepare for the unknown. The handful of brands pioneering Reels in its first month are mostly repurposing UGC and influencer content from TikTok, according to Joe Caporoso, EVP of digital content company Team Whistle. These early days allow brands to position themselves as innovative and set up safety nets for a quick pivot should TikTok shutter or majorly change.

“At this stage, it’s about showing that you’re active with it and thinking creatively,” Caporoso said. “Part of being in this industry is being nimble and adaptable and migrating content when it’s right.”

Brands should test different types of influencer content on all relevant social channels to experiment with what delivers the greatest engagement or return on investment, he recommends.

“Until one of the platforms gives a more proactive push or popularizes a style of content or campaign that takes hold on one platform, we’ll still see a lot of replicated content,” Caporoso said.

This duplicated content from influencers and brands on TikTok isn’t the worst news for Reels at the moment. The nascent platform can dip into its established user base on Instagram and allow creators to dabble while the ByteDance-owned company’s future crystallizes. For Reels’ launch, Instagram reportedly offered TikTok creators up to hundreds of thousands of dollars to exclusively sign on its rival service. That aggressive swipe may intensify as top influencers like D’Amelio start to investigate other apps.

“Instagram is not going to shy away from TikTok’s success from the past few years,” Leonard said. “If [TikTok] disappears, we’ll immediately see other platforms try to fill that void and replace lost earnings to bridge the gap before another platform pops up and replaces it. There would be a mad rush from big platforms to get top creators.”

Will big brands warm up to newcomers?

Monetization is a key factor that could sway influencers and brands to one platform versus another. As the holiday season approaches, brands may look to deeper partnerships with a select few creators in order to maximize efficiencies and stimulate connections with consumers.

Leonard predicts more consistent influencer-powered campaigns and fewer one-off commissioned content deals in the coming weeks as TikTok’s saga shakes up the influencer space. Beyond the holidays, it’ll depend on how big brands warm up to newcomers like Reels and Triller and whether they show promising staying power, he said.

“Like anything, once large brands start pumping money into these platforms, things change considerably. But these are also places where major brands have a lot less control over how they’re represented by an influencer,” Leonard said. “The import and influence of influencers across platforms is undeniable for 2021. Will that be enough to pull in major brands who have always been tepid around these user-generated, emerging platforms because they have to give up control?”

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