Don’t Let Marketers Ruin TikTok
What geopolitics couldn’t kill, runaway success just might
Perhaps no company better exemplifies the dualism of yin and yang than TikTok and its year of seesawing successes and headaches. Amid geopolitical strife and leadership turnover, TikTok’s platform community and corporate strategists continued to hit new milestones: The social video network has overtaken Facebook to become the top app downloaded worldwide as of December 2020. It’s also plowing forward with strategic decisions to bolster its viability as a business by launching multiple revenue streams.
This past fall, it struck a partnership with Shopify by debuting its ad platform, TikTok for Business, which makes it easier for Shopify merchants to create ad campaigns on TikTok, similar to what the e-commerce giant already offers on its dashboard for Snapchat, Facebook, and Pinterest. In early December, The Verge reported that the short-form video app is thinking of debuting three-minute videos—up from its current 60-second limit — to compete with YouTube viewers. And in mid-December, TikTok announced it would be launching on smart TVs for the first time via a partnership with Samsung, a huge feat given how the pandemic has created an army of content-hungry consumers in need of new digital entertainment.
Adam Mosseri, head of Instagram, even told CNBC that TikTok was “probably the most formidable competitor we’ve ever seen,” asserting that Instagram was still playing catch-up after it unleashed Reels — a 15-second knockoff of the Gen Z-favored TikTok. It also brought back memories of when Instagram launched Stories, a Snapchat copycat.
What geopolitics couldn’t kill, runaway success just might.
Part of the calculus in launching Reels was likely a response to priceless TikTok gems like Nathan Apodaca going viral for skateboarding to work while chugging a bottle of Ocean Spray and lip-syncing to Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 hit “Dreams.” The video has become one of 2020’s top viral sensations, generating more than 70 million views and close to 10 million likes while providing a moment of positivity and “pure vibes” during an otherwise turbulent and stressful year besieged by a global pandemic, political division, and social upheaval.
Yet despite all the strides the company has taken to secure its future, I’m experiencing a sorrowful sense of deja vu and foreboding for TikTok. Just when it seems like everything is going well for the platform, it simultaneously feels as if it is set up for a downfall it never sees coming. What geopolitics couldn’t kill, runaway success just might.
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We’ve all seen this moment play out with just about every social platform that’s come before us: The platform is launched; a community develops with its own unique content, norms, and rules; and top performers wield powerful influence bestowed upon them by their fans. And then, inevitably, marketers discover the platform and see business potential and dollar signs.
We’ve already witnessed the corporatization of TikTok in the case of the Ocean Spray viral video. A few months ago, no one knew who Nathan Apodaca was. Back in September, the 37-year-old Idahoan content creator found himself stranded on the side of the road, his truck stalled on the way to his work at a potato warehouse. That all changed when he posted his 25-second video of him skateboarding down the Idaho Falls highway.
In typical viral meme fashion, a wide swathe of pop culture brokers attempted to recreate the moment and enthusiastically hopped onto the chill vibes bandwagon. They even encouraged others to join in on the fun via the #DreamsChallenge: Late-night host Jimmy Fallon recreated the moment. So did Fleetwood Mac’s Mick Fleetwood and Stevie Nicks alongside countless others from the far corners of the internet. Thanks to Apodaca’s viral video, Fleetwood Mac is seeing its 43-year-old song back in the top 10 on many music charts and has topped several streaming charts in the past few months.
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It was a feel-good moment not just for the social media community but for TikTok itself after a tumultuous summer in which the platform’s existence has been under constant threat of a ban of downloads in the U.S. Unfortunately, I fear it’s also the first sounding of a death knell for what has made this platform and community special: its ability to elevate and popularize organic, homemade content. At these inflection points, online social platforms like Facebook and Instagram have experienced an influx of marketers looking to drop money because their agency has promised virality or because the client has demanded virality. And the moment brands discover or realize that virality happens on a platform, they start trying to engineer more virality.
Trying to engineer “viral” content is like trying to make “fetch” happen; the harder we try, the less it will work.
This phenomenon stems from the fact that far too many creatives and marketing and PR types like myself have a fundamental misunderstanding of — or refuse to want to understand — virality and community. They see it as something inherent to the platform that, therefore, can be conjured on demand. In essence, they see it as an opportunity to sell.
Here’s the thing: Virality has to be organic. Its origin is natural; it’s not created in a lab or boardroom nor in a hip neighborhood building’s conference room with lots of exposed brick, glass walls, and whiteboards. It happens mysteriously and inexplicably, even randomly. Trying to engineer “viral” content is like trying to make “fetch” happen; the harder we try, the less it will work.
That doesn’t dissuade marketers who are convinced that because they either use the platform or have studied millennial or Gen Z behavior from trying really hard anyway. And soon, a platform once defined by an organic community becomes overrun with branded content and is driven less by the creativity and quality of its users and more by money — brands and marketing agencies that want to spend it to buy visibility and influence and users who want to attract the attention and invoices of those brands and marketing agencies. Soon, that platform is no longer a community; it’s just another marketing channel.
You can see it happening on TikTok already. Not that brands and marketers weren’t aware of TikTok yet, but the “Dreams” video has forced it onto the radars of even the most social-media-resistant among the profession and its clients — noting the spike in Ocean Spray sales and dreaming breathlessly of the business results they can generate through the TikTok audience.
Ocean Spray capitalizes on the #DreamsChallenge
For its part, Ocean Spray gifted Apodaca with a new cranberry red Nissan truck with the truck bed filled with Ocean Spray products as a thank you. The Massachusetts-based agricultural co-op is also launching its first national campaign targeting Hispanic consumers in the wake of Apodaca’s video. Apodaca’s Vegas vacation came courtesy of Ceasars Palace casino, which happily included its own hashtag in recounting his story.
Ocean Spray’s new CEO, Tom Hayes, was also quick to join TikTok and put out his own tribute, no doubt a thank you to Apodaca for the millions of dollars worth of free advertising. (I’ll give him credit for at least looking smooth and at home on the skateboard. There are not a lot of CEOs who could pull that off, so props to the man for the effort.)
But Apodaca didn’t set out to get a new truck or a day in Vegas or a TV commercial or the attention of Ocean Spray; he was just turning lemons into lemonade after his car broke down. And yet the net effect of this whole phenomenon, beyond giving a potato warehouse worker his 15 minutes, will be the spawning of imitators and ham-handed efforts from both brands seeking to be viral and would-be influencers trying to get in on the gravy train. And I don’t begrudge Apodaca, who was just being himself and not obviously trying to go viral for the sake of Ocean Spray. Ride the wave, man.
I’ve seen this before because I’ve been responsible for it. Working in digital and social media 15 years ago, I was part of the marketing chorus pushing brands to get on social platforms and begin engaging and calling for budgets that reflected the size of any given consumer segment. I was the first social media lead for both IBM and General Motors in the 2000s. At that time, it was less about chasing specific demographics as recognizing that a new generation of audiences was spending more time on new social media channels and platforms than on traditional marketing channels — and that brands that wanted to remain relevant to a Facebook or Twitter generation couldn’t reach them through ads in the newspaper or even TV. I guess you could call it pursuing the next generation of consumers.
But in being part of the vanguard there, I also got to see the downside — that is, seeing what happens to a platform’s nature when marketing takes over, hearing the conversations inside conference rooms where marketers who’ve never been on a platform are trying to develop campaigns for it and fielding the shameless emails and phone calls from self-proclaimed big deals on the platform seeking free products and boasting of the size of their audience.
It doesn’t end well: The platform starts to cater to the money being spent, the user content becomes not self-expression but a cynical push for influence, and soon you end up with the Federal Trade Commission having to remind everyone that sponsored content has to be prominently labeled as such because there’s such a wave of it.
I hope Apodaca enjoyed his moment. TikTok may well be enjoying its comeback moment as well, but its leadership — as well as its user community that has made it what it is — should exercise caution and care in the coming months if the platform is to retain its quirky character. In particular, TikTok should take care to strike the right balance between original and sponsored content. The platform needs to be judicious to what degree it allows itself to be deployed as a marketing channel. Apodaca may well be the gift of viral fire provided to brands by TikTok’s Prometheus — but we’d do well to remember that the Greek gods punished Prometheus for his transgression, and the culture gods could just as easily punish TikTok if it follows Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and others down the rabbit hole to become just another promotional black hole.