TikTok is creating a frenzy in Congress, which could expand to include those of us in the marketing world. The fun entertainment-oriented app that has grown to over one billion users worldwide since its inception in 2016 is now the sixth-largest social media platform. Estimates of US users range from 130 to 150 million, with Gen Z representing the highest concentration of its constituents, followed by millennials. It also is used by two-thirds of teens.

This Thursday, March 23, CEO of TikTok Shou Zi Chew will testify during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing, where many lawmakers are looking to ban TikTok’s use in the United States due to concerns about the safety of user data. Owned by the Chinese firm ByteDance, TikTok is seen as a potential security threat. This may feel like déjà vu since former president Donald Trump tried to ban the app during his term unless it was sold to a US company. However, this time around, the concern comes from both sides of the aisle and has been reenforced by FBI Director Chris Wray’s testimony last week before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Is the clock TikTok-ing away?

  1. Two weeks ago, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill, the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology (RESTRICT) Act, that would give the secretary of commerce broad power to regulate tech produced by six countries with which the US has an adversarial relationship: China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia, and Venezuela. The bill was endorsed by the White House. And while the bill does not specifically name TikTok, the bill’s sponsors did state explicitly they consider TikTok a security risk.
  1. The federal government has banned the use of TikTok on any device it issues and at least 24 states have taken similar steps with respect to the phones/devices they provide to employees.
  1. TikTok has been working with CFIUS (Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States) to set up infrastructure and processes that would ensure user data is inaccessible to Beijing. But there is no outcome to these talks as of now, and it is likely the bill will begin to wend it way through Congress.
  1. It is difficult to predict the timing of any potential action. There are many steps to passing a bill. It must go through committee and then be approved by the full Senate. From there it moves on to the same process in the House. At each step, there could be lengthy discussion, debate, and proposed revisions. Once it has passed both chambers, it is sent to the president.

What should marketers know in the face of a potential ban on TikTok?

Prepare for a media landscape without TikTok, identifying alternatives to reach specific audiences.

Understanding the TikTok audience.

  1. According to Statista, 21.5% of TikTok’s global audience are women between the ages of 18 and 24 years old. Male users of the same age make up approximately 17% of the platform. 40% of TikTok users don’t have a Facebook profile and 63% aren’t on Twitter
  2. TikTok has set the format for short-form video entertainment, with users creating videos from 15 seconds to 10 minutes. TikTok users have a high level of engagement with content on the platform. The secret sauce is TikTok’s algorithm, which identifies and promotes videos of potential interest to the user.
  3. Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts were both developed in reaction to TikTok to try to build off the popularity of the format. Instagram Reels users are about evenly split male/female and a smaller percentage are GenZ. YouTube Shorts has a more male and older audience than the other two.
  4. Another social media app whose users are demographically similar to TikTok is Snapchat. While its global reach is slightly more than TikTok’s one billion, Snapchat has 108 million users in the US.

According to Insider Intelligence/eMarketer, Instagram has the highest overlap with TikTok users, but as the following chart from Insider Intelligence/eMarketer shows, there is much overlap among TikTok and these other apps.

Why do ads work on TikTok?

  1. TikTok ads tend to engage users at rates 2 to 3 times higher than the other video formats. This may be due to TikTok offering a variety of formats, several of which are designed to engage viewers to respond by creating their own videos.
  2. It is difficult to speak to cost comparisons. Depending on whether the strategy is to increase followers or promote sales or sign-ups, there can be a range of costs, and the various apps are relatively comparable in costs for reaching our target audiences. We do extensive testing to fine-tune efficiencies and optimize outcomes.

What’s next?

As we wait to see how the political arena plays out, it is important to start testing and comparing results among various media platforms to make sure that, whatever the TikTok outcome is, as marketers we are prepared to deliver the best performance for the brands we serve.