Imagining a world without TikTok

From Facebook’s Instagram to upstart Triller, platforms are angling to become the next TikTok, regardless of whether the platform’s time is up in the US

TikTok: branded national threat to US security by Donald Trump
TikTok: branded national threat to US security by Donald Trump

September 15 could be the end of TikTok in the US if an American business, likely Microsoft, can’t reach an agreement to buy the platform by then. Yet while content creators are fretting, brands, for the most part, are not. 

Most have not established a strong presence on TikTok. And for the ones that have, it would be easy to pivot that investment elsewhere.

A slew of competitors to TikTok are swooping in to challenge — or replace  one of the fastest-growing social media networks in the world that is especially popular with Gen Z for fun challenges, dance videos, split-screen duets, life hacks and more. 

Crystal Duncan, VP of influencer marketing at Edelman, notes competitors such as Instagram were eyeing this type of short video content long before President Donald Trump branded TikTok a national security threat. TikTok is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, and Trump argues US user data would be shared with the Chinese government. 

“We are already seeing this type of pickup from other platforms,” says Duncan. “I think some brands have paid attention to TikTok, but obviously some have not. This is pretty typical in the space. There are always brands that are early adopters.”

That group includes Little Caesars, which has more than 64,000 followers on TikTok and challenges like #GoCrazy moments in celebration of Stuffed Crazy Bread; Chipotle, which has more than 921,000 followers and the #GuacDance challenge and menu hacks; and Dan-O's Seasoning, which has more than 493,000 followers and cooking tips, flavor hacks and amusing musical snippets. 

Still, most brands are focusing their attention on bigger platforms such as Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and YouTube, says Joe Gagliese, cofounder and CEO of Viral Nation, an influencer marketing and talent agency. Gagliese’s shop advises the influencers it represents to be as diversified as possible on social media. 

“TikTok is still pretty nascent from an influencer marketing and media perspective,” he says. “The media is not yet at a level where it can command significant marketing spend. We’re finding only a few brands running media on the platform because they just don’t have the budget room for it. From an influencer marketing perspective, it is the last on the list, too.”

That doesn’t mean its hard-to-reach user base isn’t very appealing, especially to brands that skew younger. Generation Z has grown up on TikTok and, unlike Facebook or Instagram, feel that it belongs to them. Still, 35% of Generation Z use TikTok versus 68.3% on Instagram, according to January 2020 TikTok figures from YPulse and February 2020 Instagram figures from eMarketer. 

Yet TikTok is growing quickly and has great potential for brands, notes Jim Tobin, president and founder of influencer marketing agency Carusele. 

“While the number of Gen Zers on Instagram is almost double, the trend line in terms of growth does favor TikTok right now, especially in terms of engagement,” he says. Tobin cities TikTok documents from March 2019, which indicate the average user was on the app for 46 minutes per day. Given the pandemic, that number is surely now significantly higher. 

Other social media networks are trying to recreate TikTok’s secret sauce. This week, Facebook-owned Instagram launched Reels, a feature that enables users to record, edit and share 15-second videos, as well as add visual effects and background audio and music from licensed music distributors. The videos can be shared with followers in Feed, and discovered wider in a dedicated section, Reels in Explore, or in Story, where posts disappear after 24 hours. 

Reels has launched in more than 50 markets globally, including the US. It comes after Facebook shut down Lasso, what many called a TikTok clone, last month. 

Influencer marketing experts also have their eyes on Los Angeles-based Triller, whose chief strategy officer is 18-year-old Josh Richards. He has amassed more than 20.8 million followers and 1.3 billion “likes” on TikTok. 

“I’d say one that seems to be rising to the top is Triller, in looking at download activity, sign ups and usage information,” says Duncan. “Triller seems to be growing exponentially amid the TikTok controversy conversations. Many of TikTok’s top creators have even announced they have switched to Triller due to privacy concerns or other reasons.”

Triller, which was founded in 2015, is celebrating the app’s jump to the top of the App Store in 50 countries, including the US. Its statement also pointed out the influencers who, like Richards, are transitioning from TikTok to Triller.

Hiltzik Strategies is handling media relations for Triller, PRWeek has confirmed. 

Other experts say Triller is celebrating too quickly. ByteDance says it “remains committed to becoming a global company” despite a “tense international political environment, the collision and conflict of different cultures and the plagiarism and smear of competitor Facebook.” 

Microsoft is reportedly in talks with TikTok to buy not just the US footprint, but its global business, except Chinese operations, where the platform is called Douyin. 

“If the deal with Microsoft goes through, that would be epic for the platform,” says Gagliese. “You’d see an onslaught of media dollars being poured into it just because of the trust factor Microsoft has built up.” 

“And for Microsoft, it would be the most brilliant marketing move of the modern era. As an iconic brand, they’ve had a hard time connecting with Gen Z audience, so buying it and integrating their brand name into the mind of practically every Generation Z kid in all of America would alone be worth the money,” he adds. 

Jim Lin, EVP and executive director of digital at Golin, notes that he has seen social media networks come and go, and some fail. He says TikTok’s secret is focusing on creative exploration and fun. 

“The other social platforms, even some like Instagram that can involve more creativity, is to document your life. On Twitter, it’s what you’re thinking about right now, on Facebook it’s updates about your life, on LinkedIn it’s what you’re doing at work, and on Instagram it’s about where you are, although often through a glamorous lens,” he says. “TikTok is more about creating and discovering fun, engaging, compelling and provocative content.” 

Lin joined TikTok to see what his 10-year-old daughter was watching and got hooked himself by “the amazing algorithm.” He says it is also less socially connected in terms of the people you know and “likes” aren’t used to validate someone, as they are on Facebook and Instagram. 

“On TikTok, you often ‘like’ so it’s easy for you to go back and laugh or be amazed again or learn a hack or dance,” he says. “Just that difference shows for a brand to be a part of the TikTok community, it needs to have fun and be creative.”

A version of this article first appeared on PRWeek