TikTok’s strange, unprecedented twists and turns take place against the backdrop of significant changes to social media itself, as it evolves from a medium for sharing into a one-to-many broadcast medium for the digital age.

TikTok’s platform is built on viral content through casually created, widely distributed videos. It seems everyone and their mother aims to be featured on the “For You Page,” where TikTok provides a curated feed of videos from anywhere in the world, to enjoy their fifteen seconds of fame. In curating content from across the platform, TikTok represents a departure from older social media platforms that were designed to distribute content more narrowly, to a limited group based on community, geography, or shared interests. And, while entirely different in tone and structure, TikTok is not unlike traditional broadcast media outlets that are also made to widely distribute content to compete for the largest possible audience.

TikTok’s efforts to monetize its platform can tell us a lot about the future of not only the social media business, but also of TV and one-to-many media in general.

TikTok wins a seat at the table

Some of the first major social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and LinkedIn, were built to help users create and share media within finite circuits of followers. Generally, these circuits would include friends, family, and colleagues. Such real-life social connections, as the “social media” moniker suggests, were the core of these platforms’ user experiences, distribution frameworks, and monetization models.

Gradually, each of these platforms has worked to make itself more suitable for broader and more public communications, tweaking algorithms and user experiences to encourage more professional content production and wider audience distribution. This change explains why we see more incentives for professional content creators (as with Facebook Watch and Snap Originals), and more resources put into promoting users to discover content beyond their existing social networks (as with Twitter’s Trending Topics). Having mastered the one-to-few experience, and having monetized it more successfully than anyone could have predicted, social media platforms are trying to master the one-to-many playbook, where TV still remains the undisputed king.

TikTok is already there. By encouraging anyone to produce entertaining content for a global audience, TikTok has leapfrogged the social giants while nobody was looking and won a seat at the table with players in TV and streaming. TikTok has recently cemented this firm position among the top social platforms: It is currently the most downloaded app in the Apple App Store and Google Play, a cultural phenomenon large enough to be turned into a geopolitical football.

As TikTok paves a new path at the intersection of social virality and TV entertainment, it brings new advertising opportunities to allow brands and organizations to connect with consumers. Moving forward, the key to success for marketers will be to create content that meets the unique nature of the platform. Videos must be immersive but not too polished, and value-driven yet not overtly commercial. In other words, they must be built from the ground up for entertainment and virality.

Will TikTok win a share of the wallet?

Clearly, TikTok has claimed a unique place in the media ecosystem. The question now is how well the platform can monetize this position. While wide distribution of casual content can provide tremendous brand-building opportunities, it is not yet clear whether TikTok can make this format work for direct response campaigns, which are centered on driving immediate action and conversion. Unlike Facebook or Pinterest, TikTok does not have signals of consumer purchase intent. And it will only get harder for TikTok to build rich audience profiles as local governments scrutinize how the company manages user data.

Looking ahead, TikTok may lean on social commerce both for immediate monetization and for sourcing intent signals to bolster advertising targeting. In the short term, this involves scaling its successful pilot of shoppable ads in the U.S. Shoppable ads are, in many ways, the single ad unit that brings together the power of digital with the reach of a one-to-many platform. They collapse the funnel, transforming every brand message into an opportunity for conversion. It’s no surprise that TV is on a similar trajectory with monetization, with leading broadcasters like NBC introducing shoppable ads in both TV and digital video formats. Walmart’s pursuit of a stake in TikTok signals that the tie-in with commerce holds real potential. As shoppable formats become more standardized in video, Walmart and other retail giants see new territory where their mountains of purchase intent data and command of the lower funnel can translate into better monetization.

TikTok has proven that its algorithm is incredibly effective at keeping people engaged by surfacing videos based on what people watch. Time will tell if it can also prove effective at matching brands with consumers based on their interests. If it can, TikTok will capture a share of the $600 billion global advertising industry that is befitting its unique place in the ecosystem. If it can’t, it will end up in in the social media graveyard alongside MySpace, Friendster, and Vine.


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