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Deep Dive 5 May 2021 - 5 min read

The new ‘Wild West’ of socials: TikTok under pressure as brands and agencies spooked over brand safety, reporting methods and influencer involvement

By Josh McDonnell - Senior Writer

History repeating? Despite its immense popularity, short-form video platform TikTok appears to be falling into the same pitfalls as its social media predecessors, with "wild west" practices, brand safety concerns and "clunky" reporting coming to light.

With big name brands on its platform, TikTok is seemingly becoming the social platform of choice for clients looking to tap into millennial and Gen Z audiences. But brands and agencies remain concerned about brand safety, reporting and the use of influencers. Some have made comparisons to the early days of Instagram advertising, labelling TikTok the “new Wild West” of social media. So what comes next for the “fun-loving” platform – and are tighter regulations the next step to appease unconvinced brands?

What you need to know:

  • With over 2.5m Australian users, social video platform TikTok is seeing a mass migration of millennial and Gen Z audiences.
  • A global study from WARC suggests 44 per cent of brands will increase spend on TikTok this year.
  • User growth has seen brands such as AfterPay, Kia, Hyundai, Budget Direct, Arnott’s and Optus utilise TikTok locally.
  • But not everyone is convinced, with agencies and clients raising concerns over brand safety, campaign reporting methods and the use of influencers.
  • This year, it was found multiple “creators” were using TikTok to market nicotine vapes to teen audiences.
  • Adult nudity and sexual activities and minor safety remain the most common reasons for content removal from the platform – and it's spooking some brands.
  • Mini Australia marketing boss Alex McLean says TikTok is trying to solve the issues, and that the platform’s “premium inventory” is the best workaround.
  • Tribe’s Jules Lund says the use of influencers on TikTok has the hallmarks of the early “Wild West” days of social media advertising. He says it badly needs a standardised rate card.

They have [brand safety] workarounds but that often means buying their premium inventory; takeovers, pre-rolls and challenges. There’s no issue with that but then you’re also left to place a bit of trust in the algorithm, which has been an area of contention in the brand safety conversation.

Alex McLean, Head of Marketing, Mini Australia

Bad timing

Touting brands such as AfterPay, Kia, Hyundai, Budget Direct, Arnott’s and Optus as key advertisers, social video platform TikTok is still riding a massive wave of audience increases post-lockdown.

Roy Morgan’s latest numbers put the current Australian user base at 2.5m, however, these were last released in December 2020, and it's likely the platform is now circa 3m.

TikTok is also catching the attention of marketers across the globe, with a WARC report on marketing trends in 2021 revealing 44 per cent of CMOs plan to up their investment in the platform, ahead of Facebook, where 39 per cent intend to spend more ad dollars.

However, increased interest brings greater scrutiny. Just like the early days of Instagram ads, agencies and clients are raising concerns over the platform's ability to address problems with brand safety, influencers and campaign reporting.

The platform has been plagued by multiple scandals surrounding user generated content.

Recently it was discovered creators were using TikTok videos to market nicotine vapes to teen users, mirroring hashtags associated with popular trends.

Hashtagging and the use of music, a major part of video creation and a way the algorithm can serve content, were also used as part of a 'hoax' that promoted rape culture in the US last month.

The series of posts promoted a fake “National Rape Day”, encouraging viewers to commit sexual assault. While the original posts are gone, millions of videos using the hashtag “April24” are still live.

Adult nudity and sexual activities and minor safety remain the two most common reasons for content removal from the platform.

Agency execs told Mi3 these concerns are limiting the amount of spend by marketers on the platform. If TikTok wants more marketing dollars, they say, it needs to fix these problems.

One agency leader says “very few” of its clients are willing to use the platform. 

“If you’re a respected brand why would you run the risk of showing up next to controversial content? Especially given there’s no explanation into how the algorithm serves up videos. 

“While there is an audience there, the effort to prove brand safety is lacking – and the brands TikTok are looking to partner with place a lot of value in safe environments, especially if they’ve been burnt in the past.”

In response to brand safety concerns TikTok Australia boss Brett Armstrong says the platform is committed to helping make its millions of users feel "safe and comfortable within the community".

He said TikTok is continuously "enhancing and updating" its policies, tools and resources to promote a positive and safe app environment.

"By protecting the safety of our users we create a positive environment for brands, and we remain committed to protecting brands against appearing next to objectionable content when advertising on TikTok," per Armstrong.

While there is an audience there, the effort to prove brand safety is lacking – and the brands TikTok are looking to partner with place a lot of value in safe environment, especially if they’ve been burnt in the past.

Media agency exec

The workaround

Mini Australia Head of Marketing, Alex McLean, who was one of the first marketers to invest in the platform locally, says there are clear concerns around brand safety on TikTok.

However, he argues this is the case with any emerging social platform – even the mature platforms. And these concerns have not prevented the BMW-owned brand from increasing its global spend with TikTok after it delivered strong results.

“They have workarounds but that often means buying their premium inventory; takeovers, pre-rolls and hashtag challenges,” McLean tells Mi3.

“There’s no issue with that but then you’re also left to place a bit of trust in the algorithm, which has been an area of contention in the brand safety conversation.”

However those buying premium inventory are far less likely to run into unsafe content, with TikTok placing these ads against “verified accounts” approved by TikTok.

“That’s a precaution they are taking and something I think will continue to improve on the platform over time,” McLean says.

“It’s something they lean on quite heavily ... so they are aware of the concerns but I think it’s an area that will take time.”

Blown away?

Yet TikTok's Brett Armstrong says the reception it has had from advertisers has “blown [them] away” and appetite from advertisers “isn’t slowing down”, leading the platform to hire more staff and build out more ad solutions.

However, some think that view is optimistic. One agency exec claimed TikTok’s push for FMCG, retail and financial brand dollars is falling flat.

“It’s a cheaper option compared to Facebook and Instagram, which makes it appealing but the low cost certainly doesn’t match up.

“They’re trying to match commercial growth with the audience boom and that won’t work. Look how long it took brands to get on-board with Snapchat…and they had a clearer plan than TikTok does.”

Catch CMO Ryan Gracie and marketing boss for ready meal business My Muscle Chef, Clementine Churchill, both previously told Mi3 that they weren't convinced by the value of the app, although Kia marketer Dean Norbiato thinks the TikTok is "terribly undervalued" given the results its premium TopView formats can deliver.

What it is in desperate need of is a standardised rate card that both brands and creators are comfortable with and questions need to be asked on both sides around brand safety.

Jules Lund, Founder, Tribe

Tik-ed off

TopView ads appear as the first piece of content a user sees when scrolling. Brand Takeover formats are seen when people first open the app. These are the most popular form of inventory with brands. In-feed ads, hashtag challenges and branded effects are also available.

Pricing for each varies, with Takeovers being the most expensive, coming in at circa $50,000.

Generally running for 3-4 four weeks, Kia's Norbiato reported strong results, with a recent campaign yielding 8.3m impressions and a CTR of 16.29 per cent.

But TikTok probably needs to refine its tools for advertisers, according to Matt Papasavva, Digital Lead for indie agency This Is Flow.

He says there the platform is extremely cost-effective and useful when it comes to generating broad reach but activating “more finessed” campaigns remains tricky.

“What we’ve found is that if you build a broad and simple campaign for clients, you can deliver huge reach and audiences quite cheaply,” Papasavva says.

“It’s when you want to go down the path of interest targeting or start trying to speak to defined segments that it can become frustrating.

“TikTok is new and so maybe they haven’t built those mechanics out as well as other social players – but it is a pain point when trying to deliver on budgets for brands that are looking for specific audiences and demos.”

Agencies are also underwhelmed by reporting tools, citing a lack of depth in post-campaign analysis and suggesting the platform is “clunky” when it comes to showing exactly how users are engaging with sponsored content.

“In one scenario we got 6000 clicks for an activation. However, the platform’s campaign manager component couldn’t show exactly where those users ended up after viewing the video,” a digital media exec tells Mi3.

“The client had to use its own reporting tools to figure out how much direct site traffic came from TikTok. It seems a small complaint – but that’s something that wastes time and really shouldn’t be an issue in digital marketing.”

In response, the company says it is working towards multiple fixes and solutions, including a Lead Generation capability, alongside improving its 'TikTok for Business' tools.

 

They’re new and so maybe they haven’t built those mechanics out as well as other social players – but it is a pain point when trying to deliver on budgets that are looking for specific audiences and demos.

Matt Papasavva, Digital Lead, This Is Flow

Enter the influencers

Much like Instagram before it, brands are hiring influencers on TikTok, which the platform calls "creators".

Jules Lund, founder of influencer marketing network, Tribe, compares the nascent market to the beginnings of influencer marketing on Instagram.

“We’ve helped run a couple of campaigns on TikTok and it’s the Wild West when it comes to pricing – the variance is all over the place,” Lund says.

“It is in desperate need of a standardised rate card that both brands and creators are comfortable with and questions need to be asked on both sides around [how it can address] brand safety.”

Tribe was an active player in establishing a uniform rate card and guidelines for brands and influencers working across Instagram.

Lund says brands should also note that there isn’t going to be a perfect solution for brand safety, with the onus on marketers to decide what they are comfortable with.

He says brands should be aware that there is explicit language frequently featured on the platform, not because the creator is using it directly but because there are plenty of "trending songs" that include it in the lyrics.

"You're more likely to see brands that are comfortable with that sort of music or style on the platform, because someone might be clean as a whistle with their content but the song or hashtag challenge that they use may involve swearing and other topics," Lund says.

"At this stage, it's really a digital playground for marketers who are okay with this."

It is understood TikTok is refining the way it currently works with influencers, launching initiatives such as the Creator Marketplace, which helps link creators with clients.

Ultimately this will give ARN a new channel to promote our stations and get those younger audiences ... back listening to radio and digital audio.

Corey Layton, Head of Digital Audio, ARN

Audio audiences

It's not just marketers that are getting on board with the platform, media owners are also tapping into TikTok in a bid to reach new audiences.

Radio network ARN and podcast partner iHeartRadio are working alongside the social media player to create a three-month-long pop-up radio station.

The station, TikTok Trending, features music discovered through the platform and utilises Australian musicians such as G Flip and Isaiah Firebrace to promote both ARN stations and TikTok.

TikTok and ARN have an undisclosed revenue-sharing arrangement, with TPG/Vodafone’s budget business Felix Mobile signed on as the first sponsor.

ARN Head of Digital Audio, Corey Layton says the move isn’t simply about a commercial opportunity but about tapping into “elusive audiences”.

“Commercial benefits are of course something that we will both work together on achieving and have had early success with Felix Mobile, while other discussions are ongoing,” Layton says.

“Ultimately this will give ARN a new channel to promote our stations and get those younger audiences – which we know are difficult to attract and engage – back into radio and our digital audio offering.”

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