TikTok on the advertisers’ clock, but brand worries don’t stop

On 13 September, online classifieds firm OLX launched its first-ever advertising campaign on TikTok, the wildly popular short-video app that has a 200-million strong user-base in India.

OLX roped in top TikTok influencers like Awez Darbar, Arishfa Khan, and Avneet Kaur to perform a 15-second skit encouraging young users to use OLX. The three-day hashtag campaign #OLXDekhaHai amassed over 2 billion views. But what was unique was fans imitating their favorite influencers and creating their own versions of the video.

Original influencer videos: 10. The number of imitation videos: over 7,000. The campaign garnered over 30 million unique visitors.

OLX’s campaign was no outlier.

Big Billions Day

Within 24 hours of going live on 18 September, e-commerce giant Flipkart’s flagship ‘Big Billion Days’ sale campaign on TikTok was a viral sensation. On the ByteDance-owned platform, #BigBillionStar—which featured exclusive videos from Indian celebrities Amitabh Bachchan, MS Dhoni and Alia Bhatt—had racked up over 300 million views.

TikTok’s pitch to advertisers is simple: A brand-safe environment to get new internet users excited about your brand through video-ads. This is a far cry from the public perception surrounding it just a year ago when the app courted controversy for reasons ranging from possible pedophilia to soft pornography.

TikTok, though, hasn’t just weathered the criticism. The app, which allows users to make and watch videos scored to music and movie dialogues, has developed a devoted user base in markets like China and the US. In India, the platform claims over 120 million monthly active users.

In a short span of two years, the app has grown to rival companies like Facebook and YouTube, crossing 1 billion downloads on the Apple and Google Play stores. And on the back of this popularity, the app has emerged as a pioneer of short-video advertising, something many before it has failed at.

The company has made inroads in the Indian market where it has the attention of tier-2 and -3 users, a unique proposition for brands looking to go beyond the big city bubble. By opening up brands to this demographic, they are squaring off against Facebook and YouTube for ad dollars. And TikTok is more than up for a scrap.

TikTok has doubled down on its ad sales efforts over the past three months. It has introduced new ad formats in India—ones that were previously successful on its Chinese sister app, Douyin. These added formats are expected to drive advertising by allowing brands to experiment. But an evolving format also suggests volatility. Will TikTok need to constantly reinvent its monetization strategy to keep up?

Post-ban fixes

TikTok first showcased in-feed ads to its users in November 2018, less than a year after debuting in India. These 9 to 60-second-long videos run for a full day and pop up after every 10 videos on a user’s feed. These ads were not not targeted at any user category when they started, but TikTok has introduced a premium version that is more targeted. Such ads cost roughly Rs 105 ($1.5) for every 1,000 impressions.

But even as TikTok’s advertising business was getting off the ground, it faced a major setback. In April, TikTok was temporarily banned in India (from Apple and Google Play stores) for “encouraging pornography”. The Ken could not independently verify if any of the brands advertising on the platform back then—fellow Chinese brands like Oppo, Vivo, Club Factory, Hago, etc.—pulled out following the ban. But brand safety on TikTok became a concern.

Following the ban, TikTok made efforts to improve transparency. For one, it ramped up its workforce, with an eye on content moderation. By the end of 2019, the firm expects to have over 1,000 employees (from a few hundred now), a quarter of them just for content moderation.

The company intends to use the extra eyes to pore through content on TikTok, flagging anything inappropriate and ensuring ads are not placed around such videos. Product tweaks ensured that a ‘brand’ video was placed around manually reviewed and approved content, with a premium option that places ads around the platform’s top 5% of videos by viewership.


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