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Gen Z TikTok Social Commerce

Letter from gen Z: here’s how we really use social commerce

By Emily Johnson, Columnist

June 15, 2021 | 5 min read

Did TikTok make you buy something? If so, you’re not alone. The platform’s appeal is growing both as a social commerce platform and a recommendation. Once you layer on Amazon and Instagram Closet accounts, you’ve got a formula for how gen Z is shopping online today.


TikTok is now influencing what gen Zers buy

There is no shortage of videos on TikTok bearing the hashtag #tiktokmademebuyit. The platform increasingly has the power to influence purchase decisions.

As a gen Z, I know my friends and I are all constantly being persuaded to spend our money on products we see on TikTok. Through some grassroots research I found that the platform’s influence also stretches to people in their late twenties.

One typical 26-year-old, agency account executive Sara Gelbard, tells me: “The last 12 things I bought for my new apartment in Manhattan were all from TikTok and the places I’ve been out to eat all come from recommendations on there.”

It appears city dwellers are bypassing Yelp and OpenTable to discover new spots to eat and hang out as places open up. Clearly TikTok is more than a social commerce platform – it is also becoming a strong rival as a recommendation engine.

The harmony of influencers and everyday voices

Why is TikTok becoming so successful as both a social commerce platform and a recommendation engine? And why should the other platforms take note?

The uniqueness of TikTok is that the everyday person’s voice is not drowned out by celebrities and big brands with deep pockets.

As a consumer, I am just as likely to see content from a regular person with a genuine love for a brand as a celebrity who has been incentivized to promote a product. While I don’t profess to be an expert in how algorithms work, I do know, from my perspective, TikTok has cracked the code on it. It brings me content from both sides of the equation: I value endorsements (paid or unpaid) both from celebrities and from ‘real people’.

TikTok influencers hold such power that hundreds of thousands of consumers want to know where everything in their videos can be bought, from the sweatshirt they wear to the decor behind their head. And the big winner here is, you guessed it, Amazon. These influencers create their own pages on Amazon, which act as a curated store for everything people have seen them wear or use. This, of course, helps to sell out every product of theirs that you can buy on the platform.

Gen Z’s secret formula for social commerce

However, if you know anything about gen Z, you know that we as a generation love to wear lesser-known brands and support upcoming entrepreneurs. There is obviously a huge gap in the market to capture all the brands not listed on Amazon and help these smaller companies reach their target audience once they have been featured.

The best substitute for that right now is through Instagram, where there are ‘Closet’ accounts. These Closet accounts showcase the entire wardrobe of a celebrity or influencer. They do all the leg work for you in finding these lesser-known brands that have not yet taken off.

I had a frustrating experience during fall last year trying to find the sweatshirts I liked worn by TikTokers. Google led me into a mass of generic big sweatshirt brands, and it was impossible to find what I was looking for. Entering through the front door of the Amazon search was no better. I needed a curator who understood my gen Z search for the lesser-known brands featured in the videos.

The latest marketing buzz is that Instagram is bringing in ‘drops’ for those quickly disappearing limited-edition items. I’m not sure if I or my friend group would find this a valuable resource – no one in my group even uses the Instagram shop button as it leads us to the generic and not the interesting. So it remains to be seen how that will play out.

Right now, gen Z’s social commerce mix is a blend of finding out what is trendy through influencer posts on TikTok, buying the more mainstream items from Amazon shops, and using Instagram Closet accounts to find the lesser-known items.

What I’d like to see is a commerce platform that acts as an aggregator of the smaller brands highlighted by TikTokers. That’s definitely needed. In the meantime, we will continue to watch, spend and hashtag #tiktokmademebuyit.

Emily Johnson is an editorial intern at The Drum and future Syracuse University undergrad.

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