TikTok Social Media Media Planning and Buying

What a government TikTok ban could mean for marketers

By Ed East

March 20, 2023 | 9 min read

Ed East, global chief exec and co-founder of Billion Dollar Boy discusses the big taboo subject in adland - what happens if TikTok gets banned. Agencies looking to assess the situation, read on.

Finger over TikTok app

To ban or not to ban: What a government TikTok ban could mean for the marketing industry / Adobe Stock

News that TikTok has been banned from government devices in the UK will hardly surprise those who have been following the story closely. Britain is just the latest western country to introduce a ban - ranging from a total ban in India to federal bans in the US and Europe.

In a now familiar statement announcing the ban, minister Oliver Dowden, declared the government’s review found there “could” be a risk to how data and information are used by TikTok.

Are the bans right?

While there’s no denying the potential security issues which must be taken seriously, the wider impact of a government ban and potential nationwide ban means that the issue is less black and white than surface-level inspection suggests.

A lot of content creators rely on the platform for their livelihoods and have invested a lot of time and resources into building valuable communities. Brands also use TikTok as an important tool for communicating with and engaging consumers. And consumers use the platform for entertainment, information and inspiration.

A compromise solution could represent the best path forward to appease both sides of the argument. Under the Trump administration, we saw proposed legislation recommending that TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, be forced to sell US operations to an American tech major. That would constitute a more sensible and pragmatic approach to the TikTok problem.

Regardless, TikTok will need to make an effort to reassure users and stakeholders of its compliance with fair and transparent data handling. Recent news at the turn of the year, that the platform has used personal data to track the location of journalists at the Financial Times and Forbes, among others, is certainly not going to help.

What is the industry impact?

Currently, we are continuing to advise clients to invest in TikTok. I am still bullish about its future, it’s where we recommend our brand partners to increasingly reach new audiences through highly engaging content. And this conviction is supported by hard evidence.

Take the US market for example, despite a strong threat of a widespread ban for an extended period of time, users in the US haven’t been deterred. In fact, the number of users is projected to increase by around 8% year-over-year.

Additionally, the number of US TikTok buyers is set to rise by 72.3% this year to reach 23.7 million. That makes TikTok a hugely valuable asset to brands. Indeed, a new report has found that 75% of marketers plan to increase their activity on TikTok. And that mirrors our own experience at Billion Dollar Boy, with brands largely increasing their focus on TikTok this year regardless of the threat of bans.

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There is, of course, precedent for TikTok’s current predicament - in particular Facebook which has been subject to regulation pertaining to its misuse of data, misinformation and displaying news content to name a few examples. What we have learned from that experience is that ultimately, while regulation can at least have a limited damaging impact reputationally and financially, in the end, the industry and the platforms adapt and evolve. And so, the industry is now faced with the same dilemma and will need to be resourceful and identify new solutions.

For those brands that are concerned, we are recommending that they pivot to readily available alternatives including Instagram Reels and YouTube Shorts which are increasing in popularity. Creators on TikTok are also advised not to ignore their Instagram audiences and start to consider building out their YouTube Shorts presence.

A window of opportunity for Meta and YouTube?

As well as prioritizing Reels and Shorts, Instagram and YouTube will need to embrace authenticity and transparency over the heavily curated content they’re more commonly known for in order to truly capitalize.

More so than its competitors, TikTok champions raw, low-production, unfiltered content which democratizes content creation, fostering an ethos of creativity and inspiration from a wider variety of producers.

Additionally, the algorithm is effective in promoting the most popular content, regardless of follower size. So it’s easier for creators or brands to actually go viral and amass followers and engagements. Brands can also tap into many of the niche audiences on TikTok and have the opportunity to really participate in what is currently relevant and trending in culture.

Meta and YouTube will need to capture this essence - while staying loyal to their own unique brand personas - to win over TikTok users, creators and brands.

In his recent appointment letter, new CEO, Neil Mohan, outlined his ambition to “put creators first” to achieve this - including expanding its subscriptions business, investing in shopping, improving the paid digital goods offerings and launching its new ad revenue share model. Putting faith in creators and attracting them to the platform with financial incentives will help to improve and diversify the content on the platform, in turn enticing more consumers onto the platform and increasing dwell time.

For TikTok, this could spell trouble. More than just a government ban, this legislation could be the start of wider shift in how brands, creators and consumers choose to spend their time on social media. More than just a tremor, it could be a seismic marketing industry earthquake.

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