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Be wary of the rush to TikTok

John McGee


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TikTok is a social network where users upload and share videos covering a wide range of categories

TikTok is a social network where users upload and share videos covering a wide range of categories

TikTok is a social network where users upload and share videos covering a wide range of categories

Every so often when I nod off in front of the TV, I am regularly awoken by shrieks of belly-aching laughter from my mischievous teenage daughter who has captured my happy slumber in high definition. For added dramatic effect, the images and videos of me dozing are often modified by in-app filters and special effects tools, including the addition of elf ears, a Pinocchio nose, devil's horns, the theme music from Jaws and, occasionally, a wig that makes me look like an extra from Lord of the Rings.

I have no idea how many of these photos and videos have been shared socially, nor do I really care.

What fascinates me most is that this teenage minx is part of a generation that has grown up with a mobile phone that doubles as a video camera, and they are constantly creating and sharing content online via Instagram, Snapchat or the latest app that has taken the social media industry by storm, TikTok.

Just in case you haven't heard of it, TikTok is a social network where users upload and share videos covering a wide range of categories, from snoring dads and people lip-syncing songs to often inane viral challenges and people doing weird and often funny stuff.

At a time when the popularity of other social media apps has either started to mature or in some cases wane, TikTok has clocked up over 1.5 billion downloads since it was launched and it now has more users than Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest and LinkedIn.

Owned by the Beijing-headquartered tech giant ByteDance - which was recently valued at over $75bn (€68bn) - TikTok has its operational headquarters in the US, where it has raised a few eyebrows in certain quarters over its perceived relationship with the Chinese government and how it manages and stores the data of its billions of users around the world. Some US government departments, including the US army, have even banned its use on government-issued phones.

It has also had to contend with allegations of censoring content and a recent investigation by The Guardian newspaper alleged that it often censors political content, including videos of the recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong - a charge which it has denied.

Like many other social media platforms that have encountered problems with data, it has also invoked the wrath of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), after it found that it had illegally collected data from children under 13 without parental consent.

So far, the FTC has slapped $6.8m in fines on the company for various data-related misdemeanours.

Like the other social media platforms, TikTok makes its money out of advertising and its ability to use the data it holds on users to entice brands on to its platform.

Although it is a private company and does not publish its revenues, the US app-tracking firm Sensor Tower estimates that it booked $176.9m in advertising revenue in 2019.

While this pales into complete insignificance when compared with the $15.1bn revenues clocked up by the Google-owned video platform YouTube last year, it is nonetheless rising at breakneck speed, with revenue growth in 2020 likely to be in excess of 200pc, according to some analysts' reports.

Where advertisers reckon there is an audience, you can be sure that they won't be too far behind trying to figure out how best to engage with it.

"As with all social networks, the advertising functions are always trying to play catch-up with how users use the platform," says David Ahlstrom, head of innovation with the Dublin-based media agency Mindshare. "Advertisers can work directly with a TikTok salesperson to place ads in larger markets, and a self-serve auction platform is in testing which will bring them in line with the other social networks. Direct advertising on TikTok in Ireland wasn't available as of December 2019, but Irish brands can use third-party ad networks to feature on the platform."

Before doing so, however, he says that advertisers need to be mindful of a few things.

"The key for Irish advertisers will be balancing the desire to reach a youth audience with the app's issues, namely brand safety. Users tend to be younger so different regulations will apply depending on the category. As with all user-generated content, there is an inherent risk of content being inappropriate.

"Consumers need to download the app but do not need to create an account or be logged in to view content, therefore content (and adjacent ads) could be viewed widely. TikTok doesn't offer any brand safety settings and there is limited third-party verification for issues relating to viewability and fraud."

None of this, of course, means anything to camera-ready teenagers who willingly trade their data for the opportunity to share their lives online and, occasionally, embarrass their dads.

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Sunday Indo Business