While Snapchat and TikTok compete for the attention of young mobile-first audiences, Snapchat has also been happy to take the upstart streamer’s ad dollars. So much so that, according to the ad sales intelligence company MediaRadar, TikTok is the single biggest advertiser on Snapchat.
The firm’s analysis shows that TikTok’s U.S. ad spend quadrupled between 2018 and 2019, with about 80% of it going to Snapchat. TikTok was Snapchat’s top advertiser in 2019, above brands like Coca-Cola, Comcast, Disney and AT&T. MediaRadar sources its data from its own proprietary algorithm in conjunction with ad agency reporting.
TikTok did not return a request for comment, while Snapchat declined to comment about MediaRadar’s findings.
“The two platforms offer young people different experiences on their phones. And, at the end of the day, they’re competing for the same screen time and advertising dollars,” Todd Krizelman, CEO and founder of MediaRadar, said in a statement. “For now though, it’s clear that TikTok is pouring money into its advertisements on Snapchat. Although some have found it questionable whether this strategy will benefit Snap in the long run, the company currently sees TikTok as a friend.”
The study also found that TikTok ran ads on other social media platforms, namely YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn—but TikTok, owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, spent much less than they did on Snapchat last year. A spokesperson for MediaRadar clarified that the majority of TikTok’s Facebook and Instagram ad buys were based outside of the United States, in countries including Brazil, Russia and France.
However, the data around TikTok’s ad spend is uncertain, as neither the social platform nor the publisher will comment on the strategy—even MediaRadar, the study’s source, would only give Adweek relative numbers. This fall, Bloomberg reported that TikTok was spending “hundreds of millions of dollars” advertising on Facebook and Instagram, but The Verge later reported the TikTok was scaling back its U.S. ad buys, particularly on Facebook.
“TikTok has gained a bulk of its new users in the U.S. by advertising itself using app install ads on Facebook, but it’s not spending as much as it once did,” The Verge’s Nick Statt reported in November. “The growth of its U.S. user base has slowed dramatically as a result.”
Ad analytics firm Sensor Tower provided Adweek with current data about TikTok’s share of voice—another metric for measuring the top advertisers on a website or platform—on Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. Sensor Tower said that TikTok ranked as the No. 1 brand running app install ads on Snap every single month since at least September 2019. This data may support the MediaRadar analysis, though it’s important to remember that this is just for ads that direct you to install a mobile app.
The Sensor Tower data also shows that TikTok was the No. 1 app install advertiser on Facebook as of February 2019, but dropped to 40th by February 2020, indicating a potential reallocation of funds away from Facebook. Instead, it appears TikTok is moving its ads toward Instagram and Snapchat, which, like TikTok, has a higher percentage of younger users than Facebook, according to data from Sprout Social.
In recent years, Snapchat has invested in tech and targeting capabilities for app install ads, like the ones TikTok has relied upon. The most pronounced change in the Sensor Tower data was between October and November 2019, when TikTok went from being Facebook’s sixth biggest ad spender for app installs to 59th. In December, it ranked 96th before leveling off to 40th in February.
On Oct. 17 in a speech at Georgetown University, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg criticized TikTok for allegedly censoring content related to the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. “While our services like WhatsApp are used by protesters and activists everywhere due to strong encryption and privacy protections, on TikTok, the Chinese app growing quickly around the world, mentions of these protests are censored, even in the U.S,” Zuckerberg said. “Is that the internet we want?”
A spokesperson for TikTok did not respond to a request for comment about whether this reallocation had to do with Zuckerberg’s comments. Randy Nelson, head of mobile insights at Sensor Tower, said he had no way to determine any correlation here, but imagined this was not the only factor at play.
While TikTok’s share of voice on Facebook has decreased, its presence on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, has increased in recent months. “Based on our data, it appears that TikTok is spending less than in the past on Facebook and has significant expanded its advertising presence on both Instagram and Snapchat,” Nelson said. He added that “increased share of voice on Instagram during late 2019 corresponded with meaningful growth of the app’s new installs in the U.S.”
TikTok showed explosive growth last year, and last month industry analysts Business of Apps estimated that TikTok has 800 million monthly active users worldwide. And the research firm eMarketer found that TikTok’s U.S. user base grew 97.5% last year, and would grow another 22% in 2020, which would give it more than 45 million U.S. users by the end of the year. Sensor Tower found that TikTok actually had its best month to date in February with nearly 113 million app installs worldwide.
Meanwhile, the company is under intense regulatory scrutiny for its purported closeness with the Chinese government, censorship of content, how it stores U.S. user data, and children’s privacy. Parent company ByteDance’s 2017 acquisition of Musical.ly is under national security review from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States. Government agencies are banning TikTok from federal phones, and two Senators introduced a bill to ban it from all federal devices. TikTok recently hired the former head of the Internet Association, a top lobbying group for Google, Facebook and Amazon, as its new government affairs chief.
As TikTok fights battle after battle in Washington, it’s been no stranger to the tactics of Madison Avenue, using ads to bring an exceptionally young and creative user base to its fast-growing platform.
Krizelman said one of the most surprising things is just how quickly TikTok has become such a large advertiser. “TikTok’s spend this year [on Snapchat] is larger than Coca-Cola, twice the size of Disney,” he said. “That’s how big and important TikTok is in the advertiser community right now.”
“It really underscores how much they’re gunning to be the next version of Facebook,” Krizelman added. “That’s gotta be the objective from a revenue perspective.”