Threat of TikTok Ban Shows the Need for Ownership Urgency for Personal Brands

Why you should own your digital real estate

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Since the onset of the Covid-19 crisis, social media audiences have increased significantly. And in this age of fake news and distrust, personal brands are becoming the go-to sources for information. In fact, according to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer, Americans rated “people like themselves” as the most credible sources.

The ability of personal brands to drive trust and action has given them so much influence that corporate brands and platforms are investing massive sums to harness their power, as evident in Spotify’s recent headline-grabbing deal with The Joe Rogan Experience podcast. By May, the podcast had a staggering 190 million monthly downloads all thanks to Rogan’s personal brand.

As today’s king of content, Rogan exemplifies the shift that society has taken from influence driven by networks and corporations to individuals and platforms. Earlier this year, his “lukewarm” endorsement of Bernie Sanders gave the campaign a surge of awareness and incited a polarizing discussion around the ability for an individual personality to affect political outcomes. In reality, Rogan hadn’t yet determined who he was voting for, but one comment from his personal brand was influential enough to get millions entrenched on either side of the conversation. 

This kind of power is unique, but it’s also incredibly vulnerable today.

More power, more problems

This vulnerability is illuminated with the Trump administration’s recent threats of a ban on TikTok downloads, adding to the uncertainty around the future of the massively popular platform frequented by some of today’s biggest social media influencers. And while it may have dodged a ban this time around, what happens next to TikTok is anyone’s guess. After all, we have seen platforms that play host to millions of influential content creators and personal brands disappear before.

When Vine—which at its peak had over 200 million active users—disappeared in 2017, the platform’s top influencers were left having to convince their audiences to follow them to other platforms, resulting in millions of dollars in lost revenue for top earners. No matter how big a personal brand becomes, there’s always a risk in relying on third-party platforms. 

When you are effectively renting real estate on third-party platforms, there’s the potential for eviction.

Take PewDiePie for instance. One of the highest earning YouTube stars, and the first individual to ever reach 100 million subscribers, PewDiePie has faced backlash over the last few years for his tendency to post polarizing content. Many have even called for PewDiePie to be pulled from YouTube altogether, and one petition currently has over 100,000 in support of the move. PewDiePie remains one of YouTube’s biggest influencers today, but for a time it looked like his empire was moments away from crumbling.

Internet celebrities aren’t the only ones who can find themselves in the crosshairs of the public or the platforms they build their audiences on. Twitter has made headlines recently for labeling several tweets from President Trump as “misleading.” It’s unlikely that Twitter or any of the major platforms would remove Trump and displace his tens of millions of followers, but they clearly have control over the content that appears on their platform. Even when it comes from arguably the world’s biggest personal brand. 

TikToking on borrowed time

Personal brands are uniquely popular because they aren’t muddled by corporate agendas or at the whim of public opinion. But that freedom is often conflated with ownership. When you are effectively renting real estate on third-party platforms, there’s the potential for eviction. So how do personal brands take back control? A quick Google search will result in many best practices, with the most highly recommended strategies including SEO tactics and spreading your content equitably across multiple platforms. However, the most important step to take is the simplest of them all: owning your digital real estate. 

Fortunately, a shift has emerged where personal brands are shedding their overreliance on third-party platforms and finding ways to establish greater control. Take for example one of YouTube’s biggest tech channels, the Hacksmith (James Hobson), who created his own personal website to engage his following and act as a gateway to his content.

TikTok’s uncertain future is evidence enough for why the trend towards ownership is likely to accelerate as personal brands and influencers look to move away from this over-reliance. As Hobson says, “The reality is that platforms will change, evolve and, in some cases, shut down; which I have no control over. What I do have control over is my own website where I can continue to engage with my followers and be sure that even if a social media platform vanishes without a trace as Vine did, my brand name won’t vanish with it.”

Make no mistake, having a presence on today’s biggest platforms is critical and comes with a myriad of benefits. However, personal brands must avoid an overreliance on them and take the proper steps to establish greater control and ownership now more than ever. In doing so, they can grow their audiences and gain influence in ways that allow them to build their own empire instead of leaving their fate in the hands of someone else’s.