A trove of newly discovered developer documents reveal the platform has rolled out a native audience network for advertisers looking for a new avenue to reach the roughly 260 million collective TikTok-ers in China and Japan. The network—similar to those in place for Facebook, LinkedIn and fellow short-form video giant Snapchat—lets advertisers target these users across a bevy of third-party apps, rather than just within the confines of TikTok.
Two media buyers with knowledge of TikTok’s operations confirmed to Adweek that the network’s test run in the East Asian market could be a signal of things to come in the U.S.
“An audience network—for any platform—is a very strong step forward,” said Rohan Midha, managing director of the influencer-led agency PMYB. “Right now, TikTok might have an incredibly high valuation, but any company needs to find new ways of growing to keep that momentum up, and keep its investors happy.”
How TikTok is taking over the app world
TikTok’s spread across app stores goes hand-in-hand with some of the company’s other planned ad offerings. In June, Digiday revealed TikTok was experimenting with its own custom audience system, along with tracking pixels, to better target users based on their web-wide behavior. These are both tools that hoover a lot of user data for a company that has its origins in China. Add in the ability to microtarget users across their apps, and it’s not hard to imagine a possible “Chinese Cambridge Analytica,” as Parsons professor David Carroll dubbed it.
It’s too early to say how this test run will ultimately affect TikTok’s bottom line, but it’s not hard to see the appeal for advertisers. At 667 million global downloads in 2018 alone, the platform was the fourth most downloaded app last year—even temporarily dethroning Facebook, YouTube, Snapchat and Instagram to snag the No. 1 spot for the month of October. And advertisers are paying attention: TikTok users worldwide have spent $75 million on in-app tokens as of March 2019.
According to the company’s documentation, media buyers can choose between full-page video ads or the rewarded video ads that crop up in most free-to-play games. And now, thanks to this audience network, TikTok can turn those microtargeting capabilities loose on the verifiable smorgasbord of apps across the iOS App Store, Google Play and a handful of app stores specific to China, like TapTap, Xiaomi and Meizu. Media buyers can also blacklist particular apps they’d rather avoid, along with apps in risque categories like “adult health care” and “plastic surgery.”
It’s no coincidence that TikTok is offering its audience targeting in-app only and eschewing traditional display advertising. Unlike audiences for, say, Facebook or LinkedIn, TikTok’s core users are far more likely to be glued to an iPhone than a Macbook. A recent report from the digital-first influencer marketing agency Mediakix found that of the half-billion users worldwide, 66% are under 30; in the U.S. alone, more than half are between ages 16 to 24. Meanwhile, eMarketer found these tweens and teens were roughly 10% more likely to have access to a smartphone than a laptop, on average.
TikTok did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Looking outside the app
While TikTok rakes in most of its millions through in-app purchases rather than paid media offerings, it’s not for lack of trying.
“Right now, we have in-feed ads and sponsored challenges, but they’re both seen very infrequently and were never even officially rolled out to begin with,” said Timothy Armoo, CEO of the Gen Z-focused agency Fanbytes. “We’re seeing a lot of demand from the brand side, but we’re also seeing people say that they have no idea how to promote a basic in-feed video ad.”
As Armoo explained, the platform’s ad offerings—from native video ads to biddable ads and interest-based targeting—are only available to select agencies as part of a beta test. This is the biggest hurdle the company needs to surmount before rolling into a Western market, he said. The second biggest hurdle? Actually figuring out what kinds of ads this demographic actually wants to see.
“You have to ask, ‘How do you create content for teenagers when you’re 35?'” he said. “You have this mindset barrier where marketers will try to repurpose existing content from Instagram, for example, for a platform like TikTok, and it just doesn’t work. They aren’t able to shift their thinking to fit their strategy in with the rest of TikTok’s content, which has this really sharp and quick and funny tone.”
There are some brands that have cracked this code. Kroger, for example, enlisted high-ranking TikTok influencers for one of its latest campaigns on the platform, encouraging users to participate by making their own videos with a branded hashtag.
“Hashtag challenges are actually available to the user base from an organic perspective every day,” said Simona Marmina, senior director of paid social at GroupM’s Mindshare. When millions of users are doing these challenges of their own volition, she added, the ad equivalent is “instantly accessible” and feels less forced in the middle of a newsfeed.
That said, if TikTok’s audience network is successful, it will give media buyers a window into the platform’s teen audience without requiring them to become too teen-fluent, or adapt their creative to better fit the platform—which could be the saving grace for marketers who can’t hack TikTok’s brand of humor.