Let’s Tok Shop: Why TikTok from Byte may move to eCommerce
Written by Cid Decatur, Research Assistant in Cornell’s Social Media Lab and Communication Major
Your use of social media makes other people money. There is a reason users can go to their app store of choice and install numerous content-sharing platforms on their mobile phones. The current model that many media-marketing firms hold themselves to is not to sell content, but to sell parsed-out viewership to advertisers. The most well-known examples of this method of marketing can be found on YouTube, Instagram, and Pinterest. When users flip through TikTok, the increasingly popular short-video social media platform from Byte, they don’t really come across a multitude of ads placed by the TikTok marketing team. In fact, they don’t see many advertisements at all with the exception of an ad for a feature of TikTok activated upon software startup. They see businesses partnering with a rising trend in mainly young “influencers” and sponsored content. People in the digital community know that TikTok makes money from collecting user data, what is often glazed over is how content creators make money, and why that income is a signifier that TikTok may go the way of Facebook and implement an in-house eCommerce section of the application. The user ecosystem of the TikTok platform combined with the sponsorships influential content creators form with commercial partners and the trend culture ever-present on the platform indicates that users can expect a formalized and first-party “Tok Shop” coming their way in the near future.
Rather than discuss whether or not TikTok should integrate shopping directly into their platform, let’s look at why it may happen from a neutral perspective. Other social media designed entirely around the short videos have come and gone. Vine, although widely popular in the early to mid-2010s was shut down due to its incapability to keep pace with its competitor, Twitter. Musical.ly, another short-video platform, was acquired by Byte in 2017. Over the history of failures related to short video platforms, it might appear that this format of social media is highly volatile. Big booms followed by big busts are the trend in this industry. Yet we’ve seen numerous reasons why TikTok is showing no signs of going the way of Vine or Musical.ly. The proprietary A.I. and algorithms baked into this platform consume user data and feed user content that the platform thinks they’ll like through the “for you page” or the explore page. This content is not managed by clicks that it’s previously gotten or previous interaction with the creator, but rather pairing assumed interests based on location and video interactions. This feature, as revealed in research interviews conducted by the Cornell Social Media Lab, was noted to be one of the main facets of interviewees use for this platform. TikTok has brought something new to the social media table and it’s paying off.
If this platform is showing rapid growth with a unique formula ensuring its longevity, why would they need to implement new features?
TikTok’s algorithm is primed to show users what they want to see. This is a double-edged sword in that it does an excellent job of bringing new users to the platform. Interviewees for the Cornell Social Media Lab noted that they found themselves using the platform in waves, deleting it occasionally and coming back to it later when the algorithm was ready to show them new content on their explore page. Like Pinterest, a more integrated shopping experience might encourage users to engage long-term, as shopping trends would keep them looped in.
Poor Platform Management
Anyone can post on TikTok. We’re seeing that this platform is not exclusively geared towards younger audiences. Even with content guidelines on the platform, there are still ways users get around having their posts flagged for inappropriate content by slightly misspelling words intentionally to avoid being spotted by A.I. moderation or censoring videos. This could be a sign to make the platform more appealing to a wider audience. Formalized eCommerce may be a way to do this.
eCommerce Already Exists on TikTok?
Yes, eCommerce already exists on TikTok. The issue? It’s not directly managed by Byte or the TikTok team. It’s previously discussed partners selling goods on the software. The catch? TikTok has been experiencing large amounts of fake or illegitimate goods being distributed, originally advertised, and sold through its platform.
So we’ve covered why some weaknesses of the platform may cause TikTok to need to implement eCommerce. Here are some reasons why the TikTok shop would work, and further why it should be all but expected.
TikTok already uses their algorithm to make its target audience parsed out into neat chunks based on demographics and interests. They could use the same algorithm and apply it to their eShop in perhaps a more targeted way than Amazon.
Interviewed users in our study revealed that they use this platform just like they would use Netflix or watch television for entertainment, and this mode of use is very different from users of Instagram or Snapchat where there is much less of a dichotomy between consumers and creators. On TikTok, users may accidentally become “TikTok Famous,” but the content posted isn’t for their small circle of friends, but posted for the algorithm to send to their corner of the TikTok community. Partnerships with influencers could leave consumers one click away from a moderated in-house “for you shop.”
The content on TikTok is heavily influenced by trends on the platform. This should be a golden opportunity for partnerships with influencers to sell their products on a shop tied to these trends. If creators can be paid to make content using trends popular on the platform linked to a verified shop selling goods or brands featured in trendy videos, TikTok would be able to have much higher control over what is bought and sold on their platform and could ultimately best manage their image as a brand.
All in all, it is not far from likely that the above-listed factors will be recognized by Byte and implemented into their platform. Could this be where TikTok solidifies its presence and prove it’s not going the way of Vine or Musical.ly?
The Cornell Social Media Lab’s Interview study of TikTok users is currently being written and is on the road to publication.