When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the U.S., things were tough for skin-care influencer Young Yuh. He was laid off from his beauty marketing job in March due to pandemic shutdowns.
“I was freaking out, thinking, ‘Well, what am I supposed to do? What am I going to do?’” he said. A skin-care enthusiast, he had amassed a small following of around 10,000 followers on Instagram, but that had taken four years to build and was far from a fallback career. And then he started his TikTok account. His humorous content hit the right chord with TikTok’s Gen-Z audience and many of his videos subsequently went viral.
Yuh now has over 848,000 TikTok followers and is one of the platform’s top “skinfluencers.” He is one of many content creators whose lives have changed dramatically over the course of a few months because of the app. TikTok has gone from being the source of around 10% of his brand partnerships “to nearly 99%.”
But President Donald Trump’s statement on Friday that he would be “banning” TikTok in the U.S. via an executive order — since revised to a 45-day deadline for a Microsoft acquisition — has everyone in the TikTok ecosystem weighing their options.
“If TikTok actually disappeared, I’d be kind of screwed,” said Yuh. He joined many influencers over the weekend in sharing his Instagram and YouTube handles on TikTok, and setting up accounts on TikTok competitors Triller and Byte.
Many influencers responded to the announcement with a mix of sadness, panic and dark humor. Beauty influencer Abby Roberts (10.4 million followers) shared her Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Snapchat and Triller handles in a post about the potential ban, and shared a post depicting her banging on the doors of MAC Cosmetics saying, “Me trying to get a job after they ban TikTok.” This echoed a similar post by Addison Rae Easterling banging on the door of the university she dropped out of to pursue her TikTok influencer career. Easterling, who has 53.7 million followers, launched a beauty label, Item Beauty, in collaboration with Ipsy today.
Other beauty brand deals were inked with a strong reliance on the continued existence of the app. In late July, TikTok’s most-followed influencer Charli D’Amelio (76 million followers) launched the Morphe 2 sub-brand with her sister Dixie (32.4 million followers).
While many TikTok influencers had already been diversifying their platforms, TikTok is still their main claim to fame, by far. Charlie D’Amelio’s celebrity-level follower count of 25.4 million on Instagram still comes nowhere near her TikTok numbers; on YouTube, D’Amelio has 6 million YouTube subscribers. Easterling is in a similar situation, with 24.6 million followers on Instagram and 3 million fans on YouTube.
While large influencers may be able to cross over to other platforms, “there’s this large population of influencers on TikTok in the middle, who are kind of set up to lose their jobs,” said Joe Gagliese, CEO of influencer marketing agency Viral Nation, which counts TikTok as a client. Gagliese has prior experience with app shutdowns after managing Vine influencers in the past.
“The great influencers — arguably the ‘born-to-be-influencer types’ — they do really well with diversifying their content,” he said. “But there definitely is a big subset of influencers on [TikTok], who struggle to make content that’s good for other platforms, so that’s going to hinder them.”
TikTok now has 100 million American users, according to a company spokesperson. The company has hired 1,000 people on its U.S. team with plans to hire 10,000 more, the company told Glossy. The spokesperson also said, “TikTok U.S. user data is stored in the U.S. with strict controls on employee access. TikTok’s biggest investors come from the U.S. We are committed to protecting our users’ privacy and safety as we continue working to bring joy to families and meaningful careers to those who create on our platform.”
U.S. concerns around TikTok’s ownership by Chinese company ByteDance stem from the controls that the Chinese government exercise over China’s tech industry. Companies in China — both domestic and foreign — are legally required to have a Chinese Communist Party organization within their governance structure. Discussions of the risk of Chinese companies sharing data with the government stem from China’s 2017 National Intelligence Law, which, in Article 7, “creates the obligation of Chinese citizens to support national intelligence work.” This has been interpreted as a legal justification for forcing any company to hand over requested data.
TikTok previously released a statement in October 2019 underscoring its U.S. data practices, saying, “We store all TikTok U.S. user data in the United States, with backup redundancy in Singapore. Our data centers are located entirely outside of China, and none of our data is subject to Chinese law.” A previous statement in April of last year said, “Our goal is to minimize data access across regions so that, for example, employees in the APAC region, including China, would have very minimal access to user data from the E.U. and U.S.”
It is not just Chinese companies that are compelled to comply with government data requests. American companies active in China have fallen under fire for doing so in the past. In 2007, the World Organization for Human Rights sued Yahoo on behalf of Chinese dissidents who were sentenced to prison after the company provided the Chinese government with information. This included two who were sentenced to 10 years in prison and one sentenced to eight years.
Another issue has been the type of data allegedly being collected by TikTok. An anonymous post on Reddit went viral on social media in late July — it was made by a person who said they reverse-engineered TikTok and claimed that they discovered TikTok stores an extensive amount of data from users. That includes what they post to their clipboards on their phones and what other apps they have downloaded, among other information, according to the post.
“That is, to a certain extent, a security flaw on iOS and Android, that you’re allowed to access information that the user intended for other applications,” said Jay Hack, the co-founder and CEO of beauty app Mira Beauty. “The question is, what exact intention did TikTok and ByteDance have for that information?” He said that although the Reddit source is anonymous, anyone can look at the code that they provided, on GitHub, and “none of that has been negated thus far. There’s been a swarm of security researchers who have jumped on it.”
A growing number of brands had invested heavily in TikTok marketing as a direct line to Gen-Z consumers. A recent white paper by influencer marketing agency Takumi found that a quarter of 16-44 year olds trust a TikTok influencer’s recommendations more than those of a friend. The results of the survey also found that TikTok caused more users ages 25-34 to engage with brand content, compared to YouTube and Instagram.
Gen-Z-oriented acne patch brand Starface, which has relied heavily on TikTok influencers for its overall marketing strategy, posted about the potential ban, as well. One post about the brand’s “best memories” on TikTok shared its Instagram handle, while a second one featured influencer Sarah Lugor, aka @shreksdumpster, saying, “This is a joke right???” while wearing the brand’s patches.
“For more disruptive brands and direct-to-consumer brands that were using it as a launchpad, it’s probably going to have more of an impact on them,” if TikTok is banned, said Takumi CEO Mary Keane-Dawson.
One beauty brand that has invested heavily is E.l.f. Beauty, which received 5 billion views on a TikTok campaign last year. Kory Marchistto, CMO at E.l.f. Beauty, said, “E.l.f. Beauty has always been a digital disruptor, and our philosophy is to listen to our consumers and be where they are. As a result, we are always looking at new platforms to test and learn. We look at where are consumers are today and where they will be tomorrow.”
But some newer brands are still evaluating TikTok’s worth in their own social strategies. “It’s a powerful channel, but there’s a lot of brands who haven’t seen the conversion on TikTok. It’s still kind of a to-be-determined whether it’s a viable marketing channel,” said Christin Powell, the co-founder and CEO of Gen-Z skin-care brand Kinship.
“It has changed cultural mindsets, helped shape movements and infused new inspiration and creativity into the influencer space — consumers were becoming fatigued in this area prior to TikTok exploding onto the scene,” said Dawson of the influencer marketing industry.
The recent news that broke on Sunday night that the Trump administration is giving Microsoft and TikTok 45 days to seal a proposed acquisition has TikTok-focused businesses striking a more optimistic tone than was seen over the weekend. Trump gave the go-ahead in a public statement on Monday.
“I’m bullish on it, in the sense that I think if Microsoft could get that deal done, I think that it will push TikTok to a whole other level,” said Gagliese. “Whether brands want to say it or not, the security risks posed there have probably hindered them from spending big on that platform. I think that if it was Microsoft-owned, that it could be a huge positive momentum push for for the platform.”
“We’re excited to see an expedited path toward clearing the air, and we feel very confident that TikTok’s leadership will find a creative solution,” said Evan Horowitz, the co-founder and CEO of creative agency Movers + Shakers. “We’re moving full-speed ahead with our campaigns, while taking sensible precautions in our strategy plans.”
In Powell’s view, she does not anticipate that TikTok will be banned based on the most recent news. But if it is, she said, “This audience is just socially obsessed, and they’re going to find whatever the next platform is to express themselves. Brands are going to follow them.”