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posted: 3/7/2020 6:07 AM

TikTok marketers chase billions of views in uncharted terrain

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  • TikTok, owned by Chinese internet giant ByteDance Inc., built its U.S. presence off the 2017 purchase of a similar app,, which was popular with young teens.

    TikTok, owned by Chinese internet giant ByteDance Inc., built its U.S. presence off the 2017 purchase of a similar app,, which was popular with young teens.
    (AP Photo)


In an October post on TikTok, digital magician and video star Zach King walks up to the counter at Chipotle to receive a burrito bowl with chips. After he pays, he jumps and his clothes change in an instant into astronaut gear. Soon, everything in the store is floating in apparent zero gravity.

Another star, Brittany Broski -- known as "kombucha girl" -- posted on the video-sharing app around the same time, biting into a Chipotle burrito and then suddenly sporting a mad-scientist wig. The famous pomeranian, @jiffpom, turns into a vampire after touching Chipotle. All of these TikTok videos were tagged #boorito, for a U.S. advertising campaign promoting $4 burritos on Halloween. It's the most viral campaign Chipotle has ever done, based on one measure: the hashtag has 3.9 billion views on TikTok.

That's a surprising metric given that TikTok has been downloaded only about 145 million times in the U.S., according to Sensor Tower. The viral social media app, where people post funny videos set to music, won't disclose what counts as a "view," so it doesn't necessarily mean 3.9 billion people saw a #boorito post, or that they were in the market to purchase a burrito. Still, numbers that high are gratifying for marketing executives justifying their experiments on a relatively new social platform, without much other data to go on and few ways to target their messages to a tailored audience.

"The numbers are massive," said Tressie Lieberman, a vice president of digital marketing at Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. It's not the restaurant chain's only campaign that has crossed the 1 billion threshold on TikTok. "I don't know that any brand has ever gotten that on YouTube," she added. The company said Boorito sales were 15% higher than a year earlier.

TikTok, owned by Chinese internet giant ByteDance Inc., built its U.S. presence off the 2017 purchase of a similar app,, which was popular with young teens. After an advertising blitz on Facebook and Snapchat, TikTok soared in the charts to become a sensation among a younger audience for its feel-good content. Now, marketers are starting to experiment. They mention it alongside Snapchat as a way to reach the elusive teen demographic, to build their preference for brands just as they're achieving independent spending power. According to influencer analysis firm Captiv8, 69% of TikTok users are age 14 to 26.

Still, venturing into TikTok ads can be complicated, and the return-on-investment unproven. One can't simply run the same ad created for Facebook or YouTube. The format is skits, set to music, that work on a phone held vertically and repeat over and over. Brands can run a campaign to promote a hashtag, like #boorito, which can cost around $150,000; they can pay to take over the homescreen of the app, which can cost $50,000 a day for a guaranteed 5 million views; or can even run a campaign with the ability to buy a product within the app, according to case studies reviewed by Captiv8. TikTok said prices fluctuate based on an advertiser's goals. Any effort requires careful coordination with both the TikTok sales team and outside "creators" -- stars such as King and Broski, the TikTok equivalent of Instagram influencers, who are paid separately.

If a brand is spending enough, they can get an introduction to the creators through the company. Other times advertisers have to find connections on their own or through an agency. Since the success of #boorito, Chipotle pays TikTok stars special attention, sometimes catering food to a Los Angeles mansion known as the Hype House, which is full of skit-makers collaborating on projects.

Any time a new social media platform starts reaching a mass audience, the people who were there first reap the biggest rewards. Charli D'Amelio, whom The New York Times recently called the "reigning queen" of TikTok, started her career there in the summer of 2019 and now has 30.6 million followers. Other previously unknown teens have also seen a dramatic rise.

The same is becoming true for advertisers. Brands can pay to promote a hashtag challenge for more people to see it, in the hopes that TikTok's users will create videos using the hashtag on their own, thereby increasing its reach. The National Football League saw more than 1 billion views for its #WeReady hashtag ahead of the Super Bowl in early February. Makeup company MAC saw 2.6 billion views for the tag #YouOwnIt.

That enormous reach is possible, in part, because the TikTok sensation in the U.S. is so new that it doesn't have many advertisers -- which means less competition for eyeballs and fewer constraints by the platform to limit or throttle an ad's visibility.

"This type of virality just does not happen on Instagram or Facebook or YouTube," said Krishna Subramanian, co-founder of Captiv8. "Getting to those billions of views is something that's happening frequently. It's something we haven't seen on any other platform for quite some time." The amount the creators make is similar to what Instagram influencers make on that app's disappearing stories product. The biggest stars -- such as Loren Gray, with 39.6 million followers -- can garner $175,000 for a single sponsored TikTok video, Subramanian said.

TikTok is new enough that most advertisers are still learning what works on the service. Some have had early success. ELF Cosmetics created an original song for people to use in the background of their own videos, and there are 1.7 million videos on TikTok that use the song. It was so popular that it was even trending on Spotify. The associated hashtag, #eyeslipsface, has 4.5 billion views.

Anish Dalal, chief executive of digital-marketing company Sapphire Apps Media, has developed his own playbook for TikTok. In some cases, he'll scour the app for new, popular music that users are uploading and use that same audio clip in his own ads. One current option is the ability to target an ad to TikTok users looking for a specific hashtag. Dalal creates a new hashtag for a brand's campaign, and pays influencers to create dozens of videos using the hashtag. Once that hashtag is big enough to lure in regular users, he starts running ads targeting the hashtag.

The clients we work with "were excited to try something new," Dalal said. "What we tell brands is, this is essentially Instagram in the early days."

The first-mover advantage will be short-lived. TikTok is already testing a self-service advertising tool, which will make it possible for any brand to buy ads. Snapchat parent Snap Inc. went through a similar transition in 2017, moving from selling expensive ads with a personal touch to a model where anyone could buy them online. The prices for its ads dropped, but eventually the company started building more advertiser relationships and a more stable business.

To be successful with that strategy, though, TikTok will have to build more targeting options and controls for advertisers, according to Meghan Myszkowski, head of North American social media advertising at the ad agency Essence. Showing an ad to everyone can translate to a larger viewership, but isn't necessarily efficient. Brands may waste money showing ads to an irrelevant audience, or run the risk of their ad appearing directly before or after a video that it wouldn't want to be associated with. TikTok lets its advertisers target using basic information like a user's location and gender; it's less granular than what is offered by TikTok's larger rivals, Instagram and YouTube, where ads can be targeted to specific interests and purchasing behavior.

But in order to improve TikTok's targeting, the app will have to gather more detailed information about its users' behavior -- something that may prove tricky, as the U.S. government scrutinizes the app's Chinese ownership. American lawmakers have warned the app could be a security threat; TikTok has repeatedly said it's not influenced by the Chinese government and rejects the idea that U.S. user data is vulnerable. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., better known as CFIUS, is reviewing ByteDance's purchase of the business that became TikTok, Bloomberg News has reported.

Essence ran some TikTok ads in the first half of 2019, but Myszkowski said the agency has pulled back until TikTok builds more advertiser controls.

"With risk can come great return," Myszkowski added. "If you're willing to take the risk."