Bye bye influencers, TikTok is a creator's world

Rachel Ienna
Apr 2023

Every brand these days dreams of going viral on TikTok – the secret sauce for success in the 21st century. BookTok transforms digital natives into hardcover lovers; Amazon storefronts replace luxury with dupes; and boring everyday products can gain a cult following—even the sponge brand Scrub Daddy has over 3 million ‘fans.’

Latching onto trends worked for Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and Scrub Daddy. But more often than not, people are onto the next thing before brands can even join the conversation. Those who seem to rise to fame overnight for no particular reason, however – think Alix Earle or Leo Skepi – present a more long-term growth opportunity for brands than what trends alone can offer.

We tend to lump all of these internet superstars under the broad umbrella of “influencer” regardless of how or why they went viral. But in reality, the term "influencer" really only applies to those who have limited themselves to their designated content-corner, not the Alix Earles and Leo Skepis of the platform – they fall into the creator bucket instead.

Both are influential in their own right regardless of whether you call them influencers or creators, so who really cares?

Brands. Or at least they should.

Understanding the unspoken rules of the platform and these types of subtle nuances is crucial for brands hoping to find success on the beloved app. Let’s consider the options available to brands on TikTok:

Run of the mill ad placements that rely on TikTok’s algorithm are easy enough, sure, but also easy enough to scroll past. Tech-savvy audiences can spot a traditional ad in an instant and will be quick to scroll past, especially since they aren’t forced to linger for any more than a few seconds.

This brings us to our first rule: TikTok isn’t a media platform, it’s a content platform. 

Media platforms favor owned and paid media, but content platforms are at the will of what’s earned – meaning entertaining content in the case of the "For You" page. Throwing money at a generic ad placement and leaving success in the hands of the algorithm is deceptively easy, but that doesn’t mean it will magically become entertaining enough to grab viewers’ attention. 

This leads us to the next option: sponsored content. It’s a step in the right direction – #sponsored posts are definitely more endemic to the platform, reaching users through relevant content and hopefully more entertaining than the ad placement they just scrolled past. But its targeting could fall short, and videos that fail to connect with viewers are doomed to disappear into the black hole of the "For You" page.

Here we are introduced to another rule: the endless scroll of the elusive "For You" page means brands must go the extra mile to ensure they reach the right people.

And now, welcome back to the battle between creators and influencers: terms considered interchangeable but whose discrepancies in execution and results reveal two drastically different groups.

To reframe our synonymical understanding of influencers and creators, we should think of them as distant cousins rather than lumping them together en masse. It can be difficult to articulate the differences between the two, so in order to shed light on their subtleties, we must identify the distinct methods they use to establish a digital presence. 

Influencers surround a specific type of content to capture attention. Think makeup tutorials, try-on hauls, product reviews and other viral (yet short-lived) content. Creators take it a step further by focusing on a specific audience, earning their trust and loyalty by posting content with a distinctive personality. The foundation of their status is built upon who they are rather than a fleeting moment of virality.

Lady Gaga's beauty brand, Haus Labs.

It’s a fine line, but one that can make or break a brand’s success. Take for instance Lady Gaga’s beauty brand, Haus Labs, which launched a TikTok campaign for its new foundation in September of last year. The #HausLabsFoundation challenge featured creator Dylan Mulvaney, known for her sunny personality and “Days of Girlhood” series detailing her gender transition. The collaboration was a match made in heaven considering Mulvaney and Gaga’s iconic statuses within the LGBTQ+ community. Mulvaney’s post for the campaign amassed over 2 million views and 200K likes along with countless supportive comments from her followers. Haus Labs could have simply targeted relevant hashtags or sponsored an armada of high profile beauty influencers, but a partnership with the right creator is the recipe for long-term success.

Consciously collaborating with creators gives brands the opportunity to connect with a passionate following they may be unable to reach otherwise. Mulvaney’s audience is reliable and apt to grow because she built a comprehensive personality that guarantees loyalty regardless of the content she produces. Influencers on the other hand are bound to repeat the same content that made them go viral in the first place, doomed to become stale after the initial appeal fades or the trend ends. 

Yovana Mendoza Ayres, an influencer previously known as Rawvana, built her brand around veganism and the health benefits of a plant-based diet. But in 2018, a video of Ayres eating fish went viral, directly contradicting the vegan lifestyle she’d been promoting. In an apology video, she revealed that she’d been integrating animal products back into her diet following years of health issues. Her followers didn’t take the confession well, not due to the influencer’s dietary changes, but because she’d been profiting off a lifestyle that wasn’t entirely truthful. 

Rawvana lost the trust of her followers who felt deceived by the facade they’d been sold. And her fall from grace is far from unique – other influencers who have built their brand around specific health regimens, only to change course or be exposed for selling a lie, have suffered similar fates. And beyond the looming threat of being canceled, rising hashtags like #deinfluencing and #overconsumption suggest a shifting mentality towards influencer content.

Videos slamming once-viral products in an effort to “de-influence” viewers have started to gain traction on TikTok, accumulating over 34 million views under the hashtag alone. Duets in response to excessive product hauls and unnecessary purchases have claimed similar real estate with nearly 53 million views, criticizing the overconsumption and impulsive consumerism that influencer content perpetuates. 

These discourses reveal a direct push back against the barrage of lazy influencer campaigns and half-assed product endorsements – an exit sign for influencers to take their sponsored posts elsewhere. Despite its overuse to the point of oblivion, marketer’s obsession with authenticity is warranted. The push for authentic content has been made (annoyingly) clear, but recreating that credibility in the form of media has been less obvious.

TikTok has disrupted the foundations of content and media, and as a result, the separation between entertainment and marketing is no longer church and state. Consumers have not only raised their expectations for content, but for the media they consume as well.

As consumers grow increasingly privy to the ways in which their wallets are being influenced, the unmissable #ad threatens to make them run the other way.

So our final rule reveals itself: brands who hope to benefit from TikTok must associate themselves with creators rather than influencers, prioritizing genuine, authentic connections with customers that extend beyond simply selling a product or service. TikTok is a creator’s world, but brands need to beware of the influencers lurking within it.

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