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Brands must weigh dangers of embattled app TikTok

What’s happening?

TikTok has been the most downloaded app in the United States, but is once again mired in controversy. The app, once full of potential for marketers as outlined in this January post from our Think 2020 series, has recently been accused of stealing biometric data from children under age 13 and drawn increased scrutiny as a potential security risk in the past two months.

The popular app has been banned on company-owned devices after breaches to data security surfaced within such organizations as Wells Fargo, the Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Armed Forces, and the Republican and Democratic national parties. The nation of India, which holds the app’s highest number of downloads, cited TikTok as a “threat to sovereignty and integrity” when it banned the app.

Now the U.S., Australia and other countries are considering bans, and last week President Trump’s campaign unleashed ads on Facebook calling for consumers to sign a petition to outlaw the app.

This is all happening in conjunction with an antitrust lawsuit in federal court aimed at determining if ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, acquired U.S. company Musical.ly unlawfully. Without the acquisition of Musical.ly, TikTok would not be the app it is today.

What does this mean?

All apps collect consumer data and many, like Facebook, have had data breaches. But TikTok appears to collect more sensitive consumer information than any other social media app, putting all users at risk. 

  • The app has been caught accessing and collecting clipboard data from people’s devices, including social security numbers, passwords and bank account information.
  • Third-party auditors have difficulties determining what and how much information is being gathered due to unique code in the app that masks data collection.
  • Potential Chinese government data mining stemming from the country’s 2017 National Security Law, which obliges organizations to assist state intelligence agencies.

 What should marketers be doing?  
Brands must consider the potential impact of engaging on TikTok through either paid or organic advertising. There is no doubt that it’s a robust social platform, beloved by users who spend nearly an hour a day creating and viewing content. It’s just not the place right now where brands should encourage interaction and promote engagement with their products due to security risks concerning data collection.   
Immediate actions that should be considered include: 

  • Discontinuing organic activity on TikTok. Doing this means losing a hard-to-reach social audience on their main social platform, so it might be compelling to ignore the security issues and continue organic efforts while ending any paid support. But brands that don’t depend solely on this youthful audience should consider disengaging completely until security risks are mitigated.  
  • Migrating paid efforts from TikTok to YouTube. Due to the issues cited with TikTok, brands should think twice before supporting it with paid advertising. YouTube also has strong reach and engagement among adults age 16-24, and TikTok content is often reposted here for greater reach outside the platform. 

We continue to monitor the situation and marketers should too in the coming weeks. It has been speculated that ByteDance may sell the app to a U.S. or UK-owned company in the near future to circumvent the antitrust suit and national bans. If that happens, security risks may be resolved and the platform may be safe again for both organic and paid advertising efforts.

Has your brand seen success with the TikTok audience? We can help you consider smart pivots to other channels.

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