TikTok may be sorry, but how will it protect its young audience?

With its latest ticking (TikToking?) off, the video-sharing site has its work cut out to catch up with other platforms.

If you’d already been fined a world-record-breaking $5.7m in the US for illegally collecting personal information from children aged under 13, you’d be hoping pretty strongly that another major country didn’t start looking into how you handle the personal data of your younger users.

A shame for TikTok, then, that the UK's Information Commissioner's Office and Elizabeth Denham, the information commissioner, revealed to parliament this week that her office was doing just that. 

All of this comes on top of a BBC investigation into how kids have been sending their favourite video-makers "digital gifts", which can cost up to £48.99.

A 12-year-old girl told the Beeb that she’d felt pressured into giving her favourite TikTok star £100 to get their personal phone number – a number that, when she rang, was never answered. 

TikTok has apologised and promised to curb the practice, but it has not been particularly forthcoming in exactly how it will do that. 

And herein lies what many see as the main problem with TikTok if it’s going to be a viable option for brands, properly monetise its current reach and play in the same ballpark as the other social platforms.  

The new kid on the block has phenomenal growth numbers. It has achieved more than a billion downloads (with 663 million coming in 2018) and 500 million users, with 41% of those between 16 and 24 years old, according to GlobalWebIndex. And this, added to the negative press, is what is scaring brands off. 

It’s also stopping established influencers moving to the site. When we questioned a few of our influencers, one said: "I don't think my audience are really on the platform, as I know the demographic active on it are all under 18."

Ironically, considering the fine mentioned above, TikTok doesn’t make its user data available, making audience targeting particularly tricky. It is also harder to spot bots and faux-influencers than on other channels, because it doesn’t track account creation and video-posting dates. 

There are also no shopping functions; this means investment on TikTok sits much more at the top of the funnel driving awareness, instead of pushing consumers down to purchase and driving ROI. 

However, this certainly isn’t a death knell. For a relatively young platform, these are all manageable issues – teething problems, you might say. They are problems that can be easily addressed with a focus on innovating beyond the other platforms (particularly moving away from the current trend of reworking competitor innovations) and ensuring it has co-operative relationships with brands and creators. 

The list of brands on TikTok already includes Nike, Fenty Beauty and Apple Music, and more and more brands are opening brand pages. We’ve even had questions about it from brands we work with. 

And there have been some strong success stories. Guess’ "#InMY denim" campaign (which asked content creators to demonstrate how Guess jeans changed your look from "blah to banging") racked up more than 37 million views. Meanwhile, Calvin Klein claims its TikTok activity generated 10 times the engagement of a similar campaign on Instagram (although that was in 2015). 

The less polished and more dynamic feel to the quick-video format (another plus with the Generation Z audience) certainly appeals to the types of brands that are more comfortable with organic, less produced content and flexible approvals. The same goes for certain influencers, who will get more flexibility to be creative and fun without having to deliver overly produced content.

However, TikTok's biggest challenge is making the platform safer for wary brands. And key to this is getting its data-sharing and how it handles its young audience under control, and putting an end to the fines and investigations. If it can do this, being the door for brands to reach such a young audience will be very appealing. 

Finally, it needs to begin a stronger push to inform people of what it is. As one of our influencers said: "I don’t really know much about it." 

Unfortunately for TikTok, at the moment it seems the only way people learn about the platform is through negative publicity. If this can be turned around, there is a positive story to tell. 

Edward East is chief executive and founder of Billion Dollar Boy 

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