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TikTok Emerging as a Search Engine

It has been a fan-favorite topic for discussion for years. TikTok, the social media platform that allows users to create storytelling-style videos has burst upon the social media scene challenging the digital space occupied by well-entrenched competitors like Facebook and Instagram. The channel’s rise to popularity appeared to come from nowhere and managed to catch the leading competitors off-guard.

Originally a musical platform launched in 2016, it permitted mostly young people to create music videos, but the new arrival on the social media scene morphed into an app that made it easy to share content with other users both in and out of its proprietary space. TikTok has been downloaded more than 2.6 billion times worldwide and currently has 1.7 billion users including more than 150 million in the United States. The platform appeals to the 18- to 34-year-old demographic but is beginning to gain users in the more mature generations. TikTok is now showing significant gains in attention as a search engine.

Consumers now use TikTok to search for things they need or are interested in, including cooking recipes, music, DIY ideas, fashion, and more. The platform is quickly earning recognition for being an authority for Generation Z searchers. This shift away from other search engines is primarily driven by younger generations with 64 percent of Gen Zer’s and 49 percent of millennials saying they’ve used TikTok as a search engine. Seekers favor TikTok’s tailored content and storytelling style that aligns with personal preferences.

Given that Gen Zer’s are relying on social media for shopping and discovering the latest brands, marketers are beginning to consider the platform as a viable social media marketing channel. In the coming year, TikTok is proposing to make it easier for advertisers to create content and ads specifically for the channel’s community to boost visibility and engagement. By combining entertainment and commerce the app hopes to create a seamless shopping experience from discovery to purchase. But as brands prepare to allocate marketing spend, some unfavorable geopolitical events and lingering concerns for the platform’s adversarial Chinese ownership threaten TikTok’s continuing efforts to expand its user base and marketing potential. Before fashioning an effort to introduce a brand to TikTok, it is advised to consider that the effort may not be surrounded by all good news.

After years of concern over TikTok’s handling of user data and personal information, The U.S. House of Representatives has recently passed a bill that could pave the way for TikTok to be banned in the U.S. Both Democrats and Republicans supported the measure, which advanced out of committee in a unanimous 50-0 bipartisan vote and passed the entire house by a vote of 352-65, with one abstention. The bill would ban the platform’s use in the country if Bytedance, the app’s Chinese owners, does not divest from it within 165 days of the Bill’s passage. The legislation will now go before the U.S. Senate for a vote. If passed, President Biden has announced he would sign the Bill into law. Supporter of the bill, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said, “We’re not there to ban TikTok. Let’s do something better than TikTok, because it does not have its algorithm controlled by Bytedance, which is beholden to the Chinese government.”

The action is likely to delay any costly expansion of TikTok’s technology offerings until the dispute is settled. Youthful fans of the platform vow to continue to favor the app as a social media channel and search engine despite the threat to ban it. Numerous investors are lining up to help delink the popular app from its Chinese Communist Party ownership.

The decision to make TikTok a part of a brand’s marketing strategy comes down to finding a solution to the threatened ban, determining if the TikTok shoe fits: Is the style compatible to the brand’s established image, and is wearing it likely to find the brand’s targeted consumer.