Will TikTok Make You Buy It?

By John Herrman

Give any social media platform long enough, and it turns into a mall.

Credit...Julia Dufossé

In three short years, TikTok has grown in the public imagination from an app for dancing teens into an all-purpose cultural powerhouse, driving trends in music, food, news and politics, and changing the way people communicate online. In the process, it’s also become something else: a place where people buy things. Lots of them.

Social media companies have been chasing the dream of “social commerce” for years, ramping up advertising and nudging their users toward buying and selling in hopes of getting a piece of the internet’s other most profitable business.

It’s almost quaint to think about the early days, when Facebook was seen as a place where friends could connect; Twitter was a news source; YouTube was the funny-video site; and Instagram was for sharing nice photos. Now, in their efforts to keep people scrolling and buying, they’re overgrown with engagement-juicing features, laden with ads and infested with brands.

TikTok, so far, hasn’t had to try so hard. Many have noted the uncanny ability of its users to produce consumer manias, moving products across disparate categories. Clothing, cosmetics, cleaning solutions, tech accessories, toys and life-hacky appliances have seen sales skyrocket after becoming TikTok sensations.

TikTokers, both riding and fueling a pandemic surge in at-home shopping, have built massive followings showing off a broad and strange array of products. This spring, Amazon added a page of products called “the latest to go viral” — in other words, #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt. (All told, videos with that hashtag have earned more than 4.6 billion views.)

This week, TikTok held an event to promote TikTok Shopping, which it has described as a “suite of solutions, features and tools that give businesses the opportunity to tap into the power of commerce on TikTok,” many intended to make it a little bit simpler for people to sell you things directly, inside of the app.

That includes storefronts, tagged products and live shopping events. So far, brands that have added shopping tabs to their profiles include Sephora and Kylie Cosmetics. The company has tested live shopping streams with Walmart and plans to open the feature to more merchants.

One source of TikTok’s power, however, is how unprofessional it still feels. Even when people are trying to sell you something, their messages seem off-the-cuff, like trustworthy recommendations rather than sponsored shilling. (Although TikTok’s paid influencer economy is also booming.) Being on TikTok still feels fun, more akin to hanging out in a virtual mall than doomscrolling. But if the app turns itself into a full-fledged e-commerce platform, can that feeling last?

TikTok has seen its user base increase dramatically over the last year and a half. At the beginning of 2020 the platform had just over 500 million users worldwide. According to the company, it crossed a billion monthly users in September. That means a whole new economy of shoppers to reach.

Though brands have broadened their footprint on the app and begun to take advantage of its commerce tools, and TikTok’s influencer economy is growing briskly, many products appear in users’ feeds in a manner that feels organic — or, at least, not explicitly paid for. As in any social context, people use TikTok to talk about the things they buy. In a few respects, however, the app is unusual.

“Things can just pop in ways that seem super, super random,” said Mae Karwowski, chief executive of Obviously, an influencer marketing agency.

Take, for instance, Bissell’s portable carpet cleaner. Known as the Little Green Machine, it has been available since 1997. If you’re an American who was born between 1970 and 1990, there’s a good chance you’ll recall the television commercials for its predecessors: the suspiciously miraculous lifting of dirt through a translucent nozzle, the reservoir of revolting extracted liquid.

In the last 18 months, however, its sales have more than doubled as hundreds of videos featuring the device have spread across TikTok (or “CleanTok,” as the app’s home-improvement niche is sometimes known) and garnered millions of views.

“The first video I remember noticing, it had a swear in it, and we don’t cuss,” said Tony Huver, the brand manager for Bissell’s portable deep cleaners. Then, he said, employees started receiving links to more videos from friends and family. The messes they portray are disgusting — a mysteriously dark-stained mattress, a car carpet you can almost smell through the screen — and aren’t always perfectly resolved. The last thing a viewer sees is often a toilet bowl, where the poster dumps the extracted fluid. Otherwise, the videos were classic demonstrations, and convincing ones at that.

Last year, Imna Maciel, a college student in Gainesville, Fla., started seeing the Little Green Machine on her For You page, where TikTok’s personalized video recommendations populate. When she got her own, in December, she posted a short video in which she cleaned a pair of used couches; it’s been viewed about a million times. A few months later, a somewhat less successful attempt to clean her car’s interior garnered more than 10 million views.

“I added Amazon and Walmart links, and they both got thousands of clicks and about 100 sales,” she said, resulting in a payout of a few hundred dollars for her. Both Bissell videos are among the most popular she has ever posted and led to a surge in new followers.

TikTok Shopping seems, in part, like an attempt to standardize buying and selling, while also maintaining some of the app’s serendipity. “TikTok is a place where users and brands can connect directly, and where an end-to-end shopping experience can happen organically,” said Javier Irigoyen, the company’s head of product for shopping, in a presentation this week. Many of the changes he talked about were incremental. Still, they suggested that today’s most-talked-about social network, known for its unpredictability, is making plans.

Credit...Julia Dufossé

When they’re new and growing fast, social platforms are characterized by their perceived prevailing content: Instagram is for pictures of lunch and sunsets! Snapchat is for sexting! When they’re new, platforms (and the people who use them) are still trying to figure out what they’re for.

Eventually, though, two things have tended to happen. Social networks become more alike as they compete for users and advertising dollars, watching and mimicking one another. At the same time, they begin to reproduce their unique early successes in a predictable way. People gradually figure out what works on YouTube, then YouTube chooses whether to reinforce their behavior. Eventually, you end up with a relatively stable slate of types of content that are understood to be YouTubey: unboxing videos, shopping hauls and reviews, for example, are how people talk about products on the platform.

On Instagram, too, lucrative techniques and dominant aesthetics have been identified over time. In disparate categories including furniture, cookware, vitamins and pharmaceuticals, shoes and mattresses, brands and influencers have settled on a collection of visual languages that, even as they address different market segments in different styles, are understood to be somehow Instagrammy. In the context of a diverse but curated feed, these products — in targeted ads, posted by friends, boosted by influencers — might feel like a natural fit, or at least not stand out. Take them slightly out of context, and their similarities are more glaring.

Earlier this year, a catalog called All Sorts showed up on around 50,000 doorsteps in New York City, showcasing a selection of brands “from across the internet.” Many, including Brooklinen, Allbirds and Away, were major direct-to-consumer brands with overlapping customer bases. On consecutive paper pages rather than scattered throughout a feed, and with uniformly desaturated hues and minimalist branding, they could have been mistaken for products designed by the same conglomerate, or at least marketed by the same agency. Not quite — but there’s a good chance that if you recognize them, it’s from Instagram.

Every major social platform is rushing to increase its cut of the billions of dollars of commerce driven by its content. YouTube has clarified its rules around product marketing while also making it easier for YouTubers to sell products directly. Brands are now able to set up storefronts to sell within Facebook and Instagram, where they were previously relegated to advertising for outside sales channels. Meanwhile Shopify, a platform that supports the businesses of some 1.7 million merchants, has emerged as the de facto infrastructure for social shopping — a development that the platforms have simultaneously encouraged and recognized as competition.

TikTok remains new enough that its aesthetics and conventions, as well as its business strategy, are still being defined. But one thing has become quite clear. The most popular products on TikTok aren’t merely beautiful, well reviewed, aspirational, photogenic or cleverly marketed. They’re just good for making TikToks.

What makes a product good for TikTok? Amazon’s “Internet Famous” items offer some clues. The category is an assemblage of skin care products, clothing items, small gadgets, and things that glow, float or move in surprising ways. Each has become the star of countless user-generated infomercials.

“It is always hit-and-miss which videos become so popular, and usually they center on something satisfying,” said Lisa Ghammie, a blogger and TikTok influencer from Ann Arbor, Mich. Many of them, however, follow the marketing convention of “before and after.” In conversations with influencers, TikTok has referred to this style of content as “demotainment.”

The resulting sensibility and ever-changing product lineup recalls the Home Shopping Network, but with a more modern pitch: TikTok made me buy it, and maybe TikTok will make you buy it, too.

As a platform and a set of tools, TikTok emphasizes, more explicitly than its predecessors, the value of joining in. It started as Musical.ly, a lip-syncing app. It’s a machine for rapidly propagating new dances. It’s as close to a systematized meme economy as we’ve yet seen, and, at least for now, it distributes its wealth of attention in a way that doesn’t just favor the first to come up with something, but the next few hundred, or thousand, as well.

This sustained feeling of ground-floor opportunity is part of what keeps TikTok exciting. It also evokes older forms of social commerce. (Come to my Tupperware party Tuesday?) Investing in a product in order to personally promote it in exchange for more followers, even when there are affiliate commissions involved, is not, strictly speaking, multilevel marketing. But TikTok’s viral product economy, where buying and then selling temporarily hot products can in some cases amount to buying more lasting clout, can produce something like the experience of having an up line and a down line, and even evoke a gentle version of the fear of having been too late. If you buy the Instagram Frying Pan, you’ve been influenced. Ordering the TikTok Toaster, however, can be understood as another way to become an influencer.

While many individuals have mastered the art of the TikTok sales pitch, established brands large and small have had to maneuver themselves to achieve virality on the app. Some have succeeded: Elf (cosmetics), Dr. Squatch (personal care), Chipotle (Chipotle). Others found success in ways that surely felt random, divine or occasionally vexing.

The Pink Stuff, an abrasive cleaning paste for hard surfaces, was doing “absolutely nothing for 15 years,” said Henrik Pade, a managing director at its parent company Star Brands, headquartered in the United Kingdom. In 2017, it gained a little boost from cleaning influencers on Instagram and YouTube. The company, which at the time sold most of its cleaning products through domestic brick-and-mortar grocery stores, started investing in social promotion, but “we didn’t know enough about it,” Mr. Pade said.

Then came TikTok. “We can’t take any credit for it as a big strategic plan,” Mr. Pade said. “It happened, and we started to follow.” Videos of people cleaning kitchens, bathrooms and off-label items — shoes, car wheels — with the Pink Stuff have, in little more than a year, accumulated more than 250 million views. Some are effective demos. Plenty are jokes.

Three years ago, Mr. Pade said, sales of the paste totaled around 2 million pounds, or around $2.6 million. Last year, they exceeded 25 million pounds, or $34 million, accounting for half of the company’s total sales. “In the U.K., it has gone from being a niche product to widely stocked in retailers,” including the nation’s largest supermarket chains, which still account for a large majority of its domestic sales, Mr. Pade said. In the U.S., however, sales are 85 percent online, mostly through Amazon, thanks in large part to TikTok.

Stories like these suggest, with some credibility, that on TikTok, any thing can be the next big thing. The app that always tells you what to watch next and has no problem telling you what to buy next, too. Yet its version of shopping is also conspicuously makeshift, with a heavy dependence on Amazon, where creators prospect for viral gold and users follow. This might feel to an international tech conglomerate like unrealized potential.

Features like storefronts for brands could be understood as attempts by TikTok to catch up to Instagram’s own recent attempts at becoming a one-stop shopping destination. A few, however, hinted at desire to turn TikTok into something even more independent and commerce-focused, following the path of TikTok’s Chinese sister app, Douyin, which has more than 600 million users. Brands and users on Douyin can already sell and buy products without leaving the app, and do so by the million. It has its own payment system and has started to siphon market share from China’s e-commerce giants, which it has explicitly identified as competitors.

Whether “an end-to-end shopping experience,” as Mr. Irigoyen described earlier this week, is what people ultimately want from their social spaces remains, as ever, an open question: Maybe the naked consumerism of #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt is only tolerable to the extent that it feels organic. Or perhaps TikTok is different. It’s a platform that never pretended to be anything but a machine for producing and monetizing virality, and it has never been shy about telling us what it wants us to do next. What do we stand to lose, anyway, if it becomes a mall? The best of the rest of TikTok feels fleeting even as we enjoy it — that was always part of the fun.