Chris Stokel-Walker Interview: Journalist Taking a Deep Dive into TikTok and Social Media
Different platforms have different dynamics. Creating a single ad and distributing it unchanged across all platforms is unlikely to deliver optimal results. The most effective ads are purpose-built for the platform they are meant for. Few platforms have demonstrated the power of this principle more explicitly than TikTok.
Author of a book on YouTube’s impact, this time Chris takes a deep dive into TikTok including the opportunities it holds for brands and creators.
Chris is a freelance journalist for multiple major publications including the New York Times, Wired, the Guardian, the BBC and Business Insider. With a journalism career spanning 10 years, his work focuses on tech and digital culture.
“I’ve been getting involved in that because of my interest in platforms like YouTube and TikTok. I realized as part of the reporting I do that TikTok was starting to grow incredibly quickly and having a huge impact on culture in a way that YouTube had 10 or 15 years ago. And that it was worth writing a book about.”
His YouTube book came out in 2019 while the TikTok one in 2021. Chris says he decided to write the books because of how much social media now affects all aspects of life.
“TikTok has 730 million monthly active users. YouTube has 2 billion monthly active users. Things that happen on these platforms have real life ramifications. We saw that most recently with the January 6 protest in the United States, the storming of the US capital in Washington DC and how social media had an impact on real work politics. This has so much impact on everything that we do, and how we live our lives, and how we do business.”
What the Book is About
Chris’ TikTok book covers the history of the app, where it came from, how it was established, how the company behind grew so big, what impact it’s having on society, business and culture, and what the future holds.
“It tries to answer some of the questions that people have. What happens when you have a global app that is popular in hundreds of countries that is not designed in Silicon Valley? And what does that mean for the future of technology? Whether TikTok is a national security risk. Where it sends data to China. What the future of technology is in a world where our platforms look more like TikTok and less like Facebook and Twitter and YouTube.”
The book aims to help readers learn more about TikTok in the context of their work, business and lives, he says.
“A lot who read the book will want to know how they can make it big on TikTok. What are the secrets of TikTok? What does TikTok say you need to do to be successful on TikTok? Should I be putting all my success on TikTok or should I think about the future when TikTok doesn’t exist. TikTok Doesn’t exist in India anymore. TikTok almost didn’t exist in the US anymore. What are the ways in which TikTok is changing the culture? We’ve seen the rise of Instagram Reels, YouTube Shorts and Triller doing what TikTok does and are normalizing those things to an even bigger audience.”
Chris notes that TikTok creators are more conscious than YouTube creators about the risk that the platform could be taken away. This is in large part due to the bans and investigations the app is facing in different jurisdictions around the world such as the United States, Europe, Australia and India.
“They know it can be taken away just as quickly as it arrived. They are much more sensible in what they do and kind of spread themselves across other platforms.”
As an influencer, you have a better shot at making money on TikTok than on YouTube, he says.
“For instance, on YouTube, 96.5 percent of creators will never make enough money to break through the US poverty line on YouTube. On TikTok, you have more of a chance of breaking through because it is a newer platform and because the algorithm promotes people from nowhere to become someone. You can create from the TikTok Creator Fund and TikTok Creator Marketplace and brand deals.”
Chris sees immense opportunity for brands.
“There is some data that I have in the book that hasn’t been publicly released anywhere that shows 30 percent of US TikTok users watching less TV, less streaming services and less competing platforms like YouTube because they are on TikTok. You have the opportunity to reach millions of consumers in a way that you couldn’t on any other platform.”
Tips for TikTok Ads
It’s important that brands create ad content that’s specific to TikTok, he says.
“One thing TikTok says which is true is ‘Don’t make ads make TikToks’. If you make just a traditional TV advert, and you put it on TikTok, nobody finds it authentic or interesting. If you make your videos look like TikToks, if you use people who post TikToks, if you use the visual language and cultural language of TikTok, you stand a real chance of having organic popularity. Don’t just throw a TV ad on there.”
Aim to grab the viewer’s attention quickly.
“Think carefully about the message you want to get across and do it quickly. First three seconds are key to any individual TikTok. If you do not grab attention within the first three seconds, the user will scroll on. The average most successful video is like 11 to 13 seconds long. If it’s any longer, people get bored.”
Authenticity is emerging as a key trend in how influencer marketing is done today, he says.
“There’s this huge push towards authenticity and honesty. And it is being pushed by platforms like TikTok that require you just don’t put an ad on TikTok but create something that is native and that you understand fits that endless stream of videos. Companies and those who are advertising brands are starting to recognize the need to be even more authentic not just in terms of the message but also in terms of the medium and the way they do it.”
Content on TikTok is most successful when it is organic or looks organic, Chris observes.
“When I watch my TV, as soon as the ads come on, I stop paying attention because they look different to the TV show I am watching. If you are able to do a really engaging piece of content that gets across your message while also ensuring that you are able to follow the established norms of that platform, then you really stand a chance of success. You convince people more and more of the value of the message you are trying to sell.”
The Future According to Chris Stokel-Walker
Chris expects the creator space to grow bigger in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic causing brands to recognize the power creators have.
“We don’t spend as much time watching TV. We spend all our time on social media platforms like TikTok. We are really seeing the power of creatives. You are starting to see creators recognizing the power they hold as well and pushing themselves forward and fighting for the right to get paid fairly. Creators will get more vocal about what value they offer to brands and ultimately that they get paid more for it.”
For his next book, Chris plans to examine the way the world of work is changing due to the gig economy. He expects to complete it in 2022 or 2023.
His final thoughts? Buy the TikTok book.
“It’s worth it. It will help improve your life.”
Chris Stokel-Walker is a UK-based freelance news and features journalist specializing in digital culture, creators, YouTube and TikTok. His work regularly appears in the New York Times, BBC, Wired, the Guardian, Business Insider, MIT Technology Review, New Scientist and New Statesman. He is the author of the book YouTubers: How YouTube Shook Up TV and Created a New Generation of Stars and more recently TikTok Boom: China’s Dynamite App and the Superpower Race for Social Media.
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