TikTok fined £12.7m – What this could mean for SMEs marketing on the app

Uncertainty continues to loom as a multi-million pound fine adds to the pile of TikTok controversies. This puts a question mark on the marketing strategies of SMEs.

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TikTok has been fined £12.7m for misusing children’s data, following an investigation conducted by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), which found that the platform breached data protection laws.

This follows a string of controversies revolving around the social media platform, including a ruthless questioning of its CEO in the US Senate, and a recent ban on UK government devices.

The accumulation of bad headlines has cast a dark shadow over TikTok, which is cause for concern for SMEs that have plugged their marketing strategies onto the platform.

Amid the rising tide of TikTok controversies, should small businesses think twice before betting on the upstart app for their marketing?

Huge user engagement for SMEs

Some 47% of users say TikTok is the platform they use most to engage with SMEs. On top of this, 77% said they came across small businesses on the platform before discovering them anywhere else.

Looking at things from the perspective of SMEs, 73% say TikTok has helped them reach new customers, and 78% saw a positive ROI after integrating the platform into their strategy.

The escalating distrust in TikTok’s use of sensitive data could spell disaster for those that use TikTok as a marketing lifeline. This could particularly impact SMEs that use it as a channel to connect with younger audiences.

Why diversification of channels is key

Breaking news of TikTok’s misuse of children’s data could be highly consequential for SMEs that take advantage of the platform’s high marketing ROI. However, to Joseph Black, Co-Founder of UniTaskr, the headlines haven’t been a reason for panic.

“I think, naturally, it plays a concern, because it does play a big part of our business. But, diversification is also a key word,” says Black. “You should never really be relying on one platform to drive all of your growth.”

TikTok made a place for itself in the social media marketing leagues, as it allowed SMEs to experiment with short form content that could be quickly created for a low amount of resources, and potentially go viral. This has sped up the timelines of marketing campaigns and injected a new stream of creativity into advertising. In fact, 81% of SMEs say that advertising on the platform makes them think outside the box.

“From an organic standpoint, once we’ve got an understanding of what works well, it’s quite easy to alter your paid strategy to be in line with that,” explains Black.

However, this bitesize form of marketing is no longer restricted to TikTok. It also lives on YouTube Shorts, Instagram Reels and Snapchat. This gives opportunities to SMEs to carry over marketing strategies to other platforms to mitigate the reputational risk TikTok may introduce if further bad press hits.

“I think the beauty about the fact that all these platforms have now adapted to short form content means that you can equally repurpose similar content on one to another,” reveals Black. “There’s no harm from the small business perspective in repurposing that same content now so that they can at least start to build a greater audience.”

Will TikTok be banned?

While the bad TikTok press does warrant concern, it’s still unclear whether there will be a fully fleshed ban of the app in the UK.

Black doesn’t think there will be one. “I completely appreciate everything that’s going on, but I’d find it very surprising to believe it will be taken down.”

This is not the first time this question has been asked. Back in 2019, criticism was raised in the US about TikTok’s censorship, privacy, and child safety.

“It’s similar to what happened a few years ago, they put these things in place, they scrutinise where they need to, but ultimately, it opens up dialogue for where potentially, the platform can do better to address those concerns.”

If anything, what is currently unfolding is a correctional period that other social media platforms have experienced. Take the infamous Cambridge Analytica data scandal with Facebook which misused user data for political advertising. Although Facebook was fined $5 billion by the US Federal Trade Commission due to privacy violations, the platform continued to operate.

There is no guarantee that the story will play out in the same way it did for Facebook. But, the record does show that a social media giant doesn’t simply disappear overnight.

“In my mind, I feel that it’s a correctional period which will do better for the platform that will lead to tighter restrictions on data and age restrictions,” explains Black.

Mitigating the TikTok risk

Regardless of how cloudy the future of TikTok looks like, it continues to operate and offer monetisation channels to SMEs.

“It’s a bit of a fine line between wanting to diversify and minimise future risk, but equally in the short term, still driving high performance results given that one platform is currently operating better than others,” says Black.

SMEs should be looking to gradually diversify their channels to prepare for a potential TikTok storm. “In a post-apocalyptic world where TikTok gets taken down tomorrow, the [SMEs] that are really going to suffer are the ones that haven’t actually built audiences in other places,” predicts Black.

However, as SMEs look to diversify and nurture their communities in other social media gardens, they should carry tools and principles that have made TikTok a raging success amongst marketing teams.

One of those principles is the authenticity that comes from face-to-camera content that is not highly edited and feels more personal. “Tying that authenticity and very customer focused content that you see on TikTok over to other channels and building up a more defined audience on them is what I would be looking to do,” recommends Black.

What comes next?

If what is currently unfolding is TikTok’s correctional period, it begs the question of what a newly polished TikTok could look like.

Black’s TikTok utopia would feature a renewed approach to their ad platform that injects vitality back into organic reach. “I’d like to see organic come back to perhaps where it used to be because I think it presented more opportunity for the smaller guys that don’t necessarily have massive budgets to pump into advertisement”

As users become increasingly preoccupied about how the platform could intrude into the privacy of their data, it would be expected that TikTok offers more transparency in this arena. Importantly, this transparency would also give more confidence to businesses that want to continue to market on the platform.

What remains certain is that both SMEs and consumers will continue to closely monitor the TikTok headlines. But the jump scare caused by the recent controversies serves as a cautionary tale to businesses about the importance of diversifying marketing channels and building communities across multiple platforms.

Written by:
Fernanda is a Mexican-born Startups Writer. Specialising in the Marketing & Finding Customers pillar, she’s always on the lookout for how startups can leverage tools, software, and insights to help solidify their brand, retain clients, and find new areas for growth. Having grown up in Mexico City and Abu Dhabi, Fernanda is passionate about how businesses can adapt to new challenges in different economic environments to grow and find creative ways to engage with new and existing customers. With a background in journalism, politics, and international relations, Fernanda has written for a multitude of online magazines about topics ranging from Latin American politics to how businesses can retain staff during a recession. She is currently strengthening her journalistic muscle by studying for a part-time multimedia journalism degree from the National Council of Training for Journalists (NCTJ).

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