*Geopolitics, Publishing, TikTok

I don’t use TikTok, but it has been hard to escape its impact on the publishing industry, where I spent the first part of my career. Nielsen research suggests that one in four UK book buyers used TikTok in 2022, accounting for 90 million purchases. As a collective phenomenon, BookTok was awarded the person of the year award at last year’s Futurebook conference. In the meantime, there’s little doubt that the platform has a huge impact on commissioning, marketing and selling books, and that publishers are investing time and money to make the most of that. As a proxy for the level of interest, a search on the Bookseller magazine’s website this morning showed eighty nine search results for ‘TikTok’ for stories published in the first quarter of the year, versus four results for ‘GPT’. (Long term, I know which one I would bet on being most significant and transformative, but that’s another story.)

TikTok has also been hard to miss recently in the world outside publishing, but here the response has been less rapturous. In Washington, CEO Shou Zi Chew’s recent testimony to the House Energy and Commerce Committee managed to unite Republicans and Democrats in a rare display of bipartisan disapprobation. On this side of the Atlantic, the app was banned from all parliamentary devices and networks, escalating an earlier ban on government-owned devices. Capping a week of bad publicity, TikTok was even accused of compromising efforts to support Ukraine as the electricity demands of its new data centre in Norway held back the expansion of a key munitions factory.

“[O]ur future growth is challenged by the storage of cat videos.”

Morten Brandtzæg, Nammo (FT)

For publishers—or indeed any business using TikTok as a channel—geopolitics might seem like a distant concern. But if I were still an executive at one of the Big Five publishers, I would be wondering about the implications if one of my most important marketing channels just went away. This isn’t totally implausible. Donald Trump actually banned TikTok, though legal challenges prevented that ban coming into force before it was revoked by the Biden Administration. The geopolitical temperature has risen considerably since then. The chance of an outright ban in the US or UK may be low, but it’s not zero either. What would that mean for an industry that has invested so heavily in one channel?

This is an interesting but extreme thought experiment. TikTok might or might not be banned. But fifteen years of experience with social media marketing shows that platforms are ephemeral at the best of times, even without geopolitical concerns. Ben Smith’s newsletter this week discussed this in the context of the news business:

The web is shrinking, and the people who remain are older and more conservative than they were. Facebook, once the main source of audience to news publishers, is barely relevant to a startup. Twitter is fading more slowly. TikTok is the last place news can really go viral. And our most engaged audience is here in email…

Ben Smith, Semafor

Amen to that. Over my career I’ve seen many of the dynamics between publishers and TikTok before—on MySpace (yes, I’m that old), Facebook and Twitter. What were largely organic channels become paid ones. Consumer habits shift. Marketers move on to the next thing. Email remains the least cool but most consistently effective channel across all the ups and downs of those platforms. My one disagreement with Ben Smith is that TikTok is not the last place content can go viral, just the latest.

While this process plays out, there’s nothing wrong with using social channels for tactical advantage. For example, at the moment my client xigxag is doing great things on TikTok. But they are promoting an app, so the end point of the activity is a consumer registering with them, at which point TikTok has done its job. Whether the outcome is an app registration, an email sign-up or a D2C transaction, from then on, the brand can talk to the customer independently of the social network for as long as the customer and GDPR allow. But for publishers using TikTok for awareness or to encourage a purchase through a third party, there’s no such guarantee.

The lesson of every one of these social platforms is that if you build a following on them, you’re not really building a long term audience. You are building the ability of the platform to monetise access to that audience in future. The exam question that executives should be asking their marketing colleagues about TikTok (or whatever other social channel is the next big thing) is simple: what proportion of this ephemeral audience are you migrating on to owned channels (and retaining), and what are you doing to drive that process? Having an answer to that question guards against both a low probability/high impact geopolitical upset and the more likely scenario of another change in the social media landscape in due course. Absent that answer, marketers risk building another beautiful house on borrowed land.

(Thanks to Suw Charman-Anderson for the Zoom catch-up that started this line of thought, and Karen Powell for comments on an earlier draft.)

One response

  1. […] George Walkley examines the publishing phenomenon that is BookTok and asks what would happen to publ… It’s not an absurd question, given the currently antsy geopolitical climate in which no one trusts China and China trusts no one. […]

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