Marketing Briefing: TikTok is making search a bigger focus, but marketers, agency execs say it’s early days

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Search ads on TikTok at present are a mostly an experimental marketing channel to reach Gen Z consumers flocking to the app. But media buyers and agency execs expect it may be a bigger and more mainstream focus later this year as TikTok is clearly making search a priority and marketers vie to figure out how to do search well via TikTok given Gen Z’s widespread use of the platform. 

“In July, Google senior vp [Prabhakar Raghavan] reported that 40% of young people go first to TikTok to search for certain categories ahead of Google,” said Jared Belsky, CEO of digital shop Acadia, when asked about younger generations’ increased interest in search on TikTok. “This is happening because of the authenticity of the content, as well as the visual nature of TikTok’s answers/responses.” 

As some younger consumers are changing behavior and using TikTok as a search engine, marketers and agency execs say that it makes sense for brands to be early movers and find ways to stand out. 

“With Gen Z preferring TikTok to traditional search engines as their source for information gathering, brands are going to have to re-think their search strategies,” said Amanda Shapiro, Deutsch LA senior vp, group strategy. “It’s all about content discoverability, which needs to be a consideration from development through posting.” 

Brands tend to follow consumers wherever they go so doing so that makes sense. That said, how much investment or time spent on owning search on the platform, given it’s still early days, will depend on the brand and its focus on the demo spending time there. It’s unclear how much marketers are spending on paid search ads just yet though agency execs say it’s a small percentage of clients are testing out right now and doing so as an experiment.

“The most exciting part about TikTok search for media buyers is finally seeing a legitimate disruptor to Google, at least among Gen Z,” said Neil Sawhney, director of media, west at Pereira O’Dell. “That demo’s increasing preference for TikTok as a search engine is clear, so now it’s up to brands to weigh what level of experimentation is justified.”

Agency execs say that while some brands are using TikTok’s paid search ads, which have been in beta since last March, others are taking an organic, SEO-driven approach. By adjusting organic for search, some agency execs believe that marketers can test out how well search can work for their brand while the value of the paid search ads on the platform are still up for debate.

“It’s not enough placement wise to warrant much excitement,” said David Herrmann, president of Herrmann Digital, when asked for his POV on TikTok search ads. “It’s slowly coming along.” 

Herrmann continued: “Essentially TikTok seems poised to compete with Google in this regard. They’ve built it into their organic side with keywords. One of my brands owns a bunch of key terms organically on TikTok (they have five of the top eight most-watched videos in a popular category). For ads purposes we always include those key terms in our ads. That’s the best way to do this. But still small potatoes right now with reach being very tiny.” 

That TikTok search is often used for “how-to” type content i.e. how to use a product or how to do something as well as recommendations, brands that are looking to do organic content as an approach to search are leaning into that type of content when doing so. As for brand categories, beauty brands, food brands and travel brands, among others, are those experimenting with search.

Aaron Levy, Tinuiti’s vp of paid search, noted that, “We’re not viewing TikTok as a threat to Google Ads, but more an opportunity for horizontal expansion. [Cost-per-click]’s on Google are increasing year-on-year and the market is becoming saturated – we view TikTok as a way to reach new users at a lower cost.” 

How important search ads on TikTok will be for marketers is still unclear. “The story of ‘search on TikTok’ being a threat to Google is a bit overdone though,” said Belsky. “It happens to be true in very visual categories like restaurants or recipe selection, but when you think about things like credit card or insurance research, this is just not true.  Like most things in ad-land, the truth is more in the middle.”

3 Questions with Matt Leonard, CMO at Purple Carrot, a plant-based meal kit company 

The meal kit space took a hit after Covid restrictions ended and people ventured back out. How is Purple Carrot managing those changes? 

The meal kit world was evolving in 2019. It was on the upswing a bit. Obviously, Covid came in and created very unnatural demands. For me coming in new, it’s on the reset time, where the backdrop of that natural demand is not there. I won’t say it’s slowed down to perilous levels by any means. But it’s not the organic demand, obviously, when people really didn’t have many ways to actually eat food, to get the food. We will probably be biasing towards organic growth, strengthening the brands, focusing on conversion [and] building out our LTV [Life Time Value]. It’ll be a mix of organic, local marketing. We’ll be thinking about regions, very hyperlocal, that makes sense, where our product fits well for people, where there’s a need. 

What’s the current marketing mix to manage said changes?

Early on we’ll still be in the demand capture stages. We’re looking at ways to expand affiliate partnerships, things along those lines where our message gets out to a really relevant audience at a controlled [customer-acquisition-costs]. Maybe ballpark 20% of the mix could come from something like that. I wouldn’t be surprised to see 20%-plus come from customer sharing. We’re doing a lot of work on the virality side to really focus on what that factor looks like, how people share within their network, when they share, what the costs look like in that space. We probably have a 20% allocation from search. [For] programmatic paid social, the display channels, we’ll throw in another 20% there. That left me with about another 20% to really start thinking about influencers, partnerships, developmental channels, CTV and different sorts of areas. 

With the social landscape changing so quickly, does that impact how Purple Carrot is thinking about marketing? 

It’s harder than ever to track. It’s harder than ever to target. When we think about those, and really what the cost is, there’s the trade off of how good attribution is and how much you’re willing to invest in a not perfectly tracked channel. [Where] media costs have gone to with the lack of tracking leaves us in a state where I think there’s other ways to to deliver your message more effectively, or differently. — Kimeko McCoy

By the numbers

Although once considered the future of shopping, social commerce and livestream shopping has yet to take off the way marketers predicted it would. Facebook, Instagram and TikTok last year all took a step back from social commerce, and apparently, so are shoppers, according to new research from The Influencer Marketing Factory. Find out how in the data points below:

  • Only 36% of U.S. and 25% of U.K. responders have ever purchased something during a Livestream.
  • The first choice for American responders is Facebook Live (26%), while U.K. responders prefer TikTok Live (30%).
  • U.S. responders (27%) spent between $20 and $50 on Livestream shopping in the last 3 months. Comparatively in the U.K., (31%) of responders have spent between $10 and $20 — Kimeko McCoy

Quote of the week

“The world changes every year or two in our industry, so maybe you have people that were brought in during the huge bubble. There are a lot of people receiving very good paychecks that maybe aren’t contributing to the top or bottom line like they were in 2021 or 2022.”

— A source referencing the growth of tech companies in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic when asked about Google’s layoffs.

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