‘There’s more opportunity’: Publishers on TikTok are taking branded content into their own hands


While many insist that TikTok monetization is still difficult, there are some emerging bright spots for publishers who have been on the app for almost as long as there has been an app to be on. 

Over the last year, as their audiences on the social app have grown, a flurry of publishers — including U.S.-based Group Nine and Bustle Digital Group and U.K.-based Global and Dazed Media — have turned to tactics such as brokering influencer partnerships and developing branded content campaigns to explore new commercial opportunities.

For commercial radio company Global, its early forays on TikTok got it closer to TikTok’s media and partnerships team and global business solutions teams, which support advertisers with organic and paid media strategies on the app respectively. The relationship started at the beginning of 2019 and since then, the media owner has amassed more than 1.1 million followers and 25 million likes, per TikTok.

“We’re now the single largest media brand in the U.K. producing original content,” said Charles Ubaghs, audience development director at Global. “We don’t license viral clips for the content we post on TikTok. Everything you see there is ours.”

It’s an informal relationship in that there’s no revenue share on any of the branded content Global publishes on the app. Instead, the publisher gets support on creative alongside regular updates on upcoming product launches. 

Group Nine was also an early adapter to the social app, which was a natural play for the publisher as it receives 90% of its traffic from mobile, and it too works with TikTok as a creator to grow its own presence. But as for monetizing the social platform, the media company is on its own, according to its chief revenue office Geoff Schiller.

More than a year ago, Group Nine’s five brands — PopSugar, NowThis, The Dodo, Thrillist and Seeker — started growing their TikTok channels and in the past six months alone, the company doubled its total audience to more than 5 million followers, Schiller said.

Since the end of the second quarter this year, Group Nine has been monetizing its presence on the platform, signing close to 10 branded content campaigns for PopSugar and The Dodo. 

There are signs, though, that suggest TikTok could eventually create a full-bodied commercial proposition around branded content from publishers.

And publishers may not have to wait too long for it.

Global worked with TikTok to ensure that the content it posted organically from the account for its Capital FM radio station on behalf of eBay would be seen by and targeted to the advertiser’s audience. In other words, the app amplified the branded content. The deal was part of a larger digital outdoor campaign run by Global, helping to extend the reach for eBay with Capital’s core target audience.

“This is the first publisher monetisation campaign we’ve run in Europe, whereby one publisher brand has activated its own branded content campaign for a client on the platform,” said Sonia Gleeson, who leads brand partnerships and entertainment at TikTok.

Bustle Digital Group ran its first TikTok campaign in December 2019 and spent 2020 getting serious about investing in the platform, according to Wesley Bonner, BDG’s vp of marketing and audience development. Since then, it has amassed over 10 million followers across its portfolio — which includes Bustle, Inverse, Romper and Nylon — and has experienced average monthly audience growth of 40%, with a monthly average of more than one billion views.

To date, BDG has completed six branded content campaigns with more than 20 custom assets on TikTok, Bonner said. And while the company relies on its organic reach a fair amount of the time, it also uses TikTok’s self service advertising platform, which runs in-feed ads on the platform’s For You page.

Bonner said that unlike other social platforms, advertisers consistently “praise” TikTok for counting a paid view after six seconds of watch time, which helps validate their paid media spend.

BDG also works with TikTok’s brand and content partnerships teams as well as TikTok’s creator marketplace, to make sure that “we’re up to date on TikTok’s platform trends, rate card and trending talent, etc.,” Bonner said, though branded content sales themselves all happen in-house.

Dazed Media is making similar moves. Last year, the youth-focused publisher launched a verified account on TikTok. Last month, it launched its biggest branded campaign on the app to date — a TikTok challenge #GucciAbsoluteBeginners for Gucci. It hired Morgan Presley, the creator behind TikTok’s popular Gucci Model Challenge, which generated over 59 million views, to front the campaign.

Over the last two years we’ve always been trying to push TikTok with certain brands, but now they’re more willing because the platform has taken off in a much bigger way,” said Ahmad Swaid, head of content at Dazed Media. “There’s more opportunity there now.”

Branded content works especially well on TikTok because it a very community-based environment and brands that do not know how to fit into that community on their own “stand out like a sore thumb on the platform,” according to Nick Cicero, the vp of strategy at streaming and social intelligence company Conviva. This is why he said having the skills of a media company that knows how to build a natural presence on the platform is appealing to advertisers.

“You don’t want to be that corny brand on TikTok,” Cicero said.

Part of that is because TikTok has higher engagement rates than other social platforms, according to Bonner and Schiller. Some of BDG’s campaigns have over-delivered on KPIs by as much as 24%, Bonner said, with more than a 10% engagement rate.

PopSugar’s campaign for hair product company Batiste had double the completion rate that is typically seen on its Instagram and Facebook videos, according to Schiller. That campaign also exceeded its impression goal with more than 17 million impressions made, he added.

As far as social media campaigns go, TikTok is not considered to be a material driver of revenue, Schiller said, but he expects that to change in 2021.


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