Publishers not ready to change social media strategies as TikTok ban looms

Though the TikTok ban looks like it might actually happen sometime next year, execs from publications that have built followings and businesses on the platform aren’t concerned about what this will mean for their audience development and monetization strategies around short-form vertical video.

Execs at Bustle Digital Group, Gallery Media Group and The Washington Post told Digiday that they don’t have plans to change their audience development strategies on social media or abandon TikTok. This confidence comes down to having a strong production and distribution strategy for short-form vertical video on other social platforms, thanks in large part to TikTok. 

Ultimately, they said they were not concerned for the time being about the possibility that TikTok would be barred from operating in the U.S. — which is likely to happen unless ByteDance, its Chinese parent company, sells its stake in its allocated nine to 12 months to do so. 

“It’s too soon to pivot and to be making sweeping overarching changes,” said Wes Bonner, svp of marketing and audience development and head of social at BDG.

But a lot can happen between now and then.

“200+ days in [this] climate of politics, of technology — I think that a lot can, and probably will, change,” said Chris Anthony, CRO at Gallery Media Group. The company produces about 400 short-form videos a month with a team that splits its resources equally between TikTok and Instagram. 

“We have a long timeline… We don’t want to abandon this massive amount of consumers at this point [and] focusing on what’s in front of us today is important,” Anthony added.

The publishing execs reiterated that it’s not really the platform that’s important, but the format and the audience.

Distribution strategy to the rescue

The Washington Post’s director of video, Micah Gelman, said his team is prepared for the ban, if it does happen. It’s part of the reason why his division, which is inclusive of the TikTok team, was recently renamed to The Washington Post Universe, to have the same name across social platforms.

“Whether TikTok is here or not in a year from now is not super material. The storytelling we do, the formats that we use really carry through [to other platforms]. We use a lot of the same type of storytelling on our own website [and] apps,” Gelman said. The Post has 1.7 million followers on TikTok at the time of publication.

The videos (at the very least, the formats) are transferable from TikTok to YouTube Shorts, Gelman noted. Anecdotally, he said his team has also recently seen “significant growth” in engagement on its YouTube Shorts videos, which he said “often” perform just as well as videos on TikTok. In fact, it seems sometimes videos are doing better on YouTube Shorts — a video on cicadas descending on parts of the Midwest and South this year had 146,000 views on YouTube Shorts, versus 26,700 on TikTok within two days, as of Wednesday afternoon, for example. Another video on campus protests had 300,000 views on YouTube Shorts, versus 53,100 on TikTok within four days.

The Post has a revenue share agreement with YouTube, Gelman noted.  And about a year ago, The Washington Post built a short-form video experience for its site called “the carousel,” which allows readers to scroll and swipe through videos and stories while on the publisher’s owned and operated platform. “Nobody has just one app,” Gelman said.

BDG has over 25 million followers on TikTok across 10 accounts, but the videos made exclusively for the platform represent “such a small portion” of the publisher’s total video output, Bonner said, without providing exact figures. Most of BDG’s videos are being distributed across multiple platforms, including Instagram, Facebook Reels and Pinterest.

Audiences will end up somewhere else

BDG’s TikTok strategy will have a lasting impact on how the company produces short-form video, even if TikTok gets banned, Bonner said. BDG restructured its short-form video production after joining TikTok in 2020. Now, the company has a better balance of video output with monetization and an in-house creator network, according to Bonner. It also organized its social video content categories into franchises and series for food, fashion and entertainment, which helped sell that inventory to advertisers, he said.

Video views are growing on those other platforms for BDG, too. The digital publisher saw a 34% increase in video views on Facebook Reels from Q4 2023 to Q1 2024 and a 50% increase in video views on Pinterest, according to Bonner.

Publishing execs said that even if TikTok really does get banned (or if people stop using it as a result of its algorithm getting removed), it doesn’t mean that those audiences will just disappear.

“It would be foolish for us to think that that consumer attention is just going to just evaporate,” Anthony said. “It’s going to move over back to an existing platform, whether it be YouTube Shorts, Reels, whatever it might be.”

While that may be true, it could be a challenge to get the same audience on TikTok to follow a publisher’s brand on a different platform. Just look at what happened on X — and what isn’t happening with Threads, in terms of follower counts. The Washington Post has 20 million followers on X, versus 1.5 million on Threads. Although Bustle, BDG’s flagship brand, has 92,500 followers on X, versus 350,000 on Threads.

Too soon to worry about revenue impact

The three publishing execs interviewed for this story said they hadn’t yet heard any concerns from their advertisers. Because of that, they’re not worried about the impact the potential ban could have on the revenue they make from brands sponsoring their TikTok videos. They were confident advertisers would move their marketing dollars to support their short-form videos on other platforms.

While a ban on TikTok would ultimately decrease the amount of video inventory available to advertisers, “I don’t think it is going to necessarily have a large impact on our bottom line,” Bonner said.

Although, Bonner said that may change as the year progresses.

“I think there will be advertisers over the next few months that come to the table for branded deals in the second half of the year — the fourth quarter, around the holidays — and we’ll probably have to have more strategy conversations that we aren’t having just yet because of the runway of time that we have,” Bonner said. Some advertisers may not want to risk setting a campaign live for it to be potentially impacted mid-flight, for example, he said.

“But again, that’s just forward thinking. It’s not necessarily anything that we have to act on today, thankfully,” Bonner said.

https://digiday.com/?p=543577

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