TikTok courts publishers with a dedicated team and content ideas

Illustration of a rocket launching with the TikTok logo on the side.

TikTok is taking steps to help publishers make money off its platform.

Over the past year, the short-form video app has charmed creators, agencies and publishers, with media companies like NBC, ESPN and Group Nine all experimenting on the platform. Next up the company is trying to figure out how its platform can be monetized for publishers’ use, something TikTok says it is working on but hasn’t formally debuted just yet.  

TikTok set up in 2019 a content partnerships team that works directly with hundreds of media publishers to assist them with growing their respective TikTok audiences. Soon that team will also help publishers make money from the platform by enabling them to place branded content on it.

One publisher that often works with TikTok’s content team, Complex, is seeking more branded content opportunities on the platform, especially as it dives deeper into e-commerce. Complex recently opened its own online store to sell sneakers, hoodies and other items. And it is hoping to find ways to work with advertising partners on branded content to showcase on its TikTok accounts — as well as options to advertise or even sell its own merchandise there, said Complex’s director of social media Arman Walia.

“These publishers have sophisticated sales forces and great relationships with brands, and they talk to them almost daily about content they can create across various channels,” said Bryan Thoensen, who leads content partnerships for TikTok.

A TikTok creator marketplace, originally intended just for influencers, is now open for use by publishers that want to work directly with marketers on branded content options.

TikTok is also trying to make it easier for its users to discover content from publishers and creators. On Sunday the Financial Times reported that TikTok is exploring the development of a brand-safe curated content feed in an attempt to attract more top-tier advertisers. That feature could potentially follow the footsteps taken by Snapchat with its Discover tab, where editorial content and original programming from publishers are featured, with Snapchat splitting the ad revenues with them.

Thoensen would not comment on the report about a possible TikTok curated content feed but said his company is “constantly looking to innovate the way that the platform aids in discovery.”

In addition to finding or developing ways for publishers to monetize their use of TikTok’s platform, Thoensen’s team is also helping media companies grow their audiences by providing them weekly insight reports about trending hashtags and what works (or doesn’t).

Today Complex has more than 2.2 million followers of its main TikTok account, having amassed 1 million followers within three months of initially signing up for one in June 2019. At first, it was a “struggle” for Complex to figure out how to approach posting content on TikTok because of a lack of resources, said Walia, who added that Complex now has a social media staffer dedicated to TikTok work and that makes the process go easier. And gaining a better understanding of what drives virality on TikTok has helped, too. “You’d see stuff go viral and I didn’t understand why.”

TikTok worked with Complex on launching a hashtag challenge during last year’s ComplexCon event. The #CheckTheDrip challenge invited people to show off their personal style as they headed to the annual convention in November. Complex invited 10 TikTok influencers to attend the event and create videos with the hashtag; over seven days, users created more than 400,000 videos — that garnered 850 million views. Walia said Complex is thinking about staging another such challenge this year.

Another way TikTok is helping publishers is by sharing insights on how to develop content that’s native or specific to the platform. Its pitch to publishers relies on showing them that producing this type of content is not as time consuming or resource intensive as they might think. “We could take old videos from back in the day and breathe new life into them,” Walia said, describing a practice that Thoensen called “TikTok-ifying” content. Complex’s TikTok posts have included repurposed videos, original videos and videos from influencers and celebrities.

Ryan Spoon, svp of digital and social content for ESPN, has discovered much the same through his company’s experiences with posting on its TikTok account, which has 2.5 million followers. “The content can exist and be evergreen,” Spoon said. “And as long as it’s tied creatively to music and beats and emotions, that kind of presentation just makes sense on TikTok.” One example he described is ESPN’s post of a video showing the flipping of the University of Oklahoma’s horse-drawn Sooner Schooner wagon. The video was set to a song from Lil Nas X. “Two months from now, it’ll still be every bit as enjoyable and funny and creative,” he said.

ESPN is also investing more in its social media content and recently hired Omar Raja, the founder of the wildly popular Instagram account House of Highlights, now owned by Bleacher Report. Raja will lead a team of four digital and social media specialists who will work on ESPN’s Instagram and TikTok accounts.

And ESPN is also trying to think creatively about which content to post on TikTok versus what it shares on other platforms. For example, unlike its Twitter posts, ESPN’s content on TikTok isn’t focused on breaking news or even necessarily tied to the core sports it covers. That’s something Thoensen and his team are encouraging more publishers to do.

“The content is really diverse and different from what we do elsewhere, and we’re excited and bullish,” Spoon said.

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article misspelled Bryan Thoensen’s name. 


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