Social & Influencers

Many advertisers seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach to TikTok’s search ads

“We want to make sure that they get it right,” a Wavemaker exec told us.
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TikTok via YouTube

· 5 min read

A new campaign from TikTok isn’t exactly subtle: As a father helps his daughter move into a new place, the two turn to the platform for cleaning tips, frame-hanging hacks, and “quick budget recipes.”

“Search it with TikTok,” the first tagline says, as if to imply, instead of with that other search engine.

That’s because, whether it’s for Whole30 recipes, planning a vacation in Portugal, or finding cheap eats in Brooklyn, people are beginning to turn to TikTok as a search destination, stepping on the toes of Google, the world’s most popular search engine.

As its campaign suggests, TikTok is taking advantage of the behavioral shift, but many advertisers don’t yet seem sold on the company’s search inventory, which has been in beta since last year, media buyers told us.

Search mode

Search is a profitable game, at least if you’re the dominant player—Google’s “search and other” category made nearly $40 billion in revenue in Q3.

But the company seems to be paying attention to what could be competition. At a conference last year, Google SVP Prabhakar Raghavan said that “something like almost 40% of young people, when they’re looking for a place for lunch, they don’t go to Google Maps or Search,” instead turning to “TikTok or Instagram.”

On TikTok, efforts to monetize that behavior haven’t yet materialized for many advertisers. “It’s not, like, a true search-engine opportunity yet,” Sonya Ali, a media director at the agency RPA, said. RPA isn’t in TikTok’s search ads beta in part because the targeting options offered in the beta test aren’t as granular as more traditional search inventory, and don’t offer the ability to buy and bid on searched terms, Ali said.

In its current state, advertisers can buy ad inventory that’ll appear alongside searches, but can only create a block list of keywords they want to avoid, letting the algorithm, video descriptions, and content match ads with audience’s searches, Jason Hayward, CRO of Mammoth Media, a social-focused agency that’s enrolled in TikTok’s beta, explained. “I don’t necessarily see it replacing Google, but I think it’s a great addition,” he told us.

Here’s what we saw: Searching “diet” on TikTok brought up a sponsored video from a company called Nutrisense. “Skin-care routine for men” returned a sponsored video promoting LED light therapy by an account called @SkinByGill. The search “Disney” brought up an ad for a branded rose (?) collection from the account @Roseshire, because apparently that’s a thing. You get the idea.

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TikTok spokesperson Kate Amery declined to share how much the platform charges for search inventory, the nuances of how it works, or how many agencies and brands are participating in the beta.

Benoit Vatere, the founder and CEO of Mammoth Media, said that the platform’s algorithm is really “strong at picking up keywords” for search inventory, though he declined to name clients buying it.

Still, other buyers sounded hesitant to try it out right now. “We want to make sure that they get it right,” Adam Arnegger, executive director of investment for GroupM’s Wavemaker US, which isn’t enrolled in TikTok’s search beta, told Marketing Brew.

Despite acknowledging that yes, teenagers use TikTok to search, Arnegger said that the agency is in “a little bit of wait-and-see” mode before it’s clear what search inventory might look like on the platform. “We are still in a Google-dominant world,” he said.

Test and learn

Freddy Dabaghi, managing director at the media agency MMI, told us that concerns about brand safety and TikTok’s regulatory issues, like whether a potential government ban of the app is likely, “come up a lot.” Ultimately, TikTok’s search inventory was not “something that our clients jumped into,” he said.

“More of our clients are hyper-focused on [TikTok’s] ad inventory from a video perspective, more so than search, but [that’s] probably something that will shift as this becomes more mainstream,” he said.

In the meantime, TikTok has continued to roll out new tools and inventory, like different types of shoppable ads. Despite its controversial reputation—and potential privacy and data concerns surrounding the platform—advertisers have continued to invest in the app; TikTok was expected to bring in almost $10 billion in ad revenue last year, according to Insider Intelligence.

Fundamentally, TikTok may have changed the customer journey, Courtney Berry, managing director at the social-focused agency Barbarian, explained.

“The way that TikTok has designed itself…They’ve completely collapsed the customer journey, they’ve completely collapsed what was previously a very linear experience in terms of awareness, discovery, consideration, and conversion. It’s now all happening at once within the TikTok platform,” Berry said.

It could take time before advertisers are ready to take advantage.

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