Digital Marketing Redux   //   January 4, 2024

Influencer agencies report mixed experiences with TikTok Shop

As TikTok Shop grows its presence on the platform, influencer agencies are going through growing pains alongside the program. 

TikTok Shop soft launched last May among select brands, and was officially rolled out in September. Currently there are 200,000 merchants on TikTok Shop and 100,000 creators selling through the affiliate program. In turn, many brands end up working with creator agencies, which manage the influencer’s contracts, commissions and campaign strategy on TikTok Shop. According to creator agencies, TikTok Shop is an appealing new channel for their clients to partner with brands. However, snags like issues with the tech infrastructure and a tedious onboarding process are still preventing some creators from joining TikTok Shop’s growing stable of affiliates. 

This past holiday season proved to be TikTok Shop’s first major test. According to TikTok, about 150,000 creators and sellers published shoppable videos or Live shopping streams during the Black Friday and Cyber Monday week. Furthermore, TikTok said over 5 million new customers made a purchase on TikTok Shop during that weekend — a result of 22.8 billion views across all shoppable livestreams and videos. Moreover, there were 22.8 billion views across all shoppable livestreams and videos during the Black Friday and Cyber Monday campaign period.

Despite a select number of brands reporting glowing results, marketers are still finding the program’s suite of tools challenging to maneuver. To sell through TikTok Shop, brands must work with pre-approved creators or members of TikTok Shop’s affiliate program.

Jamie Ray, founder of influencer marketing agency Buttermilk, said at the moment “the UI feels a little bit cheap, but hopefully that will improve as the platform evolves” for TikTok Shop. Buttermilk manages hundreds of influencers of various sizes, and helps them connect with brands and create paid social campaigns. This includes TikTok paid ads, but Buttermilk is taking more time before testing Shop with its influencer clients.

“Ultimately, if TikTok [Shop] creates the environment that brands want to spend time, energy, resources and money on, it has the potential to set a new standard for social commerce,” Ray said. “But there are things that need to be addressed — for clients, agencies, creators and consumers — for it to succeed.” 

These include the tech and infrastructure, Ray said, with concerns over open vendor format, dupes, pricing and algorithm; Buttermilk works on campaigns for luxury brand campaigns like Dior Beauty and Swarovski, making it a priority to sit alongside top brands and top talent. “Currently there is a large amount of counterfeit goods and dupes on the platform,” Ray said. 

Marni Levine, head of TikTok Shop U.S. Operations, SMB, told Modern Retail that TikTok Shop is striving to “matchmake” affiliates with sellers by connecting them through TikTok Shop’s affiliate program, and encouraging merchants to work with creators to amplify their products. “We do pre-vet given that this is a three-sided marketplace,” Levine said, adding that TikTok Shop has thousands of affiliate creators that brands can choose from. Much of the vetting process is to provide brands with trusted accounts to work with, but also ensure these creators don’t break any TikTok’s policies while promoting a product, especially on live streams. TikTok Shop requires that applicants have at least 5,000 followers and be 18 and over. They also have to agree to follow TikTok’s community guidelines.

TikTok Shop has a variety of plans that brands can choose from, such as an “open plan” which allows them to partner with any TikTok Shop creator that wants to work with the brand. Then there are target plans where brands can choose from creators they already have relationships with.

“We’re building out the operation, and the beauty is the cycle of experimentation and learning,” Levine said. “In the short time since getting started, we’ve seen success with different types of brands.”

Better for smaller brands

But it is small businesses in particular, Levine said, that have been able to reap some of the biggest rewards from TikTok Shop. “We had one merchant that generated over $300,000 from one livestream, these are small businesses so these numbers are very big,” Levine said. She also pointed to the case of skincare company Love and Pebble, which made its largest inventory order ever leading up to the holidays, with 70,000 units sold. The company is currently running over 20 new affiliate posts per week.

Krishna Subramanian, founder and CEO of Captiv8, an end-to-end influencer marketing platform, said that thus far the agency has found TikTok Shop to work best for small online brands — which have the ability to test agile creator campaigns and see what works. “Generally speaking, 80% to 90% of creators have no trouble joining it,” Subramanian said. “They want to be part of the program to get more access to deals, to get deals with brands on the platform.”

But even with this push, Subramanian said that Captiv8 has seen more interest in working with creators organically on brand deals, rather than going through TikTok Shop’s official affiliate program.

However, “we are seeing traffic growing so far,” he said. Subramanian said in the past couple of months, creators who link products through TikTok Shop are getting more engagement and virality on their content. 

“We’re definitely seeing a lot more success with the DTC brands coming on TikTok Shop,” he said, with TikTok pushing discounts for interested shoppers “while still making the brand whole.” During the holiday shopping season, TikTok offered a variety of promotions on TikTok Shop for customers and merchants, including product coupons and deals on trending products. Currently, TikTok Shop is offering new customers 40% off their first purchase, along with free shipping on orders over $5.

A changing platform

In theory, TikTok Shop can act as a one-stop solution for full-funnel marketing. “However, TikTok and TikTok Shop are currently behaving as two different entities,” Ray said. Unlike the app’s “for you” page, “TikTok Shop isn’t tailored and personalized, nor delivers value in the same way as the main platform.”

Finally, running campaigns on TikTok and TikTok Shop, including livestreams, require a different skill set, with some creators faring better when uploading produced content versus promoting a product in real time. “It’s an entirely different environment, and should therefore be treated and briefed differently,” Ray said. “Brands should ask whether it is a simple sales conversion channel, or should brand-building activity be done on TikTok and be pushed through to the TikTok Shop?”

Generally, marketers said, TikTok Shop still has some kinks to work out — both on the creators and brand side. Katya Constantine, founder of agency Digishopgirl Media, said that from an ad perspective, TikTok Shop has a lot of potential as a sales channel. “But they have to have ease of accessibility — right now the onboarding process is very manual in nature,” she said. For example, it recently took Constantine almost a month to get a brand’s account up and running ahead of the busy holiday season. “That’s slowing down the growth for new advertisers,” she added.

It will take time to finetune the platform in the coming months, Constantine said. But she also pointed to past iterations such as the attempts by Meta’s Facebook and Instagram Shop, which she said haven’t panned out the way advertisers had hoped when it comes to converting sales.  

The challenge right now is making authentic content that fits the platform while selling a product, Subramanian said, which has always been a hurdle for brands and influencers. Another benefit for the creators is being able to see how many products they’ve sold. 

At the end of the day, for creators, Subramanian said the biggest goals are to build an audience and make money through brand deals. He added that as TikTok Shop evolves, the influencer marketing success “will come down to users becoming more comfortable shopping this way.”