Over the last three years, TikTok has taken the U.S. retail world by storm.
In its short life, TikTok has introduced an entirely new system for how shoppers can discover products. TikTok’s For You page heavily emphasizes video engagement while placing much less focus on follower counts. That means even an unknown company that produces an especially eye-catching video can see a massive spike in sales.
TikTok’s ability to catapult certain products — from Ocean Spray to The Ordinary — to viral heights has drawn interest from major brands, and even Amazon has recently tried to capitalize on it. But the TikTok model of product discovery comes with its own challenges, including the question of how a small business can prepare for the unexpected sales peaks that TikTok generates.
Modern Retail spoke to Becca Sawyer, the platform’s head of small business and operations, about how the company is pitching itself to small businesses. Sawyer, who has worked at the company since May 2020, is leading an effort to expand TikTok’s offering to the business world, including by partnering with Nielsen to allow for more highly targeted advertising opportunities. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
When you’re talking to businesses that are wondering whether it’s worth creating a TikTok account, what do you tell them? What is your pitch?
Now with over 100 million monthly active users on TikTok, there is such a diversity of users and content, and that certainly lends itself to an amazing community that businesses of all types and sizes can really lean into and take advantage of.
What we’re seeing and what we’re sharing with businesses as well is that TikTok is a very different platform. [TikTok offers] the opportunities for businesses to be discovered in a different way, for businesses to have the opportunity for a video to go viral.
Regardless of what your business is and regardless of how long you’ve been on the platform, I think businesses who come on and understand the community and the trends find that success and that discoverability and that virality that has really helped so many businesses take off.
Are there any specific recommendations that you give small businesses for how they can use TikTok most effectively?
Engage like a user is the number one recommendation. [It’s about] coming on just as a brand and joining the conversation, understanding the community, really giving themselves the opportunity to be at that forefront of the conversation.
This isn’t a ‘take what you’re doing on another platform and port it over here,’ it really is be authentic, be real, find out what users are liking and engaging with, and continue to iterate and find success that way. I think that’s the way businesses have been having success on the platform.
One of the small business stories that I love to tell is a local Austin woman. She’s a beekeeper. Her company is called Texas Beeworks, and the core of her videos is just showing what she does, day in and day out, as a beekeeper. Literally going in and removing hives with her bare hands and finding the queen bee and transporting it. She went from being an Austin-known beekeeper to now being a nationally acclaimed beekeeper.
Users have just flocked to her story and the content that she creates because it is that real. She doesn’t have fancy equipment or marketing production that she’s doing. It is just the real every day of her life. I think that’s what a lot of businesses are finding.
What categories of business do you consider to be the core of TikTok? Anecdotally, it seems to me that certain industries — like beauty — represent the highest concentration of businesses on TikTok. But are there industries that you see adopting TikTok most?
I can’t share specific data, but I will say there certainly are some that are leading that you may have seen — that are finding their way into the community really quickly.
There’s a jewelry company called Omolola Jewelry, and they had 6-figure sales for the first time in 2020 — which was over 1000% growth compared to the year before joining TikTok. There’s a B-to-B record pressing company called Gold Rush vinyl, and they actually were able to develop a B-to-C side to their business as a result of TikTok. TikTok crashed their website multiple times as a result of how much traffic we’ve sent to them.
I think the coverage that TikTok gets a lot centers on the ways in which the app makes products go viral. But I wanted to ask about how you talk to businesses about the aftermath of virality. How do businesses maintain more stable growth after they have a product blow up? Or is the nature of TikTok these peaks and valleys in terms of attention and sales?
One of the probably biggest challenges we’ve seen is that it’s a new type of growth that some companies haven’t even been prepared for. So the example that I gave of the Gold Rush vinyl company, they created this new product for consumers where they could buy with the recycled materials from their records these bouquets, and never even expected that there could be the kind of demand that there was, and suddenly their website is crashing.
I think for a lot of businesses it’s suddenly like, okay, how do I keep up with the demand and think about how I manage that from a customer service perspective or from an inventory perspective. I think there’s been a lot of that for businesses to adjust to.
And then figuring out just, from the virality that they’ve created, then what’s the strategy to really keep those customers engaged? Right now they’ve got this great audience that they have the ability to develop long-term relationships with. It’s a new type of relationship-building for a lot of brands. I think that’s something all businesses are learning to adapt to.
You mentioned inventory. Do you have a recommendation for how businesses should approach inventory in the case that they go suddenly and unexpectedly viral? I do know there are platforms like Amazon that will penalize you if you run out of inventory, for instance. How do you talk to businesses about that risk?
I think a lot of it really is just open communication with customers and expectation setting, and the ability to be transparent and help people understand if it’s going to take them a little bit of time and restock something and if they can expect delays potentially with shipping.
How stable is TikTok success? Are there cases where a business has a single product that goes really viral, and then the attention drops off? How do they navigate that?
It’s not something that I’m specifically familiar with. [In] most of the cases that we’re talking about, the business is continuing to expand.
I know that, in Indonesia and in the UK, TikTok is testing a feature that lets customers make in-app purchases. How much is the idea that people could eventually buy directly on TikTok part of your pitch to small businesses?
Our focus has really been around, how do we enable small businesses to do business with ease on our platform and to have the tools and the products that are going to help them be successful. All of those are really important considerations as we think about the accessibility and ease of doing business on our platform.
Do you expect that in-app purchases will come to more businesses in the near future?
I can’t comment on that. I don’t work specifically in the product development space, but I’d say certainly stay tuned. As you’ve probably seen, we innovate at pretty record pace here at TikTok.