Matthew Keegan
Apr 11, 2023

What advertisers can learn from countries that already have TikTok bans

With a potential ban of TikTok in the US looming, we asked advertisers in India and Hong Kong, where the short video app is already banned, which alternatives they have turned to, and whether or not they feel they're missing out?

What advertisers can learn from countries that already have TikTok bans

Following a violent border conflict between India and China in the summer of 2020, India implemented a nationwide ban on TikTok. It suddenly disconnected the 200 million Indian users it had accumulated, including marketers and brands who had made substantial bets on the platform. 


"The TikTok ban was a setback for advertising agencies in India as the platform was one of the fastest-growing social media platforms," says Partha Sharma, associate director of growth India, M&C Saatchi Performance. "While we were able to reallocate budgets to achieve client goals, the ban surely left advertisers in India without a significant marketing channel." 


The same was true for other advertising agencies in India who say the swift nationwide ban of TikTok did catch its ecosystem by surprise. 


"The impact was significant when it was banned, says Pinaki Bhattacharya, chief strategy officer of Wunderman Thompson, India. "We, too, like many other agencies, handled brands that had made substantial bets on the platform. More specifically, on content creators and influencers on the platform." 


While India may have been one of the first countries to ban TikTok, others are considering complete bans or bans of government and any official devices.  


For example, in the United States, while TikTok is currently the most popular app in the country and is used by 150 million Americans every month, the US government regards TikTok as a potential threat to national security and wants its Chinese-owned parent company, ByteDance, to sell the platform to a US-owned business or risk being banned. 


But what impact would a potential ban have on TikTok fans in the US and around the five million businesses in the country that use TikTok as a marketing tool? If the US ban goes ahead, can anything be learned from places where TikTok is already banned? 


A boon for TikTok rivals?


Within the last two years, TikTok's popularity has soared to incredible heights, making it a robust digital platform for brands, particularly those trying to connect with younger audiences. In 2022, TikTok was the most downloaded app worldwide for the third year. 


It's no surprise that it's also become the dominant social platform for ad spend. WARC recently upgraded its 2023 ad spend forecast for TikTok by almost $2bn to $15.2bn, noting that 75% of marketers plan to increase their activity on the platform. 


But in the event of a ban, what alternatives exist to TikTok's current stranglehold over the market, particularly among the Gen Z crowd? 


Tim Durgan, the VP of strategy and insights for APAC at Assembly, says that when TikTok was banned in Hong Kong in July 2020 following a new security law imposed by China, they did not view it as a 'setback' but as an opportunity to adapt and find other solutions for clients. 


"It is not about what channels could replace TikTok. It's about what channels audiences would keep using. Ultimately, we follow the audience's behaviour," says Durgan. "Alternative platforms have (as they always do) tried to replicate the features of successful competitors, and we're now seeing similar content on Instagram stories and YouTube shorts." 


Maggie Wong, CEO of Hong Kong, Wunderman Thompson, says there has never been high usage of TikTok in Hong Kong, even before its ban in 2020. 


"For locals, we can access Douyin – TikTok's China version. But, regardless, Douyin or TikTok have never been hugely popular among the people of Hong Kong, particularly among younger audiences," says Wong. "By far, Instagram is the most popular platform for them."  


After India banned TikTok, there was a high surge of short-form video apps that tried to fill the void, which enabled marketers to still effectively reach audiences (for example, Moj, Josh, YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels). 


Many major brands took advantage of this opportunity by introducing their short-form video tools, including Instagram Reels, Snapchat Spotlight, YouTube Shorts, and even Spotify, which launched a video feed featuring recommended music and similar content. 


"Moj and Josh, for example, have over 160 million monthly active users each, and their vernacular ad-serving capabilities are proving to be very effective in driving regional-based ads," says Sharma. "We have experimented with these channels across various client categories, including gaming, ecommerce, and luxury lifestyle, and have seen encouraging results." 


The truth is people move on after the initial noise. 


Bhattacharya, chief strategy officer of Wunderman Thompson, India, says that following the TikTok ban in India, the consumers and viewers soon moved on and continued to follow good content and content creators. 


"Talent or expression does not remain in a void or vacuum for long," says Bhattacharya. "Some content creators whose following were millions eventually moved to other platforms. And other apps did spring up to meet the demand." 


Reels from Instagram perhaps gained the most, but others like Moj, Josh, and Takatak also gained. 


"Of course, building back the same size of following was not and still is not easy, but the creators are at it," says Bhattacharya. "Some have gained back a similar following, while others have struggled on newer platforms. Understandably so." 


Can other markets learn anything from the India and Hong Kong bans on TikTok?


As dominant as TikTok has become in recent years, fans, businesses, advertisers and influencers haves, businesses, advertisers and influencers have all learned to adapt and move on. 


"It has been unsettling to find alternatives to TikTok, but as one platform disappears, it creates the opportunity for many new ones to arise," says Sharma. 


"The key lies in finding where these audiences have migrated. For this reason, if the ban were to happen in the US, we recommend that advertisers be fluid with their media budget allocation and start looking for channels where their audiences would look for similar engagement." 


Richard Bropsgill, the managing director for APAC at Assembly, says in the event of an actual ban, it's not the platform; it's the consumer that matters. 


"As long as brands remain tuned into their consumers, the path forward will be clear," says Brosgill. "The short video format has become ubiquitous, so you could expect users to move to replica platforms such as YouTube Shorts or Instagram Reels to fill the void.


Of course, that will be a faster transition for brands the morning after, but the key is to stay tuned in to consumers' reactions and how their media consumption patterns change." 


While TikTok may have unleashed a new way for a new generation to express themselves, Poran Malani, the country head director at MediaMonks India, says that excluding one platform alone would never end the idea. 


"Once TikTok was banned, new platforms entered, and existing ones adapted to meet this new type of viral content. Technology abhors a vacuum, which has been filled," says Malani. 


In terms of advice for US citizens if an eventual ban is introduced, Malani says, "If it is anything like India, you may also see more fragmentation with different groups gravitating to different platforms. Understanding the nuance will be key." 


While TikTok did create its social niche for building brand consideration with the reach that it offered, we can learn from places like India and Hong Kong that although there might be an initial vacuum following a ban, new players soon spring up to fill the void. 


"From an agency point of view, the initial gap is felt. However, it will get filled up quickly," says Vishal Chinchankar, CEO of Madison Digital. "Consumers may find it uncomfortable switching to new platforms, and influencers may lose their followers, yet they will soon adapt to new platforms." 


And Tim Durgan says that the reality is change is inherent in marketing. 


"We had the same questions when digital launched when CTV started to replace TV, when Twitch streaming became big and thousands of other examples," says Durgan. "It's a moment in time to adapt. We stay focused on long-term ambitions so that we're constantly ahead of the trend and stay nimble. That way, you never miss out." 

(This article first appeared on Campaign Asia)

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