TikTok's aggressive growth tactics are upsetting partners, creators, and everyday users

  • TikTok is irking business partners and users as it pushes its priorities in music and e-commerce.

  • It's won past fights by spending billions of dollars and making savvy business moves.

  • But pissing off its users by force-feeding them shopping videos may ultimately be its downfall.

TikTok scored a victory this week, as President Joe Biden finally caved and joined its app.

The move was an about-face for the president, whose administration had spent years calling it a national security risk. The White House had pushed for a sale of TikTok’s US assets. Now, Biden is posting "Dark Brandon" memes on the app like other TikTokers.

The president's arrival on TikTok is the latest win for the company, which has used the courts, political lobbying, and its CEO’s charm to ward off political attacks.

Amid its recent triumphs, TikTok isn’t shying away from conflict elsewhere. And it's been pissing off a lot of people.

It’s been deep in a public spat over music licensing with one of its most important partners, Universal Music Group. Music by artists like Taylor Swift and Olivia Rodrigo is now gone from the app. The fight has turned nasty, with UMG accusing TikTok of allowing a “tidal wave of hate speech, bigotry, bullying, and harassment,” and TikTok responding with the claim that UMG was putting its “own greed above the interests of their artists and songwriters.”

TikTok has also been irking some of its users and creators in recent months as it’s aggressively pushed its e-commerce feature, Shop. The company flooded the app’s “For You” page in December with promotions around Black Friday and Cyber Monday as it sought to deliver holiday sales for merchants. It's also scanning TikToks to identify products it can try to sell you, pushing commerce into every corner of the app.

Some users have said it’s ruining the app by promoting shopping over the funny skits and dancing videos that first made TikTok popular.

TikTok thinks it's special and unique because, so far, it has been. That won't last if it stops listening to its core audience of users and partners.

TikTok’s ability to survive the next phase of the social-media wars could be threatened if it destroys its goodwill with music partners, creators, and users. Short-video feeds from competitors can easily service users and advertisers. Taking its access to music for granted or force-feeding shopping content onto users at the expense of creator videos could spell the end of TikTok's winning streak.

A TikTok spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

Why TikTok thinks it can throw its weight around

TikTok is puffing up its chest and fighting for its business priorities, even if that means angering partners, creators, and users. Its confidence is, in some ways, earned.

The company pulled off what many thought was impossible by introducing a social-media app in 2017 into a marketplace dominated by startup killers or acquirers like Facebook and Google. With 170 million monthly US users and more than a billion users globally, per the company, it’s no longer an upstart challenger but a Big Tech player.

TikTok's growth did not happen by chance.

Yes, its app has been successful due to its uniquely personalized algorithm and savvy approach to working with creators. But ByteDance also spent hundreds of millions of dollars on acquisitions and marketing to introduce TikTok to international audiences, helping the app become a household name in the US and abroad.

The company took a similar approach when trying to solve its problems with Washington, throwing $1.5 billion at a new division focused on guarding US user data and pledging to spend $2 billion on trust and safety work in 2024.

It’s also breaking the bank in its e-commerce push, as the company prepared in 2023 to lose hundreds of millions of dollars on TikTok Shop in the US, The Information reported in August.

“They’re putting their money where their mouth is,” Meghana Dhar, a former Instagram and Snap staffer, told BI. “That’s how you win.”

On the shopping front, TikTok is betting it can replicate some of the success of its sister app, Douyin, which is an e-commerce powerhouse in China generating hundreds of billions in annual sales. For leaders at ByteDance, who often have the final say over product decisions at TikTok, copying ideas from Douyin to TikTok is part of their playbook.

But, it may ultimately doom them, as the differences in shopping habits between the apps' user bases could prove impossible to reconcile. Influencers play a bigger role as shopping guides in China — driving billions in sales — than they do in the US.

The company's boldness is also showing in its relationship with the music industry.

TikTok is definitely an important marketing tool for artists and record labels, which the company pointed out when UMG pulled its catalog from the app.

But music marketers told BI TikTok isn't the only game in town, with some immediately switching over UMG song campaigns to Instagram reels and YouTube shorts after the catalog left TikTok.

Pissing off users and creators could be TikTok's biggest mistake

TikTok isn't the first tech giant to draw the ire of business partners as it's gotten too big for its britches — and it may ultimately back down from these fights.

YouTube tried to take on the major labels over royalty sharing more than a decade ago and then opted to kiss the ring, so to speak.

“YouTube was in the crosshairs of the entire industry,” Michael Huppe, president and CEO of SoundExchange, a nonprofit tech platform that collects and distributes digital royalties, including to UMG, told BI. “There were fights and battles and litigation. Fast forward to today, YouTube is now an active and accepted player in the industry.”

But TikTok's greatest risk as it barrels forward on business strategies like e-commerce is pissing off its users. If TikTok no longer offers a stream of fun, serendipitous videos and instead becomes a social-media version of the Home Shopping Network, users may jump ship for Instagram reels, YouTube shorts, or Snapchat spotlight.

As BI reporter Katie Notopoulos wrote, "The For You used to seem uncanny in how it would serve up content perfectly tailored to me. Now it feels like the algorithm is less a diagnostic tool of my soul and instead is assessing me as a potential consumer."

“There’s a real risk of the shopping product cannibalizing the core product,” Dhar said.

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