Has the U.S. officially banned TikTok? NOW WHAT?

The Story

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden signed a bill that would force the sale of TikTok by its Chinese owner ByteDance, or ban it in the U.S. if not sold within nine months. This marks a big step taken by the government, as discussions surrounding the app have been circulating for years. Lawmakers and security experts alike have noted the risks of the Chinese-owned app allowing the government to access sensitive data belonging to the 170 million U.S. users, or to spread propaganda.

TikTok has responded by saying it will fight the law in court, beginning a process that will likely cause the situation to become even more complicated than it currently is. In a video posted by TikTok CEO Shou Chew, he pledged that the law would be challenged, stating, “We are confident and we will keep fighting for your rights in the courts.” You can find TikTok’s official statement here. The company has made it clear that it will challenge the ban in court, noting the billions in investments and millions of jobs and businesses that the app supports.

You may be asking what a ban on TikTok would mean. At this moment, we do not anticipate much changing in the short term, as TikTok has made it clear that it is set on fighting this decision in the courts. Their app and ad platform will still be operational, and Chew mentioned in his video statement posted on the app that they “aren’t going anywhere” and will continue to invest and innovate in their platform. In the long term, if TikTok does not find a buyer or win its court case, the app will be banned from app stores and usage in the United States will decline as the app will not be able to be updated, causing it to be unusable. For those advertising on TikTok, ad performance may become more unpredictable as we approach the end of the nine-month period, with the potential for advertisers to pull their money from the platform along with fluctuations in time spent on the app.

Our Take

I believe it’s in TikTok’s best interest to sell the app to a U.S.-based company. That said, with analysts estimating the price for the U.S. portion of the app totaling tens of billions of dollars, we’re looking at a small subset of potential buyers. That pool becomes even smaller when you consider the likelihood that other tech giants in the social space would potentially be blocked from an acquisition due to antitrust concerns. While the sale of the app to a U.S.-based company would lead to its own set of complications from a technical standpoint, it would allow tourism boards that have had to move away from the app due to state-specific bans and restrictions the opportunity to reestablish a presence on the channel and reach domestic and international travelers who frequent the app for travel inspiration and planning.

If the app doesn’t sell and we do see a ban put in place, the obvious point to make is that other platforms such as Instagram and YouTube could see big wins in overall user growth and time spent on their platforms. It could also mean there’s room for new and emerging apps to take hold of U.S. users’ interests – though, I would argue that the shelter-in-place period of the COVID-19 pandemic bolstered TikTok’s growth so much that it would be hard to replicate the app’s success without those unusual circumstances. And while the U.S. won’t have access to the app, the rest of the world still will. That’s about 1 billion worldwide users. From a travel marketing perspective, this means that there will still be millions of conversations and pieces of content being shared about your destination, or about international travelers’ experiences traveling to the U.S., that you will not have insight into. As marketers, we’ll be missing a huge opportunity to gauge how international travelers are speaking about their travel experiences to the United States, in addition to missing any chance to combat negative perceptions or remedy any travel-related issues through effective community management.

At this point in time, there is no need to take a “sky is falling” approach to the platform. If you have a clear strategy in place and have cultivated an audience on the app, continue to follow your plan. Is it the right time to start a new channel? Unless you have unlimited resources and time at your disposal, likely not.

Overall, your social media strategy shouldn’t rely solely on one platform. Your strategy succeeded before TikTok and it will continue to do so after, with or without the app as part of your overall marketing mix. The emergence of TikTok brought a new level of fun and excitement to social content creation and let’s hope that even in a world where we might not be creating content specifically for the app, we can still keep the energy, authenticity and quick-turn nature of content creation it introduced within our overall social media approach.