For skinfluencer Koosha Nouri, TikTok has been a career game-changer. He has close to 11,000 followers on Instagram, but has amassed over 151,000 on TikTok in the span of two years.
“Just building [a following] across socials had been so hard in beauty until TikTok gave people a way of entry that felt a lot more non-traditional and organic,” Nouri (@kooshaaa) said. He estimated that 70% of his current income comes from his TikTok content. After building up his follower count, he was named a member of the 2022 Sephora Squad. He’s also among a group of influencers working with directly with TikTok to beta-test new features.
For TikTok-centered beauty influencers like Nouri, revived talk of a potential TikTok ban is stirring fear of a massive hit to follower counts and revenue. On Thursday, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew will testify before Congress as the Biden administration warns Chinese parent company ByteDance that the app faces a ban in the U.S. if not sold to an American company.
Since TikTok arrived in the U.S. with ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly in 2018, stardom on the app has changed the trajectory of many beauty influencers’ lives. They built up follower counts in a few months that far surpassed what they’d received in years on a saturated Instagram, sometimes even quitting their day jobs or moving to Los Angeles to create content full-time. For those that haven’t translated their follower counts to other platforms, that could all come crashing down.
“Most people aren’t overnight successes and have to put in a lot and time and effort into building an audience and a following. To see that go away because people who more than likely don’t even know how to use TikTok decide they want to ban it, is very disappointing,” said makeup influencer Marjan Tabibzada (@youngcouture), who has 3.6 million followers on TikTok and 1.2 million on Instagram.
“As creators, we spend so much of our energy and effort trying to build relationships with our audiences. Having that taken away in an instant would feel profoundly unfair,” said skin and hair influencer Amy Chang (@bondenavant), who has 1.6 million TikTok and 408,000 Instagram followers. She estimated that 50% of her income comes from TikTok. But she added, “That said, I understand why these discussions are going on.”
Since the Trump administration accepted a deal in 2020 in which Oracle and Walmart each took a stake in the app, it has faced numerous controversies. TikTok is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice and FBI for spying on journalists. TikTok has admitted to doing so, and said it fired the employees responsible. It has also faced data privacy lawsuits in the U.S., including one filed this month based on a report finding that the platform monitors keystrokes when users are on third-party websites.
“I really do hope that there’s a solution in terms of passing on ownership, whatever it may be, because there could be a very legitimate argument around data privacy, and how it should be handled,” said Nouri.
The 2020 Trump executive order calling for a ban on TikTok if it wasn’t sold to a U.S. company prompted a flood of influencer posts directing followers to other social platforms. But the response is more muted this time, with only a few influencers taking to social media to weigh in on the situation.
Most influencers, however, do use their TikTok bios to encourage followers to follow them on other platforms including Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat.
“The key takeaway for creators is that they can’t rely on just one social platform in order to have a successful creator business,” said Amber Venz Box, the co-founder and president of LTK (previously Rewardstyle and Liketoknow.it). “We see there are new social platforms about every two years. I think of these social platforms as oceans, and creators are fishing for followers and customers to bring them back to their business.” She emphasized her company’s platform-independent affiliate link model as a way influencers could monetize across platforms.
“I’ve been talking to a lot of my creator friends about the importance of diversifying your presence across everything. As we continue making a livelihood as creators within this community, it’s important to cover your bases,” said Nouri.
If TikTok were banned, the question would be whether or not creators and brands could find the same level of success on competing platforms like Instagram’s Reels or YouTube Shorts. Many influencers said they’re unsure of what the future would hold.
“Reels and Shorts have both become powerful contenders for people’s time. Currently, they are both underutilized opportunities by most marketers. Were TikTok unavailable, we would definitely expect both channels to mature even more quickly,” said Evan Horowitz, CEO of creative agency Movers + Shakers, which saw an influx of TikTok-related business after its first highly successful E.l.f. Beauty campaign on TikTok back in 2019.
“There are plenty of content creators solely relying on their TikTok content as a source of income — some have earned over $100,000 per post and gained celebrity status. But brands have become very reliant on TikTok influencer marketing, as well,” said Dom Aldworth, head of brand marketing at Slingo. The online gaming site just published a report on TikTok influencer earnings, estimating that Charli D’Amelio is the top earner per post, making $149,000.
Nouri said that he sees the highest potential for growth on YouTube Shorts, where his videos are averaging 5,000 views each. He said he would shift his focus to Reels and Shorts if TikTok went away. However, “I don’t think I could be hitting the numbers that I hit with my TikTok, because the brand rates are highest on TikTok,” he said, referring to the money offered to creators through the platform’s creator fund. “I could definitely continue making a good living. It would just require more work.”
For now, it’s business as usual for both influencers and brands.
“In terms of our brand partners, we aren’t seeing any immediate shifts from investments in TikTok. Brands are still utilizing TikTok as a cost-effective means to reach their target audience through creators,” said Venz Box.
A TikTok sale to a U.S. company would need to be approved by the Chinese government, which experts say is unlikely. But creators are hoping a solution can be reached like it was in 2020.
“I’d hope that TikTok U.S. would be given adequate time to remedy the concerns from the government before resorting to an outright ban,” said Chang. “There are tens of thousands of creators and TikTok U.S. employees whose lives would be impacted by a ban. [These are] U.S. citizens who pay their taxes and don’t have anything to do with the underlying national security and political motivations that are driving this.”