In a world of influencers hawking laxative teas and vitamin gummies all over Instagram, TikTok can feel like a breath of fresh air.
We're now just past the one-year anniversary for the app, on which users can make and share short-form videos. It still has an air of amateur authenticity, full of organic memes and challenges. Or at least that's how it looks.
It may not be as obvious as it is on other platforms, but TikTok is the new frontier of social media advertising. Savvy marketers are leveraging influential TikTokers to promote brands and music.
For Leanne Bailey, marketers came a-calling once she hit 1 million fans on the app. Bailey runs the @thebaileybakery channel, named after her real-life bakery business in Kentucky.
"Somebody had mentioned just signing up for an account and I did, it was a leap of faith, just something I randomly did," Bailey told BuzzFeed News.
"It just really took off almost immediately."
Now at more than 4 million fans, Bailey said she posts a sponsored video about once a week. She didn't want to get into specifics about the brands she's worked with, but said she's often paid by a music label to use a particular song.
She said she's making a "good little side income" from the posts and has done dozens of sponsored videos.
"It’s kind of like a hobby that pays a little bit of money, and it is fun," she said.
She doesn't broker the deals herself anymore, but works with Devain Doolaramani, a 21-year-old in California. He initially approached Bailey and now he handles her sponsored deals.
"I got in super early on the platform when these kids were really small compared to where they are now," he said. Now, he told BuzzFeed News, he manages accounts whose reach can mean pulling in tens of millions of eyeballs.
One of his campaigns was pushing the song "Civil War" by Russ.
It's not just the initial sponsored post that makes TikTok so attractive — it's the viral factor. A truly successful campaign happens when other users start using the promoted audio, turning a sponsored post into an organic-looking trend.
"For the most part you want it to look organic," Doolaramani told BuzzFeed News.
Basically, it is easy to make sure your ad campaign doesn't seem like an ad campaign.
"People more and more, especially on Instagram — they can’t stand anymore someone posting something in their feeds like, 'Hey guys, I tried this product,'" said Alessandro Bogliari, the CEO and cofounder of Influencer Marketing Factory. The agency is one a handful that have focused on TikTok.
One of its successes was with the song "100 Bad Stories" by AJR in a campaign paid for by Sony. They had two influencers use the song in videos, which were tied in with a challenge.
That, in turn, got other users to use the audio and do the challenge, spreading the campaign.
By the time a sponsored song gets beyond its initial push, no one is tagging the video as an ad, which can make it appear to be an organic trend. But even before that, it's rare to see a video tagged "#ad" on TikTok, even on videos that were definitely paid for. Legally, the tag should be there.
"The FTC has made clear that it doesn’t matter what platform is being used, ads must be identifiable as ads," a Federal Trade Commission spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. "If a user is being paid to promote something on TikTok or any other platform, the post/video must include a clear and conspicuous disclosure or otherwise make clear that it is sponsored/advertising."
The FTC has previously cracked down on Instagram influencers. In 2017, it sent nearly 100 letters out reminding big-name influencers that they must disclose when a post is paid for. A spokesperson for TikTok didn't return a request for comment from BuzzFeed News.
Bailey said that when she's paid to use a song, she uses a relevant hashtag and "#ad," and the majority of those posts are also deleted after 24 hours.
Rohan Midha is the managing director of PMYB, a marketing agency based in the UK that targets TikTok influencers. He told BuzzFeed News his influencers comply with regulations and speculated that TikTok will make that easier in the future, as Instagram has done.
"It’s still social media. The same rules do apply, and I think it might be good for TikTok to create features to let influencers mention when they’ve been paid," he said.
His agency has been working with TikTok for about 18 months, and it's paying off.
"You can go massively viral, and the return on investment is gigantic," he said.
TikTok is often compared to Vine (RIP), since it's a platform for short videos. But this is truly where their differences lie — Vine was never leveraged the way TikTok is.
"Although Vine really had a niche, it was at the same time Instagram and Facebook were rapidly growing in popularity," said Midha.
"Social media itself was booming — it still is — but those were the golden years, and I think it was really difficult for Vine to cut through the noise."
TikTok is still a relatively new platform ,and it seems likely that sponsored content will only increase. The question is whether we'll be able to tell.