TikTok has taken the world by storm. With over 1 billion active users and more added every day, this burgeoning startup has led to a whole microcosm of creators, influencers, and thought leaders, but is it a good option for political candidates?

Some political figures have found great success on the app.

Sarah Stogner* in the Texas Primary for Railroad Commissioner made a TikTok video in which she appeared semi-nude while riding a pumpjack (her original post included the hashtag #humpjack). That video amassed tens of thousands of views and earned her large amounts of news media coverage.

Though the press was for the most part negative, that video is likely what put her into the runoff against incumbent Wayne Christian. It seems that in her case—a candidate with no money and no name ID—any press was considered good press. But if you are like most campaigns, this is probably not the kind of press you want.

However, TikTok is not just a place for partially clothed individuals straddling heavy machinery. With over a billion users, there is a niche for every kind of content from guns to gardening, geology to DIY glitter nails.

TikTok does also have a political space, however, participants tend to belong more to the fringe ends of the political spectrum.

For the inexperienced, looking at the available social platforms can be daunting and candidates feel as though they have to be on all of them to get attention. However, it’s important to know your audience and invest your presence where they are. Spreading a campaign across many platforms without a content plan tailored to those spaces takes up valuable time and does not always generate a meaningful return. 

What is best about TikTok is also what makes it bad for campaigns.

TikTok is not a social media platform.

TikTok has more in common with YouTube than with Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. TikTok should not be considered a social media platform, but more of a content discovery tool. While it does have social features, its algorithm weights toward content a user will consume, not necessarily content produced by people they follow.

(This is why an account with millions of followers might only have 10,000 views on their last video, while an account with less than a thousand might still get millions of views on their latest video.)

The app’s focus is not so much on connecting people (like with Facebook), but with serving people the kind of content that will keep them swiping through the endless scroll.

This means your followers can’t “share” your content to their feed the way they could on Facebook or Twitter. Nor can they invite their friends to “like” your content in the same way.

Rarely do voters seek out the kind of content that campaigns produce. A few engaged activists may seek out candidates, but most people will scroll away the instant they realize they are watching a candidate for office.

Paid advertising of any kind is not an option on TikTok

TikTok does have ads, but its ads network functions the same way as its algorithm. On Facebook (aka Meta), it is possible for us to upload a voter file and target only people registered to vote in a particular district.

On TikTok, we must target by interest and affiliation. There are some geographic options, but these are often inaccurate for the same reason Facebook’s boost feature is often inaccurate.

While influencer marketing can be powerful, TikTok has followed many other platforms in banning political ads altogether, including paid influencer deals.

This means that while users can discuss their own politics, if it comes out that a creator posted about anything related to politics or an election on behalf of another person or entity, the creator could have their content removed, their account suspended, or even have their account shut down.

Your voters are not on TikTok

TikTok’s algorithm has been a game-changer for how we consume content online. YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram have all made changes to their own algorithms to experiment with interest-based feeds over the old connection-based feeds.

But like those other platforms, TikTok has no interest in showing your content to people who can vote for you. These platforms are solely interested in showing your content to people who want to talk politics. Most of the time, these people make up only 3-4% of the voters we need to reach.

And despite having 1 billion users, TikTok is still a start-up. It is small potatoes compared to Google/ YouTube and Facebook/Instagram/Meta. Far more voters will use Facebook and Google than TikTok.

The most distinctive difference is that unlike YouTube and Facebook/Instagram/Meta, we can’t pay TikTok ad dollars to show our content to the voters who matter.

The worst part of TikTok for campaigns

It is very hard to get any benefit from TikTok as a campaign. Unless you are a national figure (AOC, Dan Crenshaw, etc.) you are unlikely to get any good traction on TikTok.

The most dangerous part of TikTok is how addictive it can be. Their interest-based algorithm can become a time suck for even the most focused candidate.

Sometimes, success can be even more time consuming. Once you have a video blow up, it can be tempting to pour more time into video creation, trying to recreate or surpass your previous number of views.

That is time spent on an app instead of at the door or at the polls, or persuading voters and talking to donors.

In closing: MNA advises our campaigns against using TikTok.

While we are definitely keeping our fingers on the pulse of TikTok, we do not recommend TikTok for campaigns at this time. Though their style of interest-based algorithm has been transplanted to other platforms, those other platforms still allow us to use voter-based ads and targeting.

Perhaps someday something will change and TikTok’s targeting will improve and/or they will allow us to place ads. Until then, we advise our candidates to avoid TikTok for campaign purposes.

*At the time of this writing, Sarah Stogner has never been a client of Murphy Nasica & Associates or our affiliated organizations.

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