It was Greta Rolli’s younger sister who first introduced her to TikTok in late 2019. Together, the two would fill their time by recording themselves singing and dancing in their living room as coronavirus pandemic restrictions tightened across the country.
“I didn’t have much of a following — it was mostly just random friends on TikTok,” Rolli told CBS News.
Rolli eventually moved away from posting simple dance videos and instead began offering viewers a closer look at her daily life, from her morning routine to snippets of a weekend trip she took with her fiancé Sebastian to trying on wedding dresses.
“I like people to see more intimate parts of my life, like my relationships with my siblings, my relationship with my parents and my relationship with Sebastian. I don’t overshare, but I like them to feel like they are a part of my family dynamic,” Rolli said.
That casual intimacy is the hallmark of an emerging generation of online influencers who use social media to foster a sense of personal closeness with their fans. More broadly, Rolli’s shift represents TikTok’s evolution as a platform from one known for viral dance and animal videos to one that links increasingly professional content creators with companies and brands eager to connect with younger digital consumers.
For today’s most successful influencers, “authenticity” — or at least the appearance of it — is itself a product that can be captured in high-definition, edited and ultimately sold to an ever larger audience hungry for a meaningful connection with their favorite internet personalities.
Taylor Schear, CEO of Sheer Talent, which among other clients represents a raft of noteworthy influencers, said TikTok has surpassed other major social platforms in its importance to advertisers.
“We have a client who is allocating spend every month towards influencers and for months on end we were allocating all their spend to Instagram and YouTube and then suddenly, they were like ‘Actually, we are going to take 90% of that and put it into TikTok,” she told CBS News.
Meanwhile, hashtags like #GRWM (get ready with me) #skincareroutine,#gotoworkwithme, #organizewithme have opened new opportunities for anyone to become a TikTok influencer. Combined, these hashtags have billions of videos spread throughout the social media app.
The idea is simple: Creators record videos documenting their favorite products as they start their day or get ready for an event.
Alix Earle, a 22-year-old student at the University of Miami, is another prominent influencer who has been able to capitalize on the growing appetite for personal content, gaining 2 million followers in a single month by posting content about her life.
Earle’s persona on TikTok is that of an unbeatably cool older sister. She takes trips to Dubai to promote brands, while not skipping a beat in keeping up with her college classes. Her followers come for the “get ready with me” content but stay to hear about her insecurities over her acne, her dating life and and relationship with her roommates. She is relatable and even confessional, while also glamorous. Most important of all, she is aglow with that most precious of commodities in the online world: your attention.
The analytics show how potent that recipe can be in the right hands. On TikTok, the hashtag #AlixEarle has received more than 738 million mentions, while #AlixEarleMakeup drew nearly 53 million as her followers sought to recreate her makeup routine.
Merging brands with creators
When TikTok first exploded in popularity, popular creators like Charli D’Amelio, Bella Poarch and Addison Rae saw similar growth in their subscriber count by uploading performative content. The platform served as a launchpad for careers hawking makeup, appearing on reality shows and recording music outside of the app.
“An army of micro-influencers”
But that was then, according to Schear. “There are still creators who bank on that, but I would say the large majority is very organically themselves, so you’ll find that people truly gravitate to what they enjoy,” Schear said.
While it is still early to see if creators like Earle and Rolli will have the same level of fame as their predecessors, brands and companies are taking notice of how invested followers can be in the everyday lives and routines of fellow users and the products they use.
Sara Wilson, founder and principal of digital strategy consultancy SW Projects, said some brands get advertising from TikTok’s advanced search feature.
“The best brands are indistinguishable from creators. So when you see a brand like Shein, it’s so massive that I think you go on TikTok, there are billions of views of #SheinHaul on TikTok, so they have essentially deputized an army of micro-influencers to rep for them,” Wilson said. That is a brand presence on a platform … We now have creators doing Shein Hauls to rep for the brand.”
Speaking the language
With over 1 billion users, TikTok’s audience is primarily split between Gen Zers and younger millennials. But while millennials have a presence on the app, Gen Zers are driving the conversations, the types of consumption and the trends, Wilson said.
“It is very much still a Gen Z-centric platform,” Wilson said, adding that “brands are definitely waking up at least in the past year to the power of TikTok to really unlock an audience they want to reach.”
She points to Duolingo and Ryanair as two brands that have mastered the vernacular of TikTok in appealing to the app’s young users.
“The idea of speaking the language is so key because brands often come on TikTok and they are like speaking Greek when the language there is Italian and it just doesn’t work,” Wilson said. “It’s not right, it doesn’t feel right, it doesn’t fit and users can sniff that out immediately.”
Another way TikTok is changing the rules of the game for social media: useful information. It is the short-form video platform where people look to other creators for practical knowledge as a form of entertainment.
“I think what’s so interesting is that we have evolved from dancing to learning as a form of entertainment, and that’s really the key,” Wilson said. “And what brands need to understand is that this is an opportunity where people want to be entertained and they also want to learn, and those two things are not mutually exclusive — in fact, they are connected deeply. I think the brands that understand that I think are the brands that will win.”
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