A career as a TikTok creator can be described as equal parts glamorous and soul-crushing. You don’t need to look far for stories of those who achieved Tok-stardom, only to be met with a lifestyle full of burnout, instability and constant scrutiny from followers and the platform itself.
TikTok’s ongoing shift from social platform to bonafide shopping mall could make the company’s scrutiny of creators even more powerful. Documents observed by MarketWatch show an attempt to develop a system that scores TikTok creators on their ability to sell goods and attract eyeballs, as well as much more.
In documents marked as confidential and shared with merchants and brands currently testing the company’s commerce platform, the Bytedance Inc.-owned company discussed a new ranking system that’s powered both by the number of sales a given creator generates, and a host of proprietary measures. These included a “cooperation index,” meant to measure how enthusiastic that creator is when working with brands, a “diligence index,” meant to measure how willing they were to load their feeds up with shoppable products, and more.
These metrics give us a glimpse at a future where a creator’s likelihood of thriving on the uber-popular platform won’t only be tied to their popularity as a TikToker, but as a salesperson as well.
While most of us are familiar with TikTok’s uncanny ability to influence people’s purchases off-platform, the company’s attempts to bring those purchases in-house have met a mixed reception. Less than a year ago, the company debuted live shopping for users across the U.K., only to be reportedly met with widespread backlash from the region’s influencers and users alike. That stumble hasn’t stopped the company from reportedly forging ahead with plans to bring its shopping service stateside though, with a planned U.S. expansion described earlier this month by the Financial Times.
Accenture recently predicted that sales from social platforms could reach $1.2 trillion globally by 2025, after finding that those figures hit $492 billion in 2021. But of those hundreds of billions, only a fraction were coming from the U.S.; Insider Intelligence forecast in its own 2021 report that the American market for social commerce would top out at $36.6 billion — only one-tenth of the $351.7 billion forecast to be spent in China that year.
Silicon Valley has spent much of the past two years trying to level that playing field. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the bulk of in-store experiences to happen on our phones, Instagram used the opportunity to debut its own in-app commerce platform soon after, followed by similar offerings from fellow Meta Platforms META, +6.57% properties Facebook and WhatsApp. Pretty soon after, Alphabet’s GOOG, -0.31% GOOG, -0.31% YouTube announced it would start piloting shoppable videos, Twitter began pilotingshoppable profiles, and Pinterest PINS, -1.90% debutedits QVC-esque Pinterest TV.
The enthusiasm from these platforms (and others) has so far been met with a pretty chilly response from American shoppers, and by this summer, Meta had significantly scaled back Facebook’s and Instagram’s respective commerce offerings. Around this time, TikTok had also temporarily scrapped its own rival U.S. social commerce platform, according to reports, with its fizzled reception in the U.K. to blame.
While that was happening, TikTok was running another pilot of its shopping platform for users across Indonesia to rave reviews. Since then, TikTok’s users in Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and the Phillipines have all gotten access to TikTok Shop, turning Southeast Asia into a commerce hubfor the company.
According to the memos Marketwatch reviewed, that hub is thriving.
In one slideshow aimed at merchants in the U.K., the company claimed that close to three-fourths of its user base (74%) were “inspired” to research a particular brand or product based on the TikToks they were seeing. Two-thirds (66%) claimed that it “helped [them] decide what to buy.”
In another TikTok memo aimed at merchants in Vietnam, the company boasted its ability to cater to different diverse beauty subcultures like “hair care,” “perfume,” and “hand care” (as of this writing, hand cream videos on the platform sport a whopping 325.5 million views globally).
“[A] purchase decision is now only moments away from moment[s] of entertainment online,” the memo goes on, alongside an infographic based on internal data describing how “71% [of users] agree that the platform inspires them to shop, even when they aren’t actively looking at it.”
The company notes that the key is giving its user base trustworthy, engaging and entertaining content to light the spark that sets these purchase patterns in motion. Creators, ideally are all three of those things — but because there are an estimated 50,000 of them working on the TikTok platform today, it can be tough for a brand to know which one would be best at moving their product off the shelf. So the company began compiling a staggering amount of data on each of them to make that decision a little easier.
Aside from the Creator Marketplace that TikTok first debuted in 2019, the company compiles smaller, secondary lists from the creators signed up to work with TikTok Shop. In a memo for merchants published this week, for example, the company announced a dedicated “Creator Ranking List” that allows merchants to surf through dedicated lists of influencers across industries like beauty and baby products.
Each list ranks creators both on the gross merchandise volume (GMV) produced by their content for a given day, week or month, and five specific metrics across that content: how much of it was pumped out during that time, how popular it was, the number of sales it caused, and how “collaborative” and “consistent” those creators are.
Based on that, different creators get lumped to the top of one of five lists: “top sales stars,” for example, ranks creators based on their “ability to convert viewers into purchasers.” “Fast growing,” meanwhile, ranks those same creators according to their “growth index.” In the memo, TikTok describes this figure as mostly measured by a creator’s growth in followers over time, their growth in video and livestream viewership for the products they promote, and the growth in sales that result. The more rapidly those numbers jump, the higher they are on the list, and the better candidates they are for merchants “looking to target more users and scale their sales,” TikTok wrote.
Creators can also be ranked based on the company’s “popularity index,” which is described as a way to measure that person’s “influence” as a marketer for different products across their livestreams or short clips. Per TikTok, the figure is mostly tallied from the number of views each piece of content receives (and how long those viewers stick around), along with the number of viewers actively engaging with that content by, say, leaving a comment. The higher those numbers are, the more “popular” the creator is ranked. Those same creators can also be ranked based on their “enthusiasm and consistency” in producing shoppable content. This gets scored by the company’s “diligence index,” a measure of the number of streams or videos they post, and the number of products linked in each one.
The last list ranks creators based on how “cooperative” they are. This score is based on an influencer’s past work with affiliate marketers on TikTok Shop — specifically the ones that had sent that creator a free sample of their product in the past.
The option to offer freebies is one that’s baked into TikTok’s commerce platform globally as a way to incentivize creators to try out products from brands they’re not familiar with, and as a way to boost “authenticity” in a product review. The company noted in one recent memo to Indonesian merchants that “when a creator can touch, feel and physically promote the product in their videos, users are more inclined to buy.” If a seller wants to promote a sample (or an influencer sees one they’re interested in), the TikTok Shop interface lets them message each other directly.
For every message a creator gets, TikTok’s documentation notes that it monitors how quickly they respond (and if they respond at all). TikTok also measures the creator’s “fulfilment rate” once they get that sample: The creator either needs to feature it in a public video (left on their profile for three days straight), or spend 10 continuous minutes featuring it in a livestream. Creators are given a 17-day window after the seller ships their sample to complete either task.
If they don’t, then their fulfilment rate drops, as does their “active cooperation index,” and their rank on the last list. The same goes for creators that aren’t speedy responders.
TikTok also noted that those with low “enthusiasm” for cooperating with brands — those who prefer not to use free samples at all, for example, and have a low fulfilment score — won’t be included in any of these lists. The same goes for those with follower counts that are too low, or a lack of recent engagement on the platform. Creators who do make the cut but have a lower GMV will also be slotted lower in these lists, according to the memo.
TikTok did not respond to MarketWatch’s request for comment about its Creator Ranking List, and whether it would be rolled out within the U.S. once TikTok Shop lands stateside. But for every market where TikTok Shop is currently active — including the U.K. — these lists are live. That means the creators who choose to hawk products in those regions are being subjected to more scrutiny and surveillance than they’ve ever been before.