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TikTok is renowned for its data collection strategies. As it entered the mainstream in 2020, information about its data collection practices flooded the news. Some authors called those practices “invasive;” others went so far as to claim a “national security risk.” Former President Donald Trump announced that he intended to ban TikTok, citing its data collection practices and ties with the Chinese government. India banned TikTok altogether.

But the data TikTok directly collects from its users represent only the tip of the iceberg of information available on the app. Users’ interactions with the app, from video uploads to likes, also generate data about their interests and preferences. In response, in their efforts to understand how Gen Z consumers perceive and interact with their products, many companies seek to exploit the artificial intelligence and software available through the streaming site to collect and analyze user-generated content, as part of their social listening strategies.

To assist them, data analytics companies collect customer experience insights from videos uploaded to TikTok and analyze each component of every video in detail. To select relevant videos, an application programming interface (API) collects all videos uploaded with a particular hashtag. Then the API uses a text-to-speech neural network to turn the video’s audio into text; it conducts a sentiment analysis on that text. Furthermore, it detects and analyzes any text captions overlaid onto the video. The API can recognize all branded content in the video, including images, logos, or audio. TikTok’s social listening APIs also collect sentiment information from text comments and hashtags.

With these analyses, companies gain substantially improved capacities to understand how TikTok’s audiences interact with their products. Analyses of hashtags unrelated to their products also can give companies insights into potential and currently unmet consumer interests and values.

Consider how the international nongovernmental organization (NGO) Greenpeace uses a social listening software, called the All Ears API, to understand how users interact with its brand. The API automatically monitors TikTok and alerts Greenpeace when it is mentioned on the platform, then adds general insights about when users tend to mention Greenpeace, whether they express positive or negative attitudes toward the NGO’s publicity efforts, and which users are most likely to discuss Greenpeace.

Many for-profit companies such as Walmart, Volkswagen, and Canon also use All Ears. These uses make obvious sense: The TikTok-oriented social listening APIs are particularly effective for for-profit companies, because of TikTok’s shopping- and brand-centric culture. Many users share information about products or brands they particularly love or hate. The hashtag #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt, which users attach to their posts to share products they were pushed to purchase on TikTok, has more than 28.6 million views. Viral TikTok videos have the power to drive trends and make or break businesses. The Pink Stuff, a cleaning paste for hard surfaces, remained relatively unknown for 15 years, with sales at about $2.6 million, until videos of people using the pink paste to clean went viral on TikTok, some with more than 250 million views. Sales of the Pink Stuff then increased by more than $30 million. By being able to detect TikTok users’ sentiments about their brands early on and tailor their content accordingly, companies using social listening APIs can set themselves up to go viral.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How can social listening help boost a brand’s success on social media?
  2. What metrics should companies analyze to best understand how TikTok users view their products?
  3. Could other brands benefit from using social listening strategies on TikTok? Which ones?

Sources: “TikTok for Social Listening: Analytics with Insights,” Repustate, January 19, 2022; “How Brands Monitor What People Say about Them on TikTok,” All Ears, April 20, 2022; Liz Gross, “How to Use TikTok for Social Listening,” The Social Intelligence Lab, https://thesilab.com/how-to-use-tiktok-for-social-listening/; “This Is the PR Value for Greenpeace Nordic Right Now,” All Ears, January 24, 2022; Vanhishkha Bhargava, “Complete Guide to Social Listening on TikTok,” radarr, October 25, 2021; John Herman, “Will TikTok Make You Buy It?” The New York Times, October 2, 2021; Kailey Huang, Isabella Simonetti, and Tiffany Hsu, “TikTok Builds Itself Into an Ads Juggernaut,” The New York Times, November 14, 2022; Rafqa Touma, “TikTok Has Been Accused of ‘Aggressive’ Data Harvesting. Is Your Information at Risk?” The Guardian, July 19, 2022.