It’s easy to fit in on TikTok. Once regarded as the app for teens and tweens, over the years it’s evolved into a hub for any number of oddball communities: witches, bean enthusiasts, baby doll collectors and people who just really appreciate a well-cleaned fridge, to name a few. Out of the roughly 1 billion users the company claims are on its app each month, a fair number reside in one of these worlds.
But it looks like TikTok’s ongoing pivot from social to shopping won’t leave much room for this sort of spontaneity. In memos obtained by MarketWatch that were aimed at current commerce creators based in Southeast Asia and the U.K., the company offered a slew of suggestions and scripts meant to maximize their viewers’ spending habits, along with strict rules governing their behavior on camera.
TikTok Shop, the app’s commerce platform, officially opened to merchants in the U.S. late last week. Those who are based in America and have products to sell are free to sign up with TikTok’s official Seller Center platform, which currently lists the United States alongside the U.K. and Southeast Asia as locales where it’s available.
TikTok did not respond to MarketWatch’s inquiry as to whether American creators will face different rules or guidance from those provided to their European and Asian counterparts. There, the barrier for entry as a creator is relatively low: Creators are told that in order to apply for TikTok Shop Privileges, they need to be at least 18 years old and have at least 1,000 followers. Creators are told they need to be based in the region where merchants are selling their products, and their account needs to show something posted — and no videos pulled — within the 28 days prior to their request for access.
For creators curious about what awaits them if they’re lucky enough to get access — or TikTok fans who are curious about what their feeds are going to be filled with in the near future — here’s a look at the platform’s guidance, much of it marked as confidential, to its commerce creators thus far.
TikTok understands that its audience prefers authentic videos over branded ads, which leaves TikTok Shop creators with the unenviable task of spouting sales pitches in a way that feel genuine instead of “sponcon”-y.
Ironically, the company’s answer to this conundrum is for creators to replace their genuine personality with a genuine-seeming “persona” that consistently wears the same sort of clothing in every video, always sports the same camera setup and has some sort of “memorable” catchphrase or gimmick.
“This is the fastest way to introduce to the audience what you do and why they should follow you,” explained one recently uploaded video aimed at creators across Southeast Asia.
To craft a persona, creators are told to take note of their audience’s age and personality along with income levels and overall “spending power” on the platform. The company suggests your average viewer should be within five years of your own age to maximize the “relatable” nature of your content. Once that’s established, creators should research the average sorts of issues this type of person confronts, and the products they buy to solve them.
As an example, the company notes that a stay-at-home mom who’s “an outgoing person with good cooking skills” would be a prime candidate to sell supplies that make things easier around the kitchen for other stay-at-home moms. TikTok suggests that newer creators spend at least 30 minutes per day watching, liking and commenting on 100 different videos from successful sellers within their niche.
Unlike TikToks from the average stay-at-home mom, however, a shopping livestream from a stay-at-home mom is subject to a dizzying number of rules that are meant to protect the “safety” of users and the “quality” of the company’s commerce content.
If she wants to feature anyone under the age of 15 during her stream — like, say, a 4-year-old playing with a plastic truck that’s being promoted — the mom needs to be seen on the stream, too. Not only that, but TikTok’s guidelines state that the child can only be seen in commerce content promoting children’s toys, clothes or shoes. If that mom livestreams her child snoozing in a child-sized bed as a way to promote that piece of furniture, she risks being penalized by the platform.
The platform can also penalize the creator for not interacting with fans or being too “still” during the stream, since this risks “preventing [viewers] from obtaining helpful information” and might lead to “reduced interest and trust” from those viewers overtime. Speaking too loudly, too quietly, too quickly, or using anything but the “accepted language of the [creator’s] local market” during a stream is frowned upon for similar reasons.
To ensure “constant user engagement,” TikTok noted in guidance to creators published this past summer, livestreams can’t feature slideshows, screenshots or phone footage to promote the product being sold, since this might also lead viewers to tune out. Commerce creators are mandated to spend the entire stream either interacting with fans, talking about products, or showing some sort of movement that’s visible on screen.
TikTok warns that creators selling clothing during their streams shouldn’t change on-camera, since they run the risk of accidentally creating content that registers as “sexualized” by the platform, and not eligible for recommendation in people’s feeds. The same goes for accidentally showing too much cleavage, or the top of a creator’s thigh.
TikTok also suggests that creators steer clear of anything that might raise “discomfort” from viewers during livestreams: no swearing, no smoking and no pimple popping, even though that last topic is wildly popular among swaths of TikTok’s base.
Perhaps most importantly, though, TikTok requires that shopping streams be “maximized” to produce as many product reviews and promotions as possible during their run time. At a minimum, the platform requires creators to run each stream at least an hour, and feature at least eight products on screen.
The eight (or more) products TikTok suggests creators feature in their streams should always be ones that are “relatable” to viewers in some way. Guidance issued to creators this month noted TikTok’s users are “more inclined to purchase products they can see themselves using.” In a separate memo offered to TikTok Shop merchants, the company laid out a “golden formula” for peak relatability. During a livestream, the company explained, creators should be constantly promoting products that have somehow solved some sort of gripe they used to have, and that gripe should be one painfully familiar to whoever’s watching the stream.
If creators can spend a minute or two communing with the viewer over dry skin and then follow that with five to ten minutes of seeming genuine while they praise the lotion from a given brand, TikTok explained, the person watching feels recognized and understood, which won’t only make them more likely to buy that lotion but to stick around longer during that hour-plus livestream.
For newer creators that don’t quite know their base’s “pain points,” the company suggests relying on age, gender and a few stereotypes: promoting popular makeup brands to a follower base that’s mostly young and female, for example. The more livestreams a creator runs and the more conversations a creator has while running them, TikTok says, the more they can learn about their audience, and the more trust they can earn.
While they’re busy becoming as trustworthy as possible, creators, TikTok suggests, should strategically promote certain sorts of products in order to wring the maximum number of impulse buys out of viewers.
In documents aimed at creators in Malaysia, for example, TikTok offered a clear list of “verbal tricks” that creators could use during livestreams in order to coax viewers to engage with the stream, or buy particular products. The company suggested that creators also use their own devices onscreen to show how “simple” the process of checking out of TikTok’s shopping platform is.
Every stream, TikTok noted in one presentation that was marked “confidential,” should include a minute-long tutorial showing new viewers how to shop, followed by a cycle of showing off particular products, answering questions about said products, and adding “urgency” to viewers’ purchases. Each of these steps, too, should follow a strict time limit, TikTok noted: each product review shouldn’t exceed 10 minutes, for example, and the time spent “encourag[ing] viewers to checkout” shouldn’t exceed two minutes at a time. Each of these streams should also include roughly 10 minutes of “gimmicks” interspersed throughout: talent shows, games or challenges that are included purely to “increase engagement.”
“Answer all audience questions not only about the products but about yourself,” TikTok told creators in another document that was marked “confidential.” Having “chit-chat,” the company noted, “create[s] a more intimate bond with the audience.”
But not too intimate, TikTok warned. In separate guidance to creators, the company told them to avoid using “inappropriate pet names” for viewers on stream, like “baby” or “sexy,” for example.
The language a creator uses also shouldn’t be too “repetitive,” unless they’re talking about one of the products being sold, TikTok added. “Most people will come and watch your LIVE for 30-60 seconds,” the company told U.K. creators in one recent memo. “New viewers come in and out very frequently during live. Continue to repeat best selling products and monitor real time sales data until you see fatigue.” Fatigue, the company went on, could be defined as a ten-minute stretch with “no incremental sales [of the promoted product].”
The company added that these creators should remind their audiences about TikTok Shop every 15 minutes during their streams, and do that same minute-long walk-through on how to use the platform. Every three to four minutes those same creators should “encourage” those viewing the stream to follow the creator who’s hosting it, if they don’t already.
In another document that was aimed at merchants operating out of Malaysia, the company explained another “golden formula,” this one for ensuring as many viewers click on a livestream as possible. Per TikTok, the quickest way to get a flood of viewers into a given stream isn’t only to make that content “attractive” but “quickly understandable.”
And considering how TikTok is a platform that’s populated by a never-ending deluge of bite-sized content, it makes sense that the company has strict guidelines for the setups of shopping streams.
For starters, the company said, shopping streams should follow TikTok’s “121 Rule,” where the screen is split into four quadrants.
Two quadrants in the middle of the screen should be set aside for the creator hosting the stream, TikTok said. One quadrant at the top of the screen should be left blank for any “brand logo[s]” or stickers, and one quadrant on the bottom of the screen should be left blank for showing off products, which should be grouped from small to large in order to create a “layered display.” When showing off a particular product, however, that should take up “at least” 70% of the screen, while being careful to avoid showing it off in the lower quadrants of the screen where the “comment area” for their stream appears.
TikTok also suggests creators mind the lighting they employ. Blue-toned “cool” lighting, for example, should only be used in streams where showing the “real color of products” is paramount, like streams featuring clothing or makeup products. For streams selling housewares and kitchen goods, meanwhile, the company suggests warmer, yellow lighting in order to “increase appetite” among viewers.
The background the streamer chooses shouldn’t be “too colorful,” since that risks making the stream too “cluttered” and spooking would-be viewers, the company went on. The same goes for a wallpaper that contrasts too harshly with what the creator on the stream is wearing. And pure white backgrounds, the company noted, are prone to “overexposure.” Instead, TikTok suggests using a “neutral” color to back a livestream — “a light gray or light brown background,” specifically.
While one-hour livestreams are the minimum duration, TikTok told U.K. creators in one recent memo that the company “highly recommends” doing daily livestreams for at least two hours apiece, since doing so allows “more opportunity to train the TikTok algorithm” as top who the target audience for the streams might be. The company added that some of its sellers go live between four and five hours, without interruption, each day.
To “get the audience in the habit of watching,” TikTok also added that these streams should be held at the same time each day.
By telling creators to post their livestreams at a similar cadence each week — with a similar look and similar language shared in common among them — TikTok seems determined to create commerce content that looks like nothing its users have seen on the platform thus far. These livestreams are “authentic,” while having their language closely monitored, and are “engaging” because of pre-planned, carefully calculated scripts that are invisible to end users, and feel “trustworthy,” despite being an elaborate, long-form advertisement.
Time will tell if this formula will hook American audiences as successfully as it has done overseas.
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Shoshana Wodinsky is an Enterprise Reporter for MarketWatch.
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