Negative headlines are undermining trust in TikTok: Horizon Media

Persistent negative press focusing on the privacy issues around TikTok are undermining Canadians’ trust in the platform, which in turn is raising concern among advertisers using the platform, says a new report from Horizon Media Canada.

“Negative media coverage has hit TikTok hard over the last six months,” said Simon Ross, VP of strategy and insights at Horizon. “While it remains popular and essential for engaging with younger demographics, brands should monitor the rapidly evolving perceptions and sentiments toward TikTok to be fully informed of the benefits and possible risks.”

Ross said the platform has reached a “critical moment” in terms of maintaining relationships with Canadian brands and consumers, and that its next moves—pertaining to everything from reforming privacy policies, addressing teens’ mental health concerns, and respecting freedom of the presswill be pivotal to its future.

While some of the same concerns have been voiced about TikTok rivals such as Meta and YouTube (both of which continue to enjoy strong advertiser support), Ross said that Horizon chose to focus on TikTok because its Chinese-ownership and associated security concerns—earlier this year, FBI director Christopher Wray told a Senate subcommittee that it “screams” of national security risks—have made it the subject of considerable media scrutiny in recent months.

Multiple jurisdictions have banned TikT0k on all government-issued devices because of privacy concerns, and Ross pointed to Montana’s recent decision to ban the app outright as of Jan. 1 as a possible portent of governments further cracking down on the platform.

“If the Canadian government decides  to ban TikTok, it’s going to be a massive issue,” he said. “In a way, they’ve already taken that first step by banning it on their devices.”

According to Horizon, 59% of Canadians have become more cautious about using TikTok due to data privacy concerns, with 56% indicating that its content is causing harm to teens’ mental health. Not surprisingly, more than half of Canadians aged 65+ consider TikTok invasive to privacy, compared to only about 20% of people 18-34.

“These issues matter greatly to Canadians,” he said. “TikTok‘s immense popularity provides an opportunity for it to reverse its negative image, and we, along with our brand partners, will be closely monitoring its actions.”

But despite the bad press swirling around the company, the study said that brands have been unable to resist its “powerful pull.” While dwarfed by Facebook and YouTube in terms of both total users and advertising revenue, Ross said that TikTok continues to gain in popularity among brands, and particularly those attempting to reach younger consumers.

According to recent U.S. findings by the Pew Research Center, two-thirds (67%) of teens use the platform, with 58% using it daily. The Horizon Media study, meanwhile, found that people 18-34 are “significantly more likely” to follow and engage with brands they like on TikTok, and are more inclined to purchase from brands they encounter on the platform.

Horizon also noted that it serves as a “vital platform for discovery” among people 18-49, with brands that align with its primary purpose of “edu-tainment” able to capitalize on its high engagement levels.

“It’s definitely one of the fastest-growing platforms among Horizon Media clients,” said Ross. “For me it offers unique content that none of the other platforms can deliver. That sweet spot of being able to educate and entertain Canadians is a winning formula.”

According to ComScore data for Canada, TikTok was averaging 14.9 million unique visitors per month as of April, a 22.5% year-over-year increase. The typical TikTok viewing session lasts 15.7 minutes, second only to YouTube’s 27 minutes and well ahead of Snap (4.9 minutes), Facebook (3.1 minutes), Instagram (2.2 minutes) and Pinterest (2.1 minutes).

The algorithm that populates TikTok’s “For You Page” has been credited for much of its astounding success from an engagement perspective, with The Guardian stating last year that it is “so good at what it sets out to do that TikTok appears almost overwhelmed by its power.”

That observation proved somewhat prophetic, as TikTok introduced a 60-minute daily screen time limit for all accounts belonging to users under 18 earlier this year. Teens are now prompted to enter a passcode to continue watching, while users under 13 need a parent or guardian to enter the passcode for an additional 30 minutes of screen time.

The study was created by Horizon Media Canada’s Tipping Point group, using its suite of social listening and cultural intelligence tools, and a blend of trusted secondary sources, observational techniques, and proprietary and curated supporting data. It included a survey of more than 250 Canadians nationwide from March 31 to April 7, 2023.

 Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash
Chris Powell