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Are TikTok Creators Actually Influential?

Are TikTok Creators Actually Influential?

Despite boasting millions of followers, it seems that TikTok’s biggest stars are failing to influence their giant audiences when it comes to spending money.

On January 10th, reports emerged that beauty retailer Sephora will be dropping Addison Rae‘s ITEM Beauty and Hyram Yarbro’s Selfless by Hyram from its shelves.

Addison launched ITEM Beauty in 2020 in collaboration with Madeby Collective, a brand incubator owned by the same parent company as beauty subscription boxes IPSY and BoxyCharm. The brand was arguably premature, given Addison’s star had only just risen and she had not yet solidified herself as a beauty icon— finding initial internet fame in replicating TikTok dances. ITEM entered into an exclusive retail deal with Sephora in August 2021.

Hyram, on the other hand, launched his brand directly into Sephora in 2021 after building a reputation as a skincare specialist. Powered by The INKEY List, Selfless by Hyram seemed like a natural fit for the creator who became known for his education-based content. Though not an accredited dermatologist, Hyram’s philosophy of “the ingredients don’t lie” resonated with Gen Z, especially as many of his recommendations remained affordable and accessible.

While both brands were slated to be successes— ITEM thanks to Addison’s massive following and Selfless due to Hyram’s credibility— there were signs that not all was well.

Upon its 2020 launch, ITEM Beauty did not appear to sell out, an unusual result for a brand co-founded by such a big creator. One month later, ITEM faced copycat accusations from Utah-based influencer Indy Blue when ITEM released their Cheek Money compact with the words ‘I love you say it back’ printed on the inside mirror. This phrase was coined and trademarked by Indy as the basis for her clothing line, Lonely Ghost. While the use of the phrase may have seemed coincidental, Indy was quick to point out that Addison had previously sported Lonely Ghost in TikToks posted to her account.

Hyram also faced initial controversy, as many compared his brand’s sustainability efforts to greenwashing. Others criticised the launch video as a display of white saviourism, depicting clips of endangered ecosystems and people living in poverty, insinuating that the brand was here to help. Perhaps most detrimental to Selfless, however, has been Hyram’s declining relevancy as one of TikTok’s buzziest creators. As TikTok and YouTube have seen an increase in dermatologists, plastic surgeons, and estheticians taking to these platforms in the past year, fans are moving away from seeking advice from unqualified creators.

Hyram’s struggle to remain relevant is hardly a unique dilemma for creators in the volatile world of TikTok, where virality can be instantaneous but futile. Addison and Hyram are among a cohort of young creators who found fast fame during the pandemic. The magnitude of this fame was unprecedented, as it was previously uncommon for a creator to garner millions of followers in a matter of weeks on platforms like YouTube and Instagram.

However, as the world moved out of lockdowns and TikTok content began to evolve, some of the app’s early success stories have struggled to maintain a deep connection with their audience, largely due to the short-form nature of the platform, as well as the algorithm’s tendency to push fresh and trending content to the user’s feed regardless of who they follow.

So while a creator could have 10 million followers, the majority of their video views are likely coming from random users on the For You Page, making it difficult to build a genuine fandom invested in their personal brand.

This has led to skepticism over the value of working with TikTokers on commercial partnerships — an industry pain point that was highlighted at 2022’s VidCon when multiple TikTok creators, including @missdarcei and @grace_africa, reported having empty lines at their ‘meet & greet’ sessions, despite boasting between 470K to 1.3 million followers at the time.

On how this could have happened, YouTuber Nessa Briella AKA Simplynessa15 said that “TikTok completely killed the concept of influencers,” noting that she was part of the creator generation that saw thousands of people in line at their ‘meet & greet’ sessions. She went on to suggest that the kind of virality seen on TikTok makes it easier to grow a following than on other platforms, “but that doesn’t necessarily translate into fandom.”

The industry was faced with a similar revelation just months later when Patreon reportedly signed a $1.325 million deal with TikTok bigwigs Larray and Chase Hudson to publish exclusive content on the platform in the hopes of converting a percentage of their fans to paid subscribers. Larray had 26.3 million TikTok followers at the time. Chase boasted 32.2 million.

According to the report, the company expected that Larray would drive $100,000 in subscriptions in his first month and Chase would bring in $25,000. In reality, their conversions were far from lucrative, with Larray bringing in just $2,217 and Chase a mere $2,670 in their first month on Patreon.

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Of course, there are exceptions to this trend, like Alix Earle who’s become TikTok’s new ‘it girl’ over the past two months. According to research by Ubiquitous, Alix is capable of increasing Google searches for products she uses by 100% in just 24 hours and almost all of her recent product recommendations sell out shortly after she shares them.

While these metrics are in stark contrast to what we’ve seen from creators recently, her success mimics that of so many early TikTokers, like Addison and Hyram, who also grew quickly and were once very buzzy. It’s too early to tell if Alix’s current influence is genuine, or if it will eventually peter off like so many before her.

There is no doubt that young people are happy to invest time watching TikTok — over 40% of Gen Zs in the U.S. spend more than 3 hours a day on the app — but it seems that’s where the investment ends for a lot of users.

Though audiences might shell out a few dollars to try a viral product in a one-time purchase, the recent decision from Sephora to drop ITEM Beauty and Selfless by Hyram from its shelves suggests that hype culture is not a sustainable marketing strategy and TikTok followers are not a marker of influence.

In a market oversaturated by celebrity and influencer brands, it’s becoming increasingly clear that consumers are tired of being sold to by unaccredited famous faces, no matter how many millions of followers they have.

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