Digital Marketing Redux   //   April 9, 2024

TikTok is pushing brands to post photos instead of videos

TikTok is forging ahead on becoming a full-fledged photo platform — and brands are coming along for the ride.

While primarily a short-form video app, TikTok has been leaning more into photos and photo features as a way to diversify its offerings and stand out from competition. In recent months, TikTok ran promos and pop-ups around its Carousel function, which allows users to publish individual posts that contain two to 35 images in a scroll format. The feature is similar to, but more expansive than, Instagram’s Carousel feature, which debuted in 2017 and allows users to post two to 10 photos.

This is happening while TikTok, which is facing a possible ban in the United States, is reportedly rolling out a new photo app called TikTok Notes, per media reports over the weekend. The news comes a year and a half after TikTok launched a slideshow format called Photo Mode that paired photos with text and audio.

In a message sent to creators, TikTok promises that Carousel posts get “2.9x more comments,” “1.9x more likes” and “2.6x more shares on average” than video posts.

Indeed, TikTok-heavy brands that spoke with Modern Retail said they’ve found the Carousel function useful for building brand awareness. Although one brand said Carousel performance has “fallen off a little bit” in the last month, all plan to continue using the function, depending on what type of story they are trying to tell or what trends are rising in popularity.

Skin care brand Youthforia started using Carousel in January. It’s found that Carousel posts see 11% higher reach and higher average views than video posts, Tina Shim, the company’s vp of marketing, told Modern Retail.

In fact, the company’s most popular TikTok post is in the Carousel format and has 6.6 million views. It follows founder Fiona Co Chan’s experience pitching to investors on “Shark Tank” and making a deal with Mark Cuban. That particular post, Shim told Modern Retail, resonated more internationally than some video TikToks. “It found its way into all sorts of different spaces that we hadn’t been in before,” Shim said.

Blume, which makes coffee alternatives and superfood lattes, has also begun using Carousel for global reach. The brand is based in Canada but is testing out Carousel to appeal to a U.S. audience, co-founder Karen Danudjaja told Modern Retail. “With Carousels, we’re able to really pump them out at a higher rate… so there’s a real scalability to them,” she said. “Carousels are one of the things that have been most consistently generating results.”

Some of Blume’s most popular Carousel posts relate to its recent launch in Target in the U.S. Danudjaja didn’t consider this to be a coincidence. “We’ll experiment with hooks, we’ll experiment with captions, but the overall layout of using Carousels, we’ll repeat over and over again,” she said. “That’s been the advice given to us on TikTok: Find out what works and then really lean into it.”

August, a period care brand, started posting photo slideshows on TikTok soon after the function became available in 2022. It also posts videos and sees both formats perform well. “It’s really about hitting that sweet spot,” Ruby Moon, content manager at August, told Modern Retail. “If we’re using a Carousel post because there’s a trend going on that includes that feature, sure, it’ll do a little bit better. But I think that we’ve also had videos go viral at the same time.”

In general, August finds that Carousel posts work well for trending prompts that require some sort of “reveal” in a later slide. (Slide one typically includes the set-up for a joke, with slide two as the punchline.) August also uses the Carousel format to push out pictures of products or images from photo shoots, or to communicate information via infographics. One of August’s most popular posts on TikTok, for instance, is a Carousel post about the sales tax that customers in many U.S. states pay on menstrual products.

Skin care brand Bubble, meanwhile, opts for Carousel posts to make memes, educate viewers about a product or routine or publish “day-in-the-life” content, Marianne Robinson, Bubble’s community director and acting social media director, told Modern Retail via email. Bubble published its first Carousel post in March 2023. “It allows users to digest and cycle through content at their own pace, which I believe users like and even prefer,” Robinson said.

Lia Haberman, a digital media marketing expert, strategist and speaker, told Modern Retail that she sees TikTok’s photo push as the platform “trying to be all things to all people.” Not everyone wants to post videos, she said, and there’s a lower barrier to entry to Carousel, as many of today’s social media users are used to uploading photos.

Haberman finds TikTok Carousel clunkier than Instagram Carousel but considers TikTok’s feature better for storytelling. “A couple of years ago, [the culture] was very much around the ‘photo dump’ and people just putting a bunch of photos together with very little curation involved,” she said. “I think on TikTok, there seems to be more intention and purpose in why and how you’re curating these photos.”

TikTok has updated its content parameters more and more over the last couple years. In 2022, it expanded the maximum length of videos to 10 minutes long. There have been rumors of a TikTok photo app since March, when bloggers tracked down references in TikTok’s code. Now, per reports, TikTok is telling some users that that day is near.

“TikTok Notes, a new app for photo posts, is coming soon. Your existing and future public TikTok photo posts will be shown on TikTok Notes,” an in-app pop-up says, according to SocialMediaToday. TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Already, brands are preparing for this yet-to-be-launched app. Youthforia, for example, is open to using that service. “At minimum, we’ll definitely try it,” Shim said. “I think some of it will depend on the audience. It’ll be interesting to see if they add one more app to their rotation.”