Direct sellers navigate the clash of security concerns, creative expression and commercial opportunities
By: Stephanie Ramirez
What triggers a ban is if the words you say in your captions have, ‘sign up now or join me.’ Those words can trigger an audit where TikTok will take a closer look at your profile.
— Brittany Munk, North American Director of Sales, Epicure
In a landscape shaped by the ever-evolving digital age, the realm of social media has become an influential platform for communication, entertainment and commerce.
Among the myriad of apps that have captured the attention of millions worldwide, TikTok, the Chinese-owned video-sharing platform, has emerged as a dominant force, captivating users with its short-form videos and creative expression.
With 1.5 billion monthly active users globally, TikTok is the fastest-growing social media platform, reaching 1 billion users in September 2021—a record set in only four years since its worldwide launch.
However, TikTok continues to find itself increasingly entangled in a web of controversy concerning national security, data collection and user privacy, prompting Washington D.C. rhetoric to intensify.
The Chinese government’s expansive surveillance capabilities and national security implications have raised alarm bells among policymakers, sparking questions about the potential risks associated with TikTok’s vast user base.
Policymakers fear that TikTok, which like many other social media platforms collects vast amounts of data on its users, would be forced to give its data to Beijing under a 2017 law that compels companies to turn over any personal data relevant to China’s national security. These concerns have propelled the app into the center of debates, reflecting the complex intersection of technology, geopolitics and societal influence.
U.S. party members from both sides of the aisle agree that it would be beneficial to have some form of legislation that gives the Commerce Department greater power to ban or restrict apps linked to countries deemed as foreign adversaries, such as China.
TikTok Legal Troubles
A bill, being led by a bipartisan coalition, Sens. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and John Thune (R-S.D.), would not guarantee a ban or a forced sale of TikTok, but it would give the federal government more legal standing to pursue
Sen. Warner said in a press release issued by his office in March, “Today, the threat that everyone is talking about is TikTok, and how it could enable surveillance by the Chinese Communist Party, or facilitate the spread of malign influence campaigns in the U.S. Before TikTok, however, it was Huawei and ZTE, which threatened our nation’s telecommunications networks.”
“And before that, it was Russia’s Kaspersky Lab, which threatened the security of government and corporate devices. …We need a comprehensive, risk-based approach that proactively tackles sources of potentially dangerous technology before they gain a foothold in America, so we aren’t playing Whac-A-Mole and scrambling to catch up once they’re already ubiquitous.”
Sen. Thune added, “Congress needs to stop taking a piecemeal approach when it comes to technology from adversarial nations that pose national security risks.”
“Our country needs a process in place to address these risks, which is why I’m pleased to work with Senator Warner to establish a holistic, methodical approach to address the threats posed by technology platforms – like TikTok – from foreign adversaries. This bipartisan legislation would take a necessary step to ensure consumers’ information and our communications technology infrastructure is secure.”
The bill, known as the RESTRICT Act, if passed, wouldn’t target TikTok specifically. Instead, it would authorize the Secretary of Commerce, under orders of the President, to restrict or ban digital products and services from countries it deems to be foreign adversaries: China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Russia,
In addition to Sens. Warner and Thune, the legislation is co-sponsored by Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), Joe Manchin (D-W.V.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), and Mitt Romney (R-Utah).
As of April 2023, the app has already been banned for use by federal employees, and has been banned for use by state employees in 34 states in the U.S. Governors have cited cybersecurity issues and fears over Chinese spying as reasons for the bans.
These bans have generally been justified with national security concerns, due to TikTok’s ownership by the Chinese company ByteDance.
Following state bans of the app on state-owned devices and networks, at least 18 state universities have restricted access to TikTok in recent months on school computers, mobile phones and Wi-Fi, in accordance with executive orders in those states banning the app on government-owned devices and networks.
A TikTok spokesperson, Brook Oberwetter, previously told NBC News the company is “disappointed that so many states are jumping on the political bandwagon.”
“We’re especially sorry to see the unintended consequences of these rushed policies beginning to impact universities’ ability to share campus-wide information, recruit students, and build communities around athletic teams, student groups, campus publications, and more.”
Not long after a Chinese spy balloon was spotted flying over the state of Montana earlier this year, drawing national attention, the state’s legislature drafted a bill to ban TikTok in Montana entirely. Montana is home to one of the nation’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base. Montana Governor Greg Gianforte just signed that bill into law last month.
Gianforte tweeted that he has banned TikTok in Montana “to protect Montanans’ personal and private data from the Chinese Communist Party,” officially making it the first state to ban the social
The bill specifically names TikTok as its target, prohibiting the app from operating within state lines. The law also outlines potential fines of $10,000 per day for violators, including app stores found to host the social
TikTok has lashed back hitting the state with a lawsuit just days after the bill was signed, which is due to take effect Jan. 1, 2024. TikTok alleges that the ban violates the U.S. Constitution, including the First Amendment, as well as other federal laws, according to a complaint filed in Montana District Court. The ban is “unconstitutionally shutting down the forum for speech for all speakers on the app,” the company said in the lawsuit.
Oberwetter said in a statement, “We are challenging Montana’s unconstitutional TikTok ban to protect our business and the hundreds of thousands of TikTok users in Montana. We believe our legal challenge will prevail based on an exceedingly strong set of precedents and facts.”
Emily Flower, a spokeswoman for Montana’s attorney general, Austin Knudsen, told The New York Times that the state expected legal challenges and is fully prepared to defend the law that helps protect Montanans’ privacy and security.
Direct Sellers Leverage TikTok Algorithm-Driven Content Discovery
Despite the growing controversies, TikTok continues to gain popularity among users of all ages. Direct sellers are increasingly turning to the platform as a way to promote their products and connect with potential customers.
With its short-form video format and algorithm-driven content discovery, TikTok provides a unique opportunity for businesses to reach a wide audience quickly and easily.
“The current generation of young people are on TikTok,” shared Brittany Munk, North American director of sales for Epicure, a direct seller founded in 1997 that offers healthy packaged foods for easy meal prep.
“Regardless of the controversies with the platform, if we’re not there, then we’re missing out on this new up-and-coming generation.”
Munk said that approximately 75% of kids graduating high school now want to be some sort of social media influencer or gig economy money earner after graduation.
“I think it’s imperative that we’re on TikTok while it’s here, and that we understand it,” Munk added. “We’re there on the corporate side to teach our ambassadors, because if we don’t, we’re going to miss out on who will be the next generation of people running the company, being our ambassadors.”
Even though the platform explicitly bans content promoting what they refer to in their community guidelines as “pyramid schemes” and “multi-level marketing companies,” direct sellers have found unique ways to share products and find new customers.
“Users tend to dislike salesy or spammy advertising or content, and instead prefer genuine and authentic content,” Munk said. “It’s important to note that TikTok’s definition of a multi-level marketing company is one where most of the sales come from recruiting and not selling products. So where we are different, and I think most direct sellers now are different, is that distributors make most of their income selling a product.”
Munk said that Epicure puts a great deal of time into researching and training their distributors on how to participate in social media trends, including TikTok.
“Whether it’s a dance or a viral sound clip, users can participate in the trend while low-key promoting their product or company,” she added.
“What triggers a ban is if the words you say in your captions have, ‘sign up now or join me.’ Those words can trigger an audit where TikTok will take a closer look at your profile.”
She continued, “There are four things that get people to stop their scroll on TikTok or Instagram, and the first one is entertainment. So for a direct seller to be entertaining, that is a great way to build your following, build connections, show your credibility, and get people to follow you back.” Then there’s education, followed by motivation and lastly inspiration.
Munk said her company provides quite a bit of training on how to create “viral” content sharing the Epicure products and following the TikTok trends. She added that because of the way the TikTok algorithm works, users can build a following in a short amount of time.
“Facebook allows access to about 2,500 posts per day per user on average, and they only allow you to actually see about 10% of those,” Munk shared.
“With TikTok and Instagram, it’s based on scrolling activity. If you don’t slow down on something, like or comment on something in your feed, they note that, and won’t show you similar content again. But when you pause on something like a cooking video for example, they’re like, okay, she’s interested in this. And soon enough, based on your actions, they have you figured out and they will show you videos of women sharing cooking tips from then on.”
One of the key advantages of using TikTok for business is the ability to create engaging, shareable content that can go viral and generate significant exposure for a brand or product.
By using popular hashtags and leveraging trending topics, businesses can tap into the massive reach on the platform and build a following of loyal customers. Research shows that 35% of TikTok users have bought something off the platform and 44% of users discovered products through ads and content posted by brands and influencers.
Another approach to creating potential sales on the platform is to partner with influencers or other content creators who have a large following on TikTok, according to Hillary Alston, senior vice president of sales for LulaRoe. “By working with these influencers, reps can reach a wider audience and potentially attract new customers.”
Like Epicure, LulaRoe provides a great deal of training on how to properly reach new customers on social media, Alston shared. She said distributors looking to promote their products on TikTok may want to also consider the following:
- Focus on providing value – Rather than simply promoting products or opportunity, focus on creating content that provides value to viewers. This could include tutorials, educational content, or product reviews that help viewers understand the benefits of your products.
- Be authentic – Authenticity is key on TikTok, so it’s important to be transparent and genuine in your content. Avoid using canned scripts or promotional language that could be seen as spammy, salesy, or manipulative.
- Leverage popular trends – TikTok is all about trending topics and challenges, so try to incorporate popular trends into your content in a way that is relevant to your business. This could involve creating a unique spin on a popular trend or creating your own challenge that aligns with your brand.
- Work with micro-influencers – Partnering with micro-influencers or other content creators who live in your area can be a great way to reach a wider audience on TikTok and not cost more than a few products. Look for influencers who have a large following and whose audience is a good fit for your product.
- Be consistent – Consistency is key on TikTok, so it’s important to post regularly and engage with your audience. This can help you build a following and establish yourself as an authority in your niche.
Promoting a business on TikTok requires a strategic approach that focuses on providing value to viewers and avoiding sales pitches or manipulative content.
By following these tips, and staying up to date on the latest trends and guidelines, Alston added, direct selling distributors can use TikTok to grow their businesses and connect with their target audience.
The TikTok paradox continues to captivate attention as the platform grapples with both controversy and a thriving marketplace.
However, amid the turmoil, TikTok has emerged as a robust marketplace where innovative influencers, small businesses, and direct sellers thrive, leveraging the platform’s vast user base to sell products and engage with consumers in new and exciting ways.
As policymakers, regulators, and users navigate this complex landscape, striking a balance between security and innovation becomes crucial.
The evolving story of TikTok highlights the intricate challenges inherent in our digital era, reminding us that finding harmony between safeguarding interests and fostering new ideas remains an ongoing journey in the dynamic world of social media and commerce.