TikTok stars hoping to take their audience to Instagram face an uphill battle – CNET

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TikTok is under scrutiny because it's owned by a Chinese tech company. 

Angela Lang/CNET

TikTok star Aidan Williams weighed in with some humor when he heard that Microsoft wanted to purchase the short-form video app. With nearly 2 million followers, the 17-year-old has social media dreams that are intertwined with TikTok's future.

"Microsoft about to buy TikTok," black-and-white lettering reads in a TikTok video above Williams' head as he partially covers his gaping smile. Dressed in a blue hoodie, the Ohio high school student lip-syncs the phrase "Yeah baby" and cackles with laughter. Then the words "Trump not letting that happen" appear, the sound of a smack rings out and he falls to the ground. 

The video was more than a comedic take on a proposed deal that could save TikTok from a US ban. With more than 419,700 views, it's a subtle but strategic way for Williams to direct fans to his Instagram account. He included his Instagram username in the caption along with the hashtag #savetiktok. Making videos about current events is a departure for Williams, who's known for completing dares such as smashing his parent's TV with a baseball bat and buying a homeless person a meal from McDonald's. 

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TikTok creator Aidan Williams created a video about Microsoft possibly buying TikTok's US operations. 

Screenshot by Queenie Wong/CNET

"If you say 'Go follow my Instagram,' the video is not going to get on the 'For You' page," Williams said, referring to a page of curated videos for users based on their interests. "So my biggest thing was try to make a joke out of it," he said, adding that the video helped him gain about 10,000 new followers on Facebook-owned Instagram.

As TikTok's future hangs in limbo, Williams and other TikTok users are ramping up efforts to drive followers to other social media platforms, such as Instagram and Google's YouTube. The Trump administration on Thursday issued an executive order barring any US transactions with ByteDance, the Chinese tech company that owns TikTok. The order, which would take effect in 45 days, would ban the short-form video app from operating in the US if ByteDance doesn't sell TikTok. Microsoft could ink a deal to buy TikTok by Sept. 15. On Monday, Trump said that if the sale went through the US Treasury should get a cut of the deal although that will likely encounter legal challenges. 

US officials are worried that the Chinese government could somehow get its hands on US user data. Other politicians have also expressed concerns that the app could be used to spy on Americans and spread propaganda during an election year. 

"This data collection threatens to allow the Chinese Communist Party access to Americans' personal and proprietary information - potentially allowing China to track the locations of Federal employees and contractors, build dossiers of personal information for blackmail, and conduct corporate espionage," Trump's order stated. 

TikTok says it creates American jobs, is run by an American CEO and wouldn't turn over US data to the Chinese government even if it was asked to do so. Still, it's feeling the political heat and has sought to diversify its ownership to address these concerns.

TikTok didn't respond to questions about its users' reaction to the potential Microsoft deal and US ban. Videos with the #savetiktok hashtag have more than 855 million views.

On Sunday, Microsoft acknowledged that it's talking with ByteDance about purchasing TikTok's operations in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. CNBC reported Wednesday that the acquisition talks between Microsoft ByteDance could wrap in the next three weeks. 

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TikTok's woes could benefit rival social networks that are trying to get more people to use their sites to post short videos. Outside of Instagram, YouTube and Snapchat, creators have also looked at Triller, Zynn and similar apps. On Wednesday, Instagram expanded Reels, its TikTok competitor, to more than 50 countries including the US. The short-form video feature had already been tested in India, which banned TikTok in June.

An Instagram spokeswoman said the company thinks "consumer choice is a good thing." Since Reels launched in the US on Wednesday, she didn't have a comment about whether creators have expressed more interest in that product. 

TikTok and influencers

Attracting a bigger following on other platforms could be a tough feat for artists and entertainers who've already found their niche on TikTok, which is known for quirky and goofy videos that last between 15 seconds and a minute. It's also harder to get noticed on the larger social networks, where competition for attention is fierce. YouTube videos are typically longer than those on TikTok, so production requires more time. Creators like Williams still have work to do to match their following on TikTok. He has more than 80,000 followers on Instagram.

Williams, who has been thinking about moving to Los Angeles, said the uncertainty surrounding TikTok means he's had to put those plans on hold.

"I'm kind of waiting to find out about the whole TikTok scenario, because if that goes down, pretty much my source of income is gone," said Williams, who makes money from the app by advertising products.

Joe Gagliese, CEO and co-founder of the influencer marketing agency Viral Nation, said agents with the company have been helping their clients diversify their audience, but "the reality is that it's not something you can do in a two-week period."

Gagliese says part of TikTok's appeal is that it gives everyone hope that they can become an influencer, a creator who is popular and knowledgeable enough to affect the buying habits of others. "They can grow really rapidly," he says of TikTok videos. "The videos get featured to huge amounts of people." 

Influencers who are more authentic and engage with their fans, he said, will have an easier time getting audiences to watch their content on other social networks. If Microsoft's purchase of TikTok goes through, it could help the software giant connect with teenagers and a younger audience, he said. Brands that might have been hesitant to advertise on TikTok because of national security concerns could also help fuel the growth of its business.

"From a brand perspective, I think everyone's just kind of pulled the reins back and said let's see how this shakes out," Gagliese said. If Microsoft purchases TikTok's US operations and the security concerns die down, it could "create a tsunami of interest" from brands that have been wary about being on the app, he said.

Turning social media into a full-time gig

Orange County Sheriff's Department Deputy Nick Casas records TikTok videos with his 5-year-old daughter Sienna for fun. The father-daughter duo has garnered more than 11 million followers on TikTok. That success isn't mirrored on Instagram and YouTube, however, where they have 475,000 and 246,000 followers, respectively.

An aspiring musician and actor, Casas and his daughter have covered popular songs that have been shared by artists including the Jonas Brothers, Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes. That not only fuelled their social media following, but led to other opportunities, including performances on The Ellen DeGeneres Show.

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Social media stars Nick Casas and his daughter Sienna have been directing TikTok users to their Instagram and YouTube accounts. 

Screenshot by Queenie Wong/CNET

Casas has been trying to build a larger following on Instagram and YouTube. After Trump said he wanted to ban TikTok, Casas directed followers to the duo's accounts on those platforms in two videos. In one video that has more than 700,000 views, the pair just point and laugh as their Instagram and YouTube handles appear above their heads. 

After posting those videos, Casas said they gained about 40,000 new followers on Instagram.

"I'm optimistic for sure," he said. "I've never really looked at social media as a job yet. It's only been like a year and a half. We do all this stuff for fun and we just happen to have affected a lot of people throughout the world."

Casas also hasn't quit his day job, which makes the future of TikTok less nerve-wracking. The money the duo has made from social media, Casas said, has allowed him to support his daughter. "Whatever she wants to do when she gets older, she'll be able to do," he said, adding she wants to be an astronaut at the moment.

Josh Cooper, the creative director of Speak Creative in Memphis, Tennessee, said he started creating videos with his two sons Jackson and Calvin, who are 11 and 8, after they begged him to start a YouTube channel. Then they learned about TikTok and started focusing more on the app after their following took off more quickly than on YouTube. 

"I hope [TikTok] doesn't become another social media app lost in the shuffle. Everyone talks about the magic of TikTok and it's true. You could go on there and you could go viral and grow like us. The sky's the limit, really," said Cooper, who is a client of Viral Nation and hopes to make social media a full-time gig one day.

Known for their crass humor, the family has a channel called Uploads of Fun that they promote on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter. When Cooper heard about Trump's proposed ban, he streamed a live video on the app for roughly 11 hours asking their fans to follow his family on Instagram and YouTube. Overnight, they gained 2,000 followers on Instagram and 1,500 on YouTube, he said.

The family has also been making videos for Instagram Reels, but Cooper said he's been wary about the Facebook-owned platform because creators have had to pay to promote content in the past. Uploads of Fun has 1.3 million followers on TikTok but only 17,000 on Instagram.

"We're hopeful, but I'm just also cautious because Instagram is already so established," he said. "I just don't see another platform pushing out content the way that TikTok does."

As for Williams, the 17-year-old high school student, he said he aspires to become an icon who can make an impact on people's lives in a positive light. Supportive messages from his fans have only fuelled his desire to keep pursuing this path, he said.

"It really made me want to continue on TikTok and find a new platform where I could transfer my followers to so I could stick around with them," he said. 

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