Self

I Paid TikTok $169.99 To Make My Dog Internet Famous

Photo: Courtesy of the Author
dog wearing cone

Celebrity dogs can amass millions of followers on social media, bringing in hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. My dog Lance is not a celebrity — yet. He’s a friendly, somewhat smelly, barely house-trained Bichon Frise with a sunny disposition and a penchant for standing on the kitchen table.

As of July 2022, Lance is now also the proud owner of 1,084 TikTok followers and the recipient of a stadium’s worth of views on the platform. I know, because I bought them for him. It cost me $169.99. The whole process was totally legal and completely compliant with TikTok’s Terms of Service.

Welcome to the strange world of TikTok paid promotions — you’ll never look at a person’s follower or view count the same way again.

The Insane Reach of TikTok

TikTok is one of the world’s most popular video streaming apps. The app’s traffic numbers are astonishing. Over eighty million people use TikTok every day, and the app has over 138 million active users in the United States. The average user spends 52 minutes per day on the app. Younger users spend even more time on TikTok — as long as 90 minutes per day.

Its potential economic impacts can be massive, too. Entire music careers (see: Lil Nas X) has been launched on TikTok, and brands will pay TikTok influencers with big followings as much as $150,000 for a partnership. Even smaller influencers can bring in thousands of dollars per post by working with brands.

Part of TikTok’s appeal is the power of its algorithm and its lack of reliance on a creator’s existing audience.

Partially because TikTok videos are short and users can thus consume a lot of them — providing TikTok with massive amounts of user behavior data — TikTok’s algorithms are uncannily good at matching users with compelling content.

While a creator may need tens of thousands of followers to get a substantial number of views on an Instagram post, even a brand-new TikTok creator can see a video go mega-viral and rack up millions of views in a few days.

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Brands love this because they can partner with a slew of “micro-influencers” who charge relatively little per TikTok video, rather than having to fork over massive amounts of cash to work with Kim Kardashian or a similarly famous celebrity on a platform like Instagram.

Because of TikTok’s unique algorithm, even content from small, relatively unknown influencers still has the potential to take off if the algorithm blesses it, bringing in massive traffic that raises the brand’s profile on the cheap.

Although followers aren’t as important on TikTok as they are on other platforms, they still do matter. For one thing, brands still use a creator’s follower count as a rough metric for estimating how impactful their TikTok posts are likely to be.

You also need 1,000 followers in order to live stream on TikTok, making this an important hurdle to clear for new accounts. And if you want access to the TikTok Creator Fund — a $200 million pot that pays creators directly for their videos’ views — you need to rack up 10,000 followers.

That got me thinking: my dog Lance is pretty cute.

He’s just as spunky as the celebrity dog influencers I’ve seen on TikTok. Why shouldn’t he have thousands of followers? And assuming the Internet doesn’t immediately recognize his doggy brilliance, is there any way I could legally give him a leg up in his follower count?

Going to the Source

It turns out I didn’t need to look far to find out the answer is a resounding “yes.” There are plenty of third-party companies that will sell you TikTok followers for as little as $0.02 each.

But the issue is that, again, TikTok’s algorithm is smart. If you buy a bunch of follows from random strangers in Latvia, TikTok will quickly find out. Buying followers doesn’t directly violate TikTok’s Terms of Service, but if they realize you’re doing it, they’ll cull your ill-gotten followers, or at least put you in a virtual bin with other sketchy creators and suppress the promotion of your content.

Lance is a classy dog, and I didn’t want him to have to take this route. Luckily, though, there’s an alternative. You can buy high-quality, TOS-compliant followers directly from TikTok.

Why would TikTok sell you followers? Although TikTok’s reach is massive, the company still hasn’t quite figured out how to monetize its colossal user base.

In 2021, TikTok earned $3.88 billion. That’s a fraction of YouTube’s $28.84 billion, and essentially a rounding error compared with Facebook’s $110 billion. The company is hungry for revenue so it can get closer to competing with the majors. And that likely motivates it to offer some unconventional ad options to paying creators.

As with many platforms, creators have the option to pay money to promote their TikTok videos. In running a TikTok campaign, you can select between a variety of goals. These include getting more views on your video or sending viewers to your website. But you can also set gaining “More followers” as the goal of a TikTok paid promotion campaign.

To be clear, running such a campaign doesn’t guarantee that you’ll actually get followers, so technically you’re not really buying them. The company stresses that selecting the “More Followers” option only gives you the ability to “Improve your chances to gain followers, ” not to purchase them outright.

Still, as we’ve established, TikTok’s algorithm is smart and has an intimate knowledge of its users’ preferences and desires. And as a smaller player in a big market, TikTok also has an incentive to hook paying advertisers up with the followers they crave, and thus expand its base of satisfied, paying advertisers.

That, I expected, would make it pretty good at convincing people to follow Lance, provided I threw some money its way to get the algorithm’s incentives aligned with my own. Most importantly, I figured that if I got my followers directly from TikTok, they couldn’t very well turn around and penalize me for the quality of those followers.

Lance the Celebrity Dog

To test out the idea of buying followers directly from TikTok, I started an account for Lance under the handle @lancedog.

I then seeded his account with several videos of Lance being cute. These were quite easy to produce, as Lance performs various photogenic mischief — trying to eat our backyard chickens, sitting on forbidden chairs, attempting feats that land him in a cone of shame, etc — on a regular basis.

To my delight, Lance’s videos immediately got a bit of organic traffic. His first video brought in about 500 views, and subsequent videos racked up around 500 to 700 views without any promotion. Still, Lance’s follower count remained stubbornly low.

And besides, I wasn’t here for slow organic growth — I wanted to see how quickly I could build Lance an audience. I decided to pour a bit of promotional gasoline on the fire.

@lancedog It's Lance the Dog, your new favorite #bichonfrise (sadly in a #coneofshame atm). Follow Lance! #bichon #bichon #bichonsoftiktok ♬ Dramatic - Dave McKay

Running promotions on TikTok is refreshingly easy, especially compared to a complex and nuanced system like Google AdWords. AdWords feels like it requires an econometrics degree to use effectively. TikTok, on the other hand, gives you just three basic options.

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You open one of your TikTok videos in the Promote tab within the TikTok app and then choose “More Views”, “More Website Visits” or “More Followers” as your goal.

You define an audience (I let TikTok choose mine automatically), enter a budget, and launch the campaign. After a brief review period, TikTok starts working its magic and showing your video to interested users.

For my first promotion, I chose a cute video of Lance standing on the kitchen table. I set a budget of $20 and a duration of two days.

The campaign was a smashing success.

For my $20, Lance picked up 320 news followers, 4,400 video views, and 709 likes. Not bad for dropping a single Jackson. My cost worked out to about $0.0625 per follower — only slightly more than I’d pay to buy followers from a potentially sketchy third-party service.

I tried running the same campaign again, but this time Lance only picked up 130 new followers.

Clearly, there are diminishing returns from promoting the same video over and over. TikTok’s algorithm is good, but ultimately it can only find so many people who see a Bichon Frise on the table and think “Yeah, I’d follow that.”

I tried a few more promotions, and Lance’s follower count slowly crept upwards.

Ultimately, though, I really wanted to hit the magic number of 1,000 followers. This felt like a nice, round goal, and would allow Lance to go live if he so chose. To get there, I decided to go for broke and see if I could get to the 1,000 follower number with a single video.

To do this, I recorded Lance and added my own narration in his voice. My family regularly voices our dogs’ inner monologues even when we’re not producing videos for the Internet, so this was easy to do. In the video, I had Lance explain why people should follow his account.

I then ran a promotional campaign for the video with a $100 budget. The campaign was quickly approved, and TikTok started promoting it.

In just five days, Lance quickly soared past the 1,000 follower mark, picking up 613 new followers and almost 30,000 video views.

The video also received 3,400 likes. By the end of my string of campaigns, Lance had gone from zero followers to 1,084. I’d spent $169.99, for a total of around 16 cents per follower. His videos had also been viewed almost 50,000 times. That’s a full stadium’s worth of people watching my Bichon Frise.

Lance was now officially Internet famous.

What I Learned

The biggest lesson that I took away from my celebrity dog experiment was that you absolutely shouldn’t trust peoples’ follower or view counts on social media platforms. It’s easy to look at a minor local celebrity — or even a thought leader in your industry — who has tens of thousands of TikTok or Instagram followers, and to feel the sharp sting of jealously.

“Their posts aren’t even that good!”, you might think. “Why is it that I post awesome, engaging videos and have 100 views, whereas they post four-second clips of their lunch and get 10,000?”

The answer very well might be: they’re buying those followers and views. Especially given the large sums of money that are at stake for major influencers — and the relatively small cost of purchasing followers and driving up views— there’s a huge incentive to bulk up one’s audience with paid promotions.

It’s also shockingly easy to do — if I wanted Lance to amass 10,000 followers instead of 1,000, I could fork over an additional $1,600 and get him there. Although I focused on followers instead of views, getting tens of thousands of views per video would be as easy as selecting “More Views” as my campaign goal and ponying up the right amount of cash. If I was willing to wade into the sketchier corners of the Internet and risk a shunning from TikTok’s algorithm, I could get him past 10,000 for much less — perhaps as little as $200.

In short: don’t judge a social media account by its follower number or the number of views its posts receive. And don’t feel jealous if competing accounts have more followers or views than you. As my experiments clearly show, follower and view counts are easy to tweak and manipulate.

Instead of looking at an account’s followers, you should look instead at its engagement.

How many people comment on the account’s videos, or share them along to others? Do the same accounts seem to come back, again and again, to engage with an account’s content? If you click through on some of an account’s top followers, do they seem real (for example, do they have wide and engaged followerships of their own?)

Again, these things can be manipulated too, but it’s harder to fake shares and comments than followers and views.

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In my own experiment, engagement is where things get trickier to analyze — and where the really compelling questions begin. Yes, I bought Lance over 1,000 followers, most of whom are total strangers, and only found Lance because of my paid promotion.

But the strange thing is that once they found Lance, they’ve been sticking around.

Most of Lance’s followers have continued to follow his account even after my promotions ended. They’ve also taken to liking his videos, and even commenting on them — sometimes from the perspective of their own Bichons.

Artificial, Real Followers

That opens up a compelling question: Does it matter that I bought Lance followers artificially? Or are his followers just as real as followers who find and engage with accounts like his organically?

That’s a tough one to answer. On the one hand, I hate the idea of an elitist, pay-to-play world where you can only succeed on social media by having lots of money to throw around. Giving well-resourced people an advantage in getting attention and engagement feels wrong.

Of course, though, it’s nothing new.

Celebrities (including the furry variety) have always done better when they know someone in the business, or have lots of cash to throw around.

Popular singers often become popular not necessarily because they’re good, but because they have a big label behind them who can afford to ensure that their music gets tons of airtime on top 40s radio, plays in shopping malls, and is otherwise crammed down the public’s collective gullets.

Coca-Cola tastes delicious. But would I really drink it every day if the company never spent a dime on advertising? I hear that Teslas are great cars. But would they sell like hotcakes if Elon Musk wasn’t so damn engaging?

Yes, there’s something that feels strange and wrong about paying for engagement, especially in such a programmatic, obvious way as running a campaign on TikTok and seeing a “Dollars Spent” value displayed right beside “New Followers” and “Total Views.” Yet, at least from my experiments, it appears that even this paid engagement is surprisingly genuine and long-lasting.

This came across in some of the behaviors of Lance’s purchased followers.

One of the best things about buying Lance 1,000 TikTok followers wasn’t watching his follower count creep up — it was seeing all the comments that people left on the videos I paid to promote. “You are just the cutest doggo ever” one user wrote. “You are the cutest dog in the world,” another said. “We will raid you for that animal” another added.

Menacing, but still flattering.

Even though I knew these people had only found Lance because I’d forked over a bunch of cash, their kind words and their enthusiasm for my dog were still gratifying.

So, too, is their continued willingness to engage with the handful of videos of Lance that I’ve posted since my experiment. Sure, I paid these people to find my dog.

In running some additional experiments, I also discovered that not every video can attract followers, even if you try to pay TikTok for them.

Dry, informative videos about business topics that I posted to another channel and promoted picked up almost no followers at all. It seems, then, that people do indeed find Lance uniquely compelling — if not quite compelling enough to find him without some paid help.

Ultimately, my experiment left me with much more complex feelings toward paying for TikTok followers than I’d expected to have.

Yes, Lance probably only has his (admittedly still small) little celebrity corner of the Internet because I bought it for him. Still, my $169.99, combined with the brilliance of TikTok’s algorithm and its reams of data — bought him access to an audience that genuinely seems to enjoy his antics and his content.

Yes, you may have to pay the Internet to discover your dog (or your brand). But once they’ve done so, you may find that the love and attention they express is surprisingly lasting and real.

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Thomas Smith is a writer, photographer, dad of three boys, and content consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is also a trained neuroscientist. Smith writes about topics including social media, home tech, and the brain.

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This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.