It’s no exaggeration to say that TikTok is the fastest growing social media platform of all time. In September, the organization announced that it had surpassed one billion monthly active users, hitting that milestone years earlier than its Facebook and Instagram predecessors. In response, marketing departments are shifting more dollars into the platform especially after a recent study revealed that users are 92% more likely to make a purchase based on something they saw on TikTok.
At the heart of this growth is one of TikTok’s most influential executives, Sofia Hernandez. An ad industry veteran, she was recently promoted to the Global Head of Business Marketing, which means she spends a lot of her time helping marketers find fresh, creative new ways to connect brands with the platform’s increasing user base. I spoke to Hernandez about TikTok’s explosive growth, how marketers can make the most of the platform, and how she promotes inclusivity across the board from product updates to company culture.
Amy Shoenthal: You just got a pretty big promotion, congratulations! Now that you’re the Global Head of Business Marketing at TikTok (her previous role was focused on North America only), what are you hoping to accomplish?
Sofia Hernandez: One of the most exciting things about moving into this role is bringing to life this amazing platform globally. Creators are the lifeblood of TikTok and to start to highlight them in places like Asia and the Middle East excites me the most.
I’m finding that some creators are global already, like Khaby. There are so many other Khabys out there, or someone like Angry Reactions, who says nice things into the camera while yelling, which is this unexpected juxtaposition. How will people welcome him across the world?
Shoenthal: TikTok just hit one billion monthly users, with over 100 million in the US alone. Why do you think the platform’s growth has continued to skyrocket since launch?
Hernandez: There is nothing like TikTok. People don’t check it, they watch it. It’s more entertainment than social media. People spend a movie’s length of time per day on our platform. It’s opened the door to everyday people just showing up and being creative, whether they’re sending a message, painting a portrait, or doing a magic trick. It’s not highly produced, it’s very raw and very real.
We’re at a point in society where people want realness. It’s not about the fancy car and the FOMO. It’s about connection and co-creation. That’s the foundation of how people engage on TikTok.
Shoenthal: Facebook and Instagram have recently come under fire for the mental health impact their content can have on body image, specifically among teenage girls. How are you addressing that on TikTok?
Hernandez: I can talk about how we’re pushing brands to have those conversations. Clinique has a campaign called “Zit Happens,” which was a very real and raw exposure to women accepting their skin the way it is. Obviously they want to take care of it and improve it but it’s not about getting clear skin or having perfectly smooth skin. I love that brands are leaning into the realness of the platform.
Koho is a Canadian financial institution who partnered with Kyne, a Filipino drag queen, to talk about financial health. It’s these unexpected partnerships and pairings that I think can only happen on TikTok. It’s forcing brands to show up in a really authentic way similar to how creators show up.
For some it’s a challenge, for some it’s an opportunity.
Shoenthal: Talk to me about last month’s TikTok World event. You had some pretty big announcements, any that you’re particularly excited about?
Hernandez: Brands are hungry for more e-commerce capabilities. I always have to remind brands that we’re only two years old! That said, we’re eagerly and actively building products that will help brands find ways to make entertainment shoppable.
92% of TikTokers said they take action after watching a TikTok video, whether it’s buying, searching or further researching. People will say, I watched something, I learned something, I laughed. We’re talking to people’s hearts, not just their minds. The heart guides the mind.
Shoenthal: You have been described by your colleagues as, “someone who leads with empathy and empowers women not only in their careers but in their personal lives as well.” Are there any specific examples or general principles that illustrate how you’re doing that so the rest of us can follow suit?
Hernandez: I could talk about this forever because this is what I’m so passionate about at my core. I started working in Corporate America in the early 2000’s and I never saw anyone who looked like me in senior level positions. When I did, it always felt like they weren’t genuinely at the table as themselves, but playing a part.
For the first half of my career I did the same thing. I thought that’s how you moved up the ladder. And it effing sucks to not be yourself. Eventually I started challenging myself as I decided to be more of an advocate. I was very authentic in how I behaved as a leader, and how I showed up as a female leader. I spent most of my career in advertising. The advertising industry still struggles to be a diverse environment.
Now I say to everyone on my team, you should bring your whole self to the table and you don’t have to code-switch. The more we do this, the more these environments will start to shift. I meet with every single person on my team and I tell them that this is an environment where people can be themselves.
Shoenthal: How many people are on your team?
Hernandez: There are 220 people on my current team. So far, I have met with 140 of them and am scheduling one-on-ones with the rest.
Shoenthal: TikTok is best known for the way it elevates creators. You recently launched the creator marketplace. Can you explain what exactly that is, and how it differs from what other social platforms have done?
Hernandez: Creator marketplace has actually been around for awhile, but over the past year we have been focused on improving the experience. It’s a self-service platform where brands can connect with creators. One of the things I’m really proud of is that 60% of the creators we recommend are diverse. This is our way to encourage and inspire marketers to think bigger. Comcast just did a #TeamofTomorrow challenge where they partnered with the Rollettes, a group of wheelchair bound women who do really cool dance routines.
Influencer marketing in the past was, ‘here’s a script, here’s a coke can, please read the script and hold up the can to the screen.’ The best partnerships are when brands allow creators to do their thing. It’s so important that we build those capabilities into the platform so it’s easier for marketers to collaborate. A marketer can search for videos mentioning their brand, which is a great way to find creators who love their products. It’s a win for creators too, because they all have brands they love and adore. To be able to do their thing for brands they love is magic.
Shoenthal: To that point, a recent blog post following TikTok World stated, “When brands join TikTok, we tell them to think like marketers and act like creators.” Can you elaborate on that? What about smaller brands without big marketing budgets?
Hernandez: I think it goes back to what makes TikTok TikTok. Marketers care about their bottom line. But we’ve gotten so far into the realm of data-driven ROI and programmatic that it’s time to come back to creativity. That’s essentially what creators are about. We don’t want brands to talk at people. We want them to engage with people. Get in the comments. There’s such an amazing way brands can be humanized on this platform by behaving the way creators are behaving.
Shoenthal: What’s one thing that surprised you when you started in your current role?
Hernandez: I’m so impressed with how TikTok really reflects its’ mission of inspiring people from the platform to the product to our corporate culture. It’s a beautiful thing to feel like the place you work and the product you’re putting out into the world inspires creativity and joy.
Shoenthal: What are you working on right now that you’re most excited about?
Hernandez: I’m so excited about this new program called Culture Drivers. I wanted to educate marketers in a very fun TikTok way on how to partner with creators. We’re highlighting 14 marketer and creator partnerships in a visual series shot by Carlos “Kaito” Araujo. The marketers and creators got together to talk about the difficulties they endured or how they chose each other as partners. It’s very authentic and very real. You might hear things like, ‘we were scared to reach out to this creator because we weren’t sure if they would fit our brand image.’ And the creators will say how when they saw the first draft of the script they weren’t sure about it because it felt forced.
It really answers those questions in the back of marketers’ and creators’ minds about how to partner together on this new thing called TikTok in such an amazing and inspiring way.