Brands may be worried about negative feedback, but disabling the feature might do more harm than good
Sisters Niki and Ritika Shamdasani founded Sani, an Indian and South-Asian inspired fashion line, in 2017.
The brand’s TikTok, which has over 120,000 followers and 2.9 million likes across its videos, has attracted a strong community on the app. When consumers want to ask questions, offer feedback or let the founders know when something about their brand needs to change, they head to the comment section.
“The TikTok comment section is gold,” said co-founder Niki Shamdasani. “It’s allowed us to think about absolutely everything, from our product design to how we market and everything in between.”
When the Shamdasanis received feedback via TikTok comments in February that the sizing of their clothing wasn’t inclusive enough, for example, they launched a casting call for a new campaign and began working on expanding their size range.
According to the Shamdasanis, the comment section has fostered the type of community that could only ever be replicated by in-person engagements. But while comments on Sani’s posts have bolstered the account’s virality, many other brands are worried about brand safety and have opted to disable the feature entirely. On a relatively new platform that is saturated with Gen Z users who are quick to voice opinions on just about anything, these brands are wrestling with whether to invite consumers to freely engage or to curb the conversation entirely.
Fostering community and transparency
Sustainable toothpaste brand Bite enables comments on both paid and sponsored posts. User engagement ranges from “I’m not rich” and “Imma pass” to comments from loyal fans who correct users who make inaccurate statements.
According to co-founder Asher Hunt, commenters were quick to assume Bite products were packaged with plastic instead of glass, a misconception that is usually cleared up by its client base.
“We try to stay on top of TikTok comments, but our customers are often beating us to the punch,” said Hunt. “There are a lot of people that want to support our mission and it’s been cool to see that type of affinity to the brand.”
Before joining TikTok, Bite was using the comment section on Facebook and Instagram posts to reflect on its business practices. After receiving feedback on these platforms about the environmental effects of palm oil, Bite conducted more research and ultimately decided to remove the ingredient.
“At Bite, the majority of how we’ve made our decisions is from listening to our customers and our customers come from social,” said Hunt.
Another brand reaping insights from TikTok comments is streaming service Tubi, which launched a campaign in June that brought back popular shows from the 1990s and 2000s, like Dawson’s Creek and Degrassi. The brand paid close attention to the comment section and discovered a debate between users: some were calling Tubi the “new Netflix” and embracing its free streaming model, while others were less enthusiastic or unfamiliar with the platform.
“All comments are direct learnings and an authentic way to understand our impact, immediately allowing us to optimize as we move forward,” said svp of marketing Natalie Bastian.
Enabling productive conversations
Advertisers that have opted against an open comment section come from a variety of industries and include big names like Amazon, DoorDash and Imperfect Foods; they all declined to comment on their strategies.
According to Mae Karkowski, CEO and co-founder of influencer marketing agency Obviously, many brands are struggling to decide what route to take in the “relatively new territory” of social advertising.
“It’s a little grey,” she added. “The same thing that makes you go viral is the thing that could also give you some potentially negative backlash if you’re not executing in a strategic way.”
But a brand’s decision to disable comments could also simply reflect its internal resources—or lack thereof.
Moderating the comment section has been a huge component of Daniella Levy’s responsibilities on TikTok. Levy is the co-founder and CEO of Happy V, a women’s health brand that has gone viral on TikTok for its educational videos. As a medical company, addressing questions and concerns is crucial to the brand’s integrity, said Levy.
“We really have to be on top of monitoring our comments and we try to respond to every single person thoroughly,” she said.
To that end, Karkowski noted the decision is sometimes “more tactical than it is strategic,” as brands don’t have the bandwidth or don’t want employees to spend their time replying to every user’s concerns.
“Some people have really vocal opinions about these brands, so they say, ‘If we’re left without a plan, this dialogue can become a runaway train’,” she said.
Awaiting third-party moderation tools
Erik Swain, president of the social media comment moderation tool Respondology, attributed the trend of brands disabling the comment section to lack of integration with third-party moderation tools often used by brands on Facebook and Instagram.
In March, TikTok rolled out new filters for both business and personal accounts to limit damaging comments. The “Filter All Comments” feature allows account owners to only display the comments they approve and the “Rethink” feature gives users a notice their comment may not adhere to the platform’s community guidelines.
Meanwhile, Respondology has been working with the platform to develop a plugin to fill this gap.
According to Swain, a disabled comment section signals to the consumer the brand is “defensive and insecure.”
“It’s kind of like speaking to someone and not letting them speak back to you, which no one likes as a human,” he said. “Our clients want negative feedback and not just an account of sunshine and rainbows, but we draw the line when it becomes useless, toxic or abusive.”
But brands may also have a financial incentive to enabling comments: Respondology conducted a study with ecommerce company BlendJet in February of 2020 and found a 34% increase in return on advertising spend when the comment moderation tool was used.
Navigating best practices
Ryan Detert is the CEO of Influential, a platform that specializes in influencer marketing. He recognized the comments that receive the most likes on an ad, which are placed at the top of the thread, are likely “the funniest and most subversive.” While Detert understands why some brands may want to limit the chances of a “bad PR moment,” he still does not recommend it as a strategy.
“The more engagement that happens, the more viral that video becomes,” he said. “They may be working with an influencer and don’t want the conversation to just be about the influencer themselves, but they are actually hurting virality by trying to keep the focus on the brand.”
Kevin Brown, chief marketing officer at digital payment platform Onbe, agreed banning two-way communication on social media sites like TikTok is a lost opportunity to connect with both existing and potential customers in valuable ways.
“While every marketer loves reading glowing reviews, it’s the ‘constructive’ comments that often spur innovation,” he said.