Marketers have a lot on their minds when it comes to TikTok these days, from the geopolitical tensions over the app’s supposed ties to the Chinese government to whether they should be funding some of the content on it.
One area they’re not worried about is the pixel, the bit of TikTok code that a marketer places on their site to track whether any of its visitors came from the app, and subsequently what they did once they got there.
It just isn’t a concern for many marketers right now, said Avi Ben-Zvi, vp of paid social at Tinuiti. “They [advertisers] buy into what TikTok is selling in terms of privacy,” he continued. “Their concerns are more centered around, is there a contingency plan in place in case a ban should happen, because TikTok has become paramount to their paid media.”
Normally, a comment like this would’ve been far from contrarian. But these aren’t normal times. TikTok’s data security processes are in the spotlight — given governments’ moves to ban the app, including from government devices, due to security concerns. And CEO Shou Zi Chew in last week’s Congressional hearing wasn’t really able to give any hard guarantees that the app had the necessary safeguards in place to prevent something from going wrong in the future.
And yet marketers aren’t in a tizzy about it. If anything, they’re pragmatic about the current situation. It reminded them that they have a role to play in making an educated decision on what they’re willing to trade off when it comes to privacy versus the value of tools like a pixel. And that’s fine for a lot of marketers. So far, the pixel works in the way it’s supposed to. Marketers haven’t seen evidence of any malfeasance
“I think it’s being blown up as most things are,” said Kaela Green, vp of paid social at Basis Technologies. “I haven’t seen any brands really concerned about the pixel.”
Another marketer who was not authorized to speak to Digiday said something similar: “No concerns about the pixel on our end being discussed so far.”
Furthermore, Tinuit’s Ben-Zvi also noted that while the majority of his agency’s social roster is on TikTok now, nobody’s been talking about pulling the pixel. And he’s not heard any concerns about putting it on either.
That’s not to say marketers like this are lax on the pixel. On the contrary, they asked questions; they knew the use of the pixel could become a vector to massive violation of personal privacy if not properly managed. But more often than not they got those assurances from TikTok from the outset in 2019.
“The concern around pixels in general has usually been from a consumer [data privacy] perspective, but that’s already started to change tremendously because of things like iOS 14, and the type of data that can be collected is nowhere near the level it was in 2019,” said Ben-Zvi. “So the level of consumer data that’s being housed by these pixels is actually less.”
As calm as these marketers are about TikTok’s pixel, there are others for whom the looming prospect that something could or will go wrong at some point with the pixel has been too hard to ignore. In those instances, the marketers tend to be happy to advertise on TikTok, but steer clear of the pixel. In fact, it’s hard to tell whether there’s anything TikTok could do to get them to rethink their decision. The congressional hearing certainly didn’t.
“We still had a new client that we had onboarded and in the last few months that they were either spending on TikTok or they were about to start spending but they still are not putting the pixel on their site,” said Adam Telian, vp of media services at New Engen. “So it’s still a concern.”
The pixel is power, and like any armament, it can be a threat if it gets into the wrong hands, said Dorsten Gerstel, CEO of Perion. “Companies do and will find it difficult to rationalize their own privacy policies with the utilization of the platform with perceived — if not real — privacy risks. The latter point is key.”
To marketers like this, the pixel represents a profound and potentially untenable liability: a mechanism for them to compromise personal data.
Basis Technologies, for example, works with government and political campaigns and nonprofits as well as pharmaceutical and financial brands — all industries that are highly regulated. “Those ones are always going to be more cautious about the pixel,” said Green. “They have to be on their Ps and Qs, because something could go wrong and the business could be implicated.”
That’s despite the fact that there’s no certifiable proof that using TikTok’s pixel will do this — at least not yet. As explained by a TikTok spokesperson, “Like other platforms, the data we receive from advertisers is used to improve the effectiveness of our advertising services. Our terms instruct advertisers not to share certain data with us, and we continuously work with our partners to avoid inadvertent transmission of such data.”
Nevertheless, marketers have reason to be cautious.
Tracking pixels, as popular as they are for marketers, do come with risks. For starters, they’re designed to collect data surreptitiously, which can lead to violations of privacy regulations as well as put companies on a collision course with privacy regulators if not properly managed. Get it wrong, and a misconfigured pixel could send data to an unauthorized third party. It’s a scary thought for marketers who are increasingly trying to own the relationship with their customers and serve as trusted stewards of their data.
This has been brought into sharp focus a couple of times recently. Last November, it was revealed that Meta’s pixel was scraping health data from hospital sites. The teams responsible for overseeing those trackers were not aware this was happening. More recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that more than two dozen state governments had the tracker installed on their sites, including in some states where the app had been banned by the government. The worry being that while the app was banned in those states, the tracker could still be used to inadvertently share data with the app.