While the short-form video app TikTok offers relatively few ways for its creators to make money, the app's top stars have found a variety of means to earn a living from their large followings.
TikTok creators can earn big paychecks by doing brand deals, paid song integrations, app marketing, merchandising, and pushing product sales for storefronts on other websites like Etsy and Depop.
We broke down the seven main ways influencers on TikTok can earn money.
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TikTok is still in the early stages of releasing features that allow its creators to make money.
Unlike competitors like YouTube and Facebook that run advertising alongside videos and share revenue with creators, TikTok's built-in monetization features remain relatively limited.
The company offers a "virtual gifts" feature that allows creators to earn money while livestreaming by receiving digital "gifts" from fans that can be converted into cash. It built a creator marketplace platform to help marketers connect with its top stars for potential brand deals. And TikTok announced in July that it's setting aside $200 million (and up to $1 billion over three years) to pay influencers who are "seeking opportunities to foster a livelihood through their innovative content."
But many creators hoping to earn a living from TikTok don't rely on the app's built-in monetization features, turning instead to a variety of alternative revenue streams like paid song integrations, brand deals, app marketing, merchandise, and promoting product sales on other websites like Etsy and Depop. And often with the help of a manager or agent, creators land lucrative sponsorship deals with major brands like American Eagle or Chipotle.
The top TikTok creators are earning huge paychecks. On Thursday, Forbes released a ranking of the top-earning TikTok stars in the last year, with Addison Rae Easterling taking the top spot at $5 million, followed by Charli D'Amelio at $4 million.
Business Insider spoke with influencers across a variety of content categories to learn how they're making money on the app.
Here are the seven ways that creators are generating revenue through their TikTok accounts:Music marketing (song integrations)
TikTok has become a major promotional tool for the music industry.
Songs can take off on TikTok by accident, as with the sudden surge in popularity of Matthew Wilder's 1983 hit "Break My Stride" earlier this year. In other instances, marketers or artists try to make songs trend by tapping into existing TikTok fads, creating original songs, or adapting tracks for TikTok's short-video format and hiring influencers to promote them.
For TikTok influencers, promoting songs can be a reliable (and quick) way to earn extra income from the app.
"The biggest marketplace on TikTok is music sponsored posts," TikTok creator Jack Innanen said. "I don't do dance videos, and I don't do videos with music, so I miss out on that entire market."
Ariell Nicholas Yahid, a talent manager at the TikTok-focused talent-management upstart the Fuel Injector, said his company would facilitate four to five paid song integrations a week for the company's TikTok creators.
"It seems like a lot, but in the music industry there's about 100 songs a week, " Yahid said. "Every music label, every record label, they have a budget now for TikTok because it's becoming so huge."
The starting rate for a song integration is in the low hundreds of dollars but can go well above $5,000 for a single post, industry insiders said.
Read more on TikTok music marketing:
TikTok influencers are getting paid thousands of dollars to promote songs, as the app becomes a major force in the music industry
How a media company that turns songs into TikTok trends helped 'Sunday Best' appear in over 20 million videos and become a global hit on Billboard and Spotify
Influencers and marketers told Business Insider that a single TikTok app promotion can generate tens of thousands of dollars in revenue for a creator.
"I started doing apps around four weeks ago, and it was a gamechanger," said Reagan Yorke, a 19-year-old college student who was recently paid tens of thousands of dollars to promote the group video chat app Bunch to her 2.5 million TikTok followers.
Yorke worked with the app-marketing company Yoke, which provided her with a tracking link to add to her TikTok bio that would give her credit for any app installs she drove from her account. On June 14, she posted a video promoting Bunch to her followers, and the video took off, driving 11.5 million video views, 2.5 million likes, and 531,000 shares to date.
"I literally posted it right before I went to sleep," Yorke said. "I woke up the next day and I had like $20,000 in my account, so I was just like, is this real?"
Read more about app marketing on TikTok:
TikTok influencers say they're making tens of thousands of dollars by promoting apps in videos: 'There's not really a limit on how much you can earn'
Working with a brand on sponsored content
Influencers can land sponsorships through TikTok's monetization team (which reaches out to creators), using a brand or agency, or from a record label. For an official TikTok campaign, such as a "Hashtag Challenge," TikTok will provide the sponsorship to the creator directly.
TikTok creator Cosette Rinab (2 million TikTok followers) told Business Insider in January that she earns most of her revenue through sponsored posts on TikTok.
Rinab has landed sponsorships with brands like Bumble, Hollister, and Universal, and there are also some management firms, like Whalar Stars and Amp Studios, that help creators land deals and opportunities.
In the beginning, Rinab managed her TikTok business on her own. Now she is represented by the talent agency CAA.
"At the end of the day, they are paying for a commercial to be produced and posted on the page," she said. "It's really important to know the value in that and know what they are getting out of it, and how your time should be compensated."
David White, the head of influencer management at Whalar Stars, told Business Insider in January that the factors considered when pricing a TikTok campaign generally are the creator's audience size, commercial licensing, brand exclusivity, and campaign scope.
He said an audio integration for a record label was priced significantly less than an official brand sponsorship.
Read more on sponsorships:
A college TikTok influencer with 1.6 million followers explains how much money she makes — and her 3 main sources of income
How a pair of 30-year-old video producers turned TikTok from a side gig to their main job
Selling branded merchandise and apparel
For some top creators, especially those whose content is not particularly friendly to advertisers, merch has become a main source of revenue.
On TikTok, users can link to things on their profile page, like a website that will direct followers to buy their branded products.
TikTok star Addison Rae Easterling (54 million TikTok followers) sells her merchandise with the popular influencer ecommerce company Fanjoy, which handles merch sales for top creators like Jake Paul, David Dobrik, and Tana Mongeau.
Selling merch is a popular revenue stream for top creators, often through companies like Fanjoy, Killer Merch, and Teespring.
The current coronavirus pandemic has also shown how direct sales can stabilize an influencer's income in a time when advertising revenue decreases, and brands cancel influencer-marketing campaigns or put projects on hold.
Merch sales have actually increased since the pandemic, Chris Vaccarino, CEO and founder of Fanjoy, told Business Insider in April.
Aside from clothing, perfume launches — which have been a staple among Hollywood celebrities and performers like Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande — have also been a popular product for some influencers, like Tana Mongeau and twin-influencers Ethan and Grayson Dolan.
Read more on merch:
Inside the rise of Fanjoy, from selling music T-shirts to dominating influencer merchandise with YouTube star clients like David Dobrik and Jake Paul
Promoting sales for a storefront on another platform like Etsy or Depop
Artists, clothing resellers, and even slime makers have found that their TikTok accounts can be a key tool for driving sales on their storefronts on other platforms like Depop, Poshmark, and Etsy.
Graphic artist and animator Annie Morcos said she started taking TikTok seriously in January when one of her videos attracted 3 million likes and 18 million views. The Los Angeles-based creator added her Etsy shop name to her TikTok bio so her hundreds of thousands of followers would know where they could buy her art.
"I really didn't sell a lot of my artwork before, and in the past two months, all my art on my Etsy is flying," she said. "Everybody that follows me on TikTok wants a piece of my work."
Emma Rogue, a Depop clothing reseller, posted a video of her packaging up her recent sales and went viral within a few days with over 6 million views.
"The amount of sales that I got from that — it was just crazy," she said. "TikTok is definitely a huge driver and that's why I'm keeping up with TikTok."
Rogue made over $7,600 in sales that one week when her TikTok went viral and now she makes between $7,000 and $8,000 in sales each month (before she was making $3,000 to $4,000 a month).
Read more about how TikTok creators are driving sales off-platform:
How Instagram and TikTok are becoming powerful tools to help Poshmark clothing resellers drive sales
How artists are using TikTok to drive thousands of dollars in sales and find new customers
A 15-year-old 'slime' influencer saw his sales and follower count soar after sending TikTok star Addison Rae samples of his homemade products
Using affiliate marketing to get a cut of sales driven to retailers
TikTok has a feature that allows users to include a link on their profile page and let followers click off the platform. With this feature, creators can then earn money from things like affiliate links.
When it comes to affiliate marketing, influencers typically earn a rate anywhere between 1% and 20%. Retail programs generally offer a lower rate, and tech programs run higher, according to industry professionals. There are a number of factors that play into the percentage.
Most affiliate programs are run on the same basic principles: members apply and once they are accepted they are granted access to brands and can earn a commission off of every sale made through their personalized links. Some networks offer varying rates, tools (like shoppable apps or special tracking information), and each network has specific qualifications to apply.
But linking on TikTok is not as effective as other platforms like YouTube or Instagram, because users can only add one link to their profile and they cannot include hyperlinks within a video description or comment, like on YouTube.
Read more on affiliate marketing:
The top 11 affiliate marketing networks that Instagram and YouTube influencers can use to get a cut of sales from products their followers buy
Inside Amazon's efforts to be a major player in the influencer business, from affiliate commissions to livestreaming
Sending personalized video messages to fans through Cameo
The celebrity shout-out app Cameo lets people buy personalized video messages from their favorite celebrities, athletes, and influencers.
TikToker Tyler Bott, known as TyBott (2.5 million followers), charges $25 per video message through Cameo, where he sends fans short videos of him saying things like happy birthday.
Bott posts comedy videos on TikTok and he also sells merch and has a YouTube channel. He launched his TikTok account in 2018.
Other influencers who have flocked to Cameo include comedy YouTuber Cody Ko (5 million subscribers), TikTok star Lauren Godwin (20 million followers), and YouTube creator Lizzy Capri (5 million subscribers).
Read more on Cameo:
The CEO of Cameo, which lets you buy personalized video messages from celebs, talks global expansion plans and trying to get politicians on the platform