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The Guide to the TikTok Creator Economy

Keith O’Brien
October 7, 2021

Written by Keith O'Brien & Max Kalehoff | Q4 2021

A blueprint for successful sponsored TikTok videos

An independent study on creative performance and audience attention based on creator styles, creator popularity, product placement, and branding Q4 2021


TikTok has evolved from a viral phenomenon to a big business, for brands and creators alike. With the introduction of the TikTok Creator Marketplace, brands have a low-friction way to identify and partner with creators to activate sponsored content and marketing campaigns.

As TikTok said at its recent TikTok World event, the creator marketplace makes it easier for brands to discover and activate creators. Considering Tiktok has said that creator-led videos can be twice as effective as standard ads, brands will only increasingly look to activate creators versus repurposing their own content from other channels.

The most popular creators on the platform can make millions of dollars a year by producing sponsored videos. But what types of advertising will work on a platform that prioritizes creativity, authenticity, and spontaneity? How long should videos be? How overt should the product messaging or visibility be? And are the most popular TikTok users the best drivers of attention?

As advertisers rush headfirst into this burgeoning medium, Realeyes examined 12 TikTok creators across four follower tiers to see what best moved their audiences against the critical outcome of attention and emotional impact.

This follows our previous TikTok research that found TikTok user-generated videos and brand videos on TikTok, scores outperform competitive platforms’ ads in Realeyes Quality Score and ability to encode emotion. The result is early, yet foundational insight into how creators and brands perform together on the platform.

Key Findings

  • The two TikTok creators with the highest aggregate collective Realeyes Quality Scores, 5.6 and 5.3, had 11 million and 540K followers, respectively, scoring better than creators with 50+ million followers, demonstrating value in working with creators with followings of all sizes.
  • The highest Creative Efficiency (60%) was observed when product packaging was present between 25% and 50% of the video. Yet, very low Creative Efficiency (30%) was observed when the brand was mentioned in more than 25% of the video, suggesting a formula for positive brand activation.*
  • Most videos that received the top Realeyes Quality Score of 7 featured spontaneous and minimalistic production, suggesting brands should produce content and partner with creators that favor simplicity over heavy polish.
  • Videos longer than 40 seconds saw diminishing returns of sustained emotional response.

*  Creative Efficiency is the extent that a video creative can deliver 1,000 attentive exposures at a cost on par with the cost of 1,000 paid media impressions

Study Design

The study covered 12 creators spread across four tiers of followers:

Tier 1 – 0 < 1M
Tier 2 – 1M – 10M
Tier 3 – 10M – 50M
Tier 4 – >50M

We tested three branded or sponsored videos per creator for a total of 36 videos, against an average of 150 viewers representative of the U.S. general population. We chose creators based on the minimum frequency of branded content they created, their inclusion in the creator marketplace, and the general gender/age makeup of their audiences (emphasizing creators whose followers were close to the general population).

We then coded for every second the presence of a human, product packaging, and the product itself, and whether the human mentioned the brand/product or interacted with it.

Videos ranged in length from 10 seconds to 58 seconds, and covered a mix of humor, music, viral, and overly promotional.

We analyzed three branded videos from 12 creators across 4 follower tiers*

Follower counts as of August 12, 2021

Measures of Attention Quality in Video Content

Quality Score is reported on a scale of 0-10 and measures a video’s ability to perform in market. It includes three critical elements:
  1. Capture: Ability to capture audience attention in the first seconds.
  2. Retain: Ability to retain the audience throughout the ad.
  3. Encode: Ability to encode the brand message into the brain through emotional engagement.


Realeyes uses front-facing cameras, in a privacy-safe manner to measure naturally occurring human response as opt-in viewers watch the sponsored videos from their PCs, laptops, mobile phones, and tablets. This study included an average of 155 participant viewers (representing general population) per video, for a total of 6,528 views.

The Realeyes Quality Score used in this study is part of Realeyes’ flagship PreView product, a content intelligence tool for predicting and managing attention in advertising. PreView enables advertisers to reduce media waste by predicting and eliminating low-performing video creative and boosting strong attentive creative. PreView has achieved up to 30% performance gains and 9X return of investment based on an ROI model involving 51 actual consumer goods ads.

Popularity Does Not Guarantee Attention

Advertising has historically focused on raw reach from the early days of sponsoring a TV show in the 1950s to partnering with Kim Kardashian for an Instagram post. The more people a medium can reach, the more valuable the ad buy. TikTok is no different. Popular creators can be in high demand for brand partnerships.

Some enthusiastic and active TikTok creators have quickly amassed millions of followers, with some exceeding 100M+. But we found that having the most followers does not guarantee a high emotional response to content. The most popular TikTok creators we analyzed (all with more than 50M followers) did not perform as highly in key metrics as those in the 1M-10M and 10M-50M follower range. The highest Realeyes Quality Score any video received was 7.

Abiud Sando, with 542K followers, was the TikTok creator with the best aggregate Realeyes Quality Score. Abiud wore a FedEx uniform and “delivered” packages in his videos while dancing to music. His unique dance style, called the #SandoTwist, went viral and led to broadcast media hits. He has created sponsored content for Job Case and the Coldest Water.

Creator tiers 2 and 3 by audience, outperformed tier 1 according to Realeyes Quality Score

Aydon Holley (11.2M followers) was the only TikTok creator with two videos that achieved a Realeyes Quality Score of 7. Aydon’s video style involves a lot of acrobatic stunts (such as flips and tumbles). He has created sponsored videos for Sunny D and Cash App.

BillyVSCO performed the third-best in terms of Realeyes Quality Score (5). BillyVSCO’s daughters also star in the videos, which usually involve parenting advice or hijinks between the siblings and parent, but always with a positive message.

These were the only creators who had a 5-or-above aggregate Realeyes Quality Score. 

On the other hand, no video by a creator with over 50M followers had a Realeyes Quality Score of 7 or above. Charli D’Amelio, considered by many to be the face of TikTok with over 120 million followers, had the third-highest retain score. Yet her Realeyes Quality Score ranked in the bottom 2/3rd of creators, perhaps due to the difficulties of creating content that appeals to many people.

Abiud significantly outperformed the other creators with under one million followers, who struggled to produce high emotional responses from their content. This is likely due to their audience being niche or those creators being new to the platform.

Likes & Comments Correlate With Attention – Not Shares

For many video platforms, engagements have a correlative relationship with emotional response and attention. For many TikTok creators, likes and comments significantly correlated with the Quality Scores, Retain, Encode, and Creative Efficiency.

However, shares showed a negative correlation on all four of these metrics (significant at 0.05). This is mostly unique to TikTok – as shares usually have a positive effect on other video platforms

For many video platforms, engagements have a correlative relationship with emotional response and attention. For many TikTok creators, likes and comments significantly affected the Realeyes Quality Scores, Retain, Encode, and Creative Efficiency.

However, shares showed a negative correlation on all 4 of these metrics (significant at 0.05). 

This means more sharing correlated with lower Realeyes Quality Scores. This is mostly unique to TikTok – as shares usually have a positive effect on other video platforms.

Which Types of Videos Drove Attention

The two creators that had the highest aggregate Realeyes Quality Score produced dance- or acrobatic-focused videos. This is not surprising, given TikTok’s roots as a platform for music- and dance-driven content.

Minimal Production Retains Attention

While brands may instinctively seek out creators with the most polished production because it is similar to their own content, our findings suggest that the right partner’s content may have a more minimalistic production style.

Shorter Videos Encode Attention

TikTok is best considered a short form entertainment medium that connects. People quickly scroll through the app with a flick of a thumb, and creators and brands need to capture attention quickly. 

Encode, the ability for brand messaging to create emotional response and memorability, significantly decreases in videos longer than 40 seconds.

TikTok now allows creators to record and post videos of up to three minutes, both to give creators more of a broader palette to create and likely to capture the DIY video market popular elsewhere that requires more video time. 

While this may produce some cinematic content that explores greater creativity, our findings show that brands would be better suited to work with creators on short videos for the immediate future. 

Audience retention for sub-20-second videos was 23%, while the retention of longer videos was below 17%.  

The nine videos with the highest Realeyes Quality Scores lasted an average of 26 seconds. Videos with a Quality Score of 1 – 3 were longer, at an average of 31 seconds.

Best Practice for Successful Brand Immersion

Like every video platform, TikTok must balance its revenue goals with the organic content that made it such a popular and high-growth app. But it is not a zero-sum game. Luckily, TikTok users are an incredibly creative group who can seamlessly weave a brand story into content that remains true to their personal brands. 

And yet, the videos we studied varied widely in how they included the sponsor, whether they showed products on the screen and how and whether the creator interacted with the product. It is clear that there is no one format for how to do sponsored videos.

We’ve analyzed which branded content performed the best to identify key lessons for creators and brands alike. For example:

Attributes of All Videos

  • There was a product presence in 90% of the analyzed videos
  • There was a Brand / Logo presence in 44% of the videos
  • There was Product packaging in 45% of videos
  • Humans mentioned the brand in 64% of videos

What Worked & What Didn’t

  • Having a human presence in scenes, on average, increased retention by 17% and is especially important within the first second
  • Product packaging and product/human interaction decreased the retention by 8% in the first second
  • We observed the highest Creative Efficiency (60%) when product packaging was present during 25% to 50% of the video.
  • There was a very low Creative Efficiency (30%) when creators mentioned the brand in more than 25% of the video run-time.


Our study reveals specific ways brands can maximize their marketing budgets on TikTok. Here are some of the most important findings.

Many Followers Does Not Guarantee Impact

Our study found TikTok creators producing higher Quality Score than the most popular TikTok creators. You can find up-and-coming creators who will produce greater attention and emotional engagement to your brand than those with 50-to 100-million-plus followers. Your brand campaign can grow with them as they go viral and grow their audience.

Find Creators With an Aesthetic That Matches Your Brand

Creators that embrace minimal production performed better in our study than those with advanced camera tricks and optical illusions. Remember TikTok is a unique medium, and its users are looking for something different than other video platforms.

Patterns of Brand Inclusion Emerging in this Study

It is better to include product packaging than mentioning the brand. We found that having product packaging present in the video between 25% and 50% of the time produced a Creative Efficiency score of 60%. Creative Efficiency is the extent that a video creative can deliver 1,000 attentive exposures at a cost on par with the cost of 1,000 paid media impressions. Yet, we observed very low Creative Efficiency (30%) when the brand was mentioned in more than 25% of the video, suggesting a formula for positive brand activation.


While reach is an important dimension, the data underscores that all reach is not equal. This is especially true for outcomes of attention and emotional engagement.

Companies can always pay for reach. But for those who care about creative effectiveness and business outcomes, they can find it with the right creators on TikTok and the right partner.

Finally, while this study of 12 creators reveals generalizable insights, it still is only a subset of the larger TikTok creator universe. This leaves open a massive opportunity to continue researching TikTok in all its richness. We look forward to building on this foundational learning to help creators and marketers build and thrive on top of the TikTok platform.

Creator Followers Quality Score Videos
Creator_charlie @charliedamelio >50M three-dots-vertical copy Takis Morphe Linktree
Creator_abiud @spencerx >50M three-dots-vertical copy Snake Eyes Little Caesars Chipotle
Creator_zachking @zachking >50M three-dots-vertical copy PlayStation Amazon Alexa Lunchables
Creator_alex_stemp @alex.stemp 10M-50M three-dots-vertical copy 2 Forever 21 Fortnite Amtrak
Creator_aydon @aydonholley 10M-50M three-dots-vertical copy 2 Sunny D Sunny D Cash App
Creator_cheeky @cheekyBoyos 10M-50M three-dots-vertical copy 2 Blue Diamond Blue Diamond Cash App
Creator_billy @billyvsco 1M-10M three-dots-vertical copy 2 Cash App Raising Cane's Narwal
Creator_.diygmar @dougmar 1M-10M three-dots-vertical copy 3 Gummi Fun Mix ESPN Pizza Hut
Creator_prince @princezee 1M-10M three-dots-vertical copy 2 bang Cash App Cash App
Creator_spencerx @abiud_sando <1M three-dots-vertical copy 3 Jobcase Jobcase Coldest Water
Creator_chris @chrisdaviswors <1M three-dots-vertical copy Bazaart Shortly AI WiseStamp
Creator_thattallfamily @thattallfamily <1M three-dots-vertical copy Itouch Wearables General Mills Have It Tall

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