Bria Jones Talks TikTok and How the App Opens Up New Opportunities for Black Creators
For the past few years, Instagram has dominated most of our recreational screen time but there’s a new(ish) kid in town vying for our attention — TikTok. While the app has been dismissed as that “teen” or “dancing” platform by many, it’s the most downloaded app in the Apple store with 1.5 billion downloads. Many creatives have capitalized on the growing popularity of the platform and fashion influencer Bria Jones is one of them. Within a few months, the Kansas City-based creator has grown her following to over 140,000 and become one of the more recognized faces on the app.
I spoke to Jones about her meteoric success, what it’s like to be a black creator on social media and her plans for 2020. If you’ve ever wondered what TikTok is all about, Jones provides her personal overview.
Who is Bria Jones? Tell me about yourself and your online persona.
Bria Jones: I started my Instagram in 2018 and went fulltime on the platform after about a year. Creating content is my passion — I didn’t consider myself a fashion girl but I loved learning about fashion and sharing affordable pieces. I was pretty consistent and also had a blog going, but I kept hearing rumblings about TikTok. I follow Gary Vee and he said it’s the next big thing. I think of him as a prophet for a lot of things business, so I got the app and was just eyeballing it thinking, wow this is the weirdest app I’ve ever seen. I have really young siblings who had told me about it. My sister is 12 and brother who is 17 had come to stay with me one summer so we downloaded it and didn’t do anything. One day when I had time to make a video I uploaded something. I had no followers and just made a video, closed the app, came back and it had gone viral without me trying at all. I put in a few minutes of thought and was able to get so much traction. I realized the app was very powerful and decided to invest time in it. I just kept hitting viral videos every now and then and my numbers would shoot up. I was just showing up as myself and it felt really good getting rewarded for that. More recently I got really consistent and figured out what works for me, and now I have over 100,000 followers.
What was your first video that went viral?
It was a video about things not to say to black girls and it was things I’ve heard my whole life. Things like “Is your hair real?” or people weirdly comparing me to chocolate. It was just a reflection of stereotypes. I made it and didn’t think that much about it but it just went completely viral.
A lot of cute young black girls started following me which was nice to see. I started getting thousands of followers after that. Initially, I didn’t think about it as a business opportunity but now my numbers far surpass what I have on Instagram. I’ve started to see it as a really effective way to showcase myself.
What would you say is your niche on social media? And do your niches differ?
Yes, they do. I’m not sure how to say this but on Instagram, at times I felt like I was showing less of my personality. Like yes, I was serving face and fashion but you couldn’t get as much of a vibe for me. TikTok makes me be more outgoing and creative, it’s more entertainment rather than just photos. I feel like I can also help people by giving them information about clothing and beauty rather than just photographing myself.
You recently attended a black TikTok creator summit, what was that experience like?
I got an email from one of the influencer executives at TikTok inviting me to their summit and I was frankly surprised. Yes, I have over 100,000 followers but there are people who have millions. It was a three-day summit in Los Angeles and Fenty, Puma, and Beats by Dre were partners of the event. We had a huge dinner where Tyra Banks was a surprise guest and gave us a great pep talk about what it means to be black in the entertainment industry. She also gave us tips about how we can monetize what’s happening on TikTok. The next day was filled with workshops and sessions with experts like Robi Reed who’s a big casting director and Tunji Balogun who’s VP of A&R for RCA records. We heard from other managers who work with huge creators. The summit closed with a gala and an Essence photographer came to take portraits of us. Later that night they surprised us with a performance by Doja Cat. It was the coolest experience — I’m still digesting what happened.
I’ve said this a few times but I really mean it, those few days changed my whole life. Prior to this event, I didn’t think this was a career, or that it was even a launchpad for something bigger. Then I saw everything in a different light because these people held a mirror up to us and said to us “you guys are powerful, you’re going change the world, look how many people follow you individually and collectively.”
There’s been criticism that a lot of people featured on the For You page are mostly white and rumors that TikTok favors white creators. What are your thoughts on that?
When I first started, I definitely also felt that way. However, I don’t think it’s a TikTok thing, it’s a society thing. The algorithm reflects what people interact with. It’s so painful to hear and say that but I don’t think they’re intentionally holding anyone back, especially after what I’ve heard. It comes down to us being conditioned to have one specific person in front of us, and I think we’re making progress and getting better. No shade to the Hype House but there isn’t a single person of color dancing, and there’s a lot of talented black dancers. The issue to me is the user not realizing, that they might be subconsciously sleeping on creators of color.
What are some content tips you have for TikTok?
TikTok can be very intimidating at first glance and I consider myself very tech-savvy. The first thing I tell people is to just sit with the app for two weeks, to just observe what’s coming across your For You page so you get the content you want to see. Initially, you’ll see a bunch of dancers because that’s what dominates the app but then the content will be tailored to your taste.
Also when you’re creating, remember the audience is much younger so don’t go beyond 15 seconds. The average attention span is seven seconds, and that is terrifying but the truth. Since that’s the average watch time try to get their attention quickly. Provide value to them, and since they’re really young, remember something that’s common sense to you isn’t common sense to a 12-year-old. That’s why a lot of my styling and hair videos take off because that’s what’s interesting to someone who’s still trying to still find themselves. When I was ten or 12 I had no idea either. Also don’t overthink it — the more I use creative cuts or my nice camera, the more likely my video is to flop [laughs]. People want you to just show up with your phone and entertain.
People say TikTok isn’t lucrative yet, what’s your experience with that?
I’ve had some partnerships on TikTok, and my reach is a lot bigger there than on Instagram. I have over 100,000 followers but I can get 1 million views. I can’t promise that kind of reach on Instagram. Previously me and other creators have gotten pushback on monetizing because there were no linking capabilities but actually now there is linking in bio. That’s a gamechanger. Another issue I’ve noticed that there are creators who are bigger than me will take lower numbers money-wise but that’s because some of them are as young as 12 years old and they will simply take free merch. I know there’s money to be made since I’ve done it with Instagram, so I’m like “cough up these coins” [laughs]. It’s been a challenge because you can have someone for free but you won’t get the conversion like you would with someone who knows what they’re doing, like me.
Aside from social media, you’ve had some interesting things going on in your personal life, tell me more about that.
I got engaged right before Thanksgiving and right after that, I stayed with my family in Dallas. I thought let me make our wedding website, which was perfect timing. I got a newsletter to apply to be one of The Knot’s influencer couples. We got an email that we made it to the Top 3 — I had forgotten we even applied but then we went through the voting and won! Now we get to join ten other couples and our wedding will be covered on their website and magazine, plus we’ll be doing a few trips with them.
What’s next for you in 2020?
In 2020 I want to build a personal brand for myself and come out with a product. I’ve seen a lot and learned a lot, and it’s time for me to create something of my own.
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