As AI continues to shock the traditional search world, TikTok is going the visual route, testing a new tool in its Shop tab, Adweek has exclusively learned.
The feature, which will allow users to take a photo and search visual inventory based on the image, is currently being tested in select markets outside the U.S.
Pinterest, Google and Bing all have visual search tools, and Meta began testing visual search on Instagram Shop in June 2021. User adoption in the U.S. is still small, though growing—the percentage of U.S. adults who regularly use visual search rose to 8.2% in February 2023 from 3.8% in April 2020, according to Bizrate data cited by Insider Intelligence.
Insights company Watchful AI was first to spot the use of visual search on TikTok. If released more widely, the technology could provide another access point to TikTok Shop, which is now in beta testing, a TikTok spokesperson told Adweek.
Social commerce, common in Asian markets, has struggled to take off in the United States. TikTok Shop initiatives in the U.K. have faced delays, and currently the majority of revenue comes from uploaded recorded videos rather than livestreams selling products, The Financial Times reported. Moreover, Instagram shut down the Shop tab on its app last year.
The early adopters win in these things.
Calla Murphy, vp, Belardi Wong
While still nascent, two ad buyers who have experimented with TikTok Shop say it currently performs worse than other TikTok channels and elsewhere. While it is too early to see how visual search could impact these results, some advertisers see potential synergies.
“Apart from improved user experience, a visual search could increase product discovery and reach beyond a merchant’s existing organic reach or paid tactics,” said Rachel Legere, director of paid social at Tinuiti. “Visual search can reduce friction in finding a desired product.”
The early trials of TikTok Shop
Adam Lovallo, founder of digital agency Thesis, said one client tested TikTok Shop around six months ago. Neither conversions nor return on ad spend outperformed other TikTok ad formats, according to Lovallo.
He also noted that agency representatives have not pushed TikTok Shop particularly hard on advertisers, potentially signaling it is not the platform’s highest priority.
“It’s not nothing,” Lovallo said, noting that TikTok Shop resulted in some sales, but not what would be expected from having a direct purchase interface. “The whole point is it’s supposed to convert at a higher rate.”