Growing brand partnerships on TikTok with insight from Kristina Mikhalkova of Vessi
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Brands and creators are partnering to leverage TikTok’s creative power—and the results are eye-popping. With a recent TikTok report outlining impressive results from these partnerships, there’s no time like the present to team up with your favorite creators to establish social proof, boost brand and product awareness, and increase sales.
The report stresses how the platform is designed to inspire creativity, spark joy, and connect communities together in engaging ways—including in ad creative.
TikTok is meeting the intention of its design.
Currently, TikTok has more than 1.5 billion users, is the most widely used social platform, and has created countless new macro- and micro-celebrity creators with engaged niche audiences.
We’ve seen robust examples of brands that have grown thanks to their unique partnerships with TikTok creatives.
For example, we saw Chipotle’s follower count skyrocket when it partnered with Zach King to create viral ads.
Another example is Guess and its partnership with creators like OurFire.
And this brings me to one of my favorite brands on TikTok: Vessi.
Vessi is a waterproof sneaker brand, known for its hilarious videos and brand partnerships with some of the top TikTok creators like @kallmekris, Chris Olsen (@chris), @trishlikefish88, and @celinaspookyboo, to name a few.
I wanted to dive deeper into how brands can develop successful creator partnerships and what kind of results those alliances can drive.
So, I reached out to Kristina Mikhalkova, Senior Partnerships Manager at Vessi.
Here’s what I learned.
1. Partnering with TikTok creators is an advertising gold mine
Before you start reaching out to TikTok creators left and right, it’s essential to understand the average results brands can get from creator marketing.
Here’s what the TikTok report found:
- Higher ad recall rates - Creator + branded content collaboration ads have 27% higher ad recall than those with no creator collaboration.
- More effective at capturing attention - Ads with creator partnerships achieved 65% higher 2-second view rates.
- Better audience view rates - Ads with creator partnerships had 91% higher 6-second view rates.
- Higher engagement rates - Engagement rates were 83% higher for creator-led ads.
The TikTok report data tells a clear story—consumers like brand + creator ad collaborations better than regular ads.
This is the reason that top TikTok brands like Vessi aren’t going it alone. Instead, they are building meaningful relationships with creators who have built-in audiences.
2. The key to content that performs is finding the right creators and nurturing real relationships
The key to building the best, results-driving creator relationships is to stay on-brand.
When you partner with creators that match your vibe, you automatically tap into a niche audience.
Take Vessi. Vessi doesn’t hire just anyone to create branded partner ads. They look for creators that speak to a cool, fun, audience because that’s the audience they’re targeting too.
Here are some examples of content from Vessi’s most impressive partnerships:
1/ @kallmekris and her toddler character
I love @kallmekris. And so do 43 million other followers. She taps into her hilarious characters to create can’t-miss branded content for Vessi.
In the video posted above, Kris and Kid Kris illustrate how dreamy Vessis are in a funny, character-centric video with everyone’s favorite accouterment—the tiny doll hand. It works.
2/ Chris Olsen (@chris) crying in the shower
Chris Olsen is another successful Vessi partnership, giving us a raw and relatable branded video.
You can see Chris crying in the shower listening to Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well.” (Who hasn’t done this?)
The twist? He’s wearing Vessis—and, unlike the rest of his tear-soaked body, they aren’t wet.
3/ @celinaspookyboo’s gonna ruin her socks
Ah, Celinaspookyboo! She’s everyone’s ridiculous best friend, and she creates ads that fit right in with Vessi’s energy—humorous and simple.
All she needs to convince us is a little bit of humor, some rainbow socks, and a puddle—and we’re in.
Are you getting the idea? Vessi partners with creators who know how to tap into what’s new, popular, or interesting.
Here’s what Kristina looks for in a creator partnership:
“We look for creators who are on top of trends and create fun and engaging content for their followers. We also look at the engagements creators receive on their content. We ask, ‘Are the overall comments positive? Do their audience tend to share the content they produce?’”
But finding a good partner isn’t only about working with a creator who matches the feeling your brand is trying to convey.
A successful partnership is also about building an ongoing, mutually beneficial relationship:
“To Vessi, it's all about relationship building. We seek out the best talents that will uphold our brand values and create amazing stories for our products. We aim to have a unique partnership with every creator,” Kristina said.
Creators play a huge role in the success of any brand’s TikTok advertising strategy, and it’s critical to treat them with kindness, respect, and fair compensation.
Kristina adds to this idea by reminding me that creators, in many regards, are the new celebrities. Many of them have millions of followers, and that pressure can take a toll on anyone.
“We like to always remind ourselves that these celebrity creators are human. We don't treat our partnerships transactionally. Instead, we like to get personal with our creators and get to know them better,” Kristina said.
When I wrote my year-long synopsis of what I learned about the Creator Economy, one of my key findings was that creators are burning out at rapid rates. In fact, stats show that 90% of them experience burnout.
Reasons include trying to beat the algorithm, difficulty making a living, follower anxiety, online bullying, and more.
It goes without saying that creators bring immense value to a brand's advertising and marketing team. So it’s critical to build positive relationships and check in with your partners.
While finding the right creator and treating them right is the key to success, I also wanted to know how new DTC brands can get in touch with creators.
Here’s how Vessi does it:
“Our team reaches out to creators mostly through email by accessing it on their social media platforms. There are times however when we reach out via DM to express our interest in working with them. We like to brief our creators and spark content ideas for their channel that fits with our brand and product,” said Kristina.
3. The kinds of content that perform better on TikTok
Viewers watch more than 1 billion TikTok videos a day. Some videos receive millions of these daily views, while others don’t get seen at all.
So what’s the secret to creating high-performing posts? What kind of content is guaranteed to knock it out of the park?
I asked Kristina what performs well for Vessi on TikTok, and here’s what I learned.
1/ Partner content
We know from the TikTok report mentioned above that branded content featuring a creator gets a 93% higher engagement rate.
Vessi has also seen extraordinary results from its partner content. If you take a gander at the company’s TikTok page, you’ll see that branded videos featuring creators have impressive numbers of views, likes, and comments.
When I asked Kristina about the results of branded partner videos, she said, “In general, our creator partnerships have helped get more eyes on the Vessi brand, increase our reach, and boost brand awareness.”
If your DTC brand is running its first ad, consider hiring a creator and letting them do what they do best—create fun, engaging content.
2/ Organic and authentic
When you hire a creator to make a video for you, it’s best to give them guidelines, and then let them run with an idea.
You also don’t have to worry about shelling out gobs of money for a high-production budget. The kind of content performing well on TikTok is usually original, organic, and shot with an iPhone.
@kallmekris is the perfect example of a creator who has millions of followers, yet her posts look like home videos. They are real, and people love them.
Kristina echoed this sentiment when she told me:
“There’s definitely a wide range of content that resonates with our audience at Vessi. The most important thing for our partners to know is that the content should be organic and authentic to their voice while showing the use case for our products. Video content tends to perform extremely well in this case.”
The video from @celinaspookyboo posted above is another perfect example. All Celina needed were some Vessis, rainbow socks, her vivacious personality, a puddle, and an iPhone—and BAM!—a brilliant ad is born.
3/ User-generated content (UGC)
User-generated content is having a heyday, and for good reason. Consumers love and trust what other customers say much more than they trust the brand.
It makes sense. Consumers’ goals are to review products honestly, tell others what products to buy, and hold bad brands accountable. Meanwhile, brands’ goals are to make sales, showing only the best features and benefits.
One of these motivations is inherently more trustworthy than the other.
A smart way for brands to earn the trust of their target audience is to eliminate polished brand-speak and utilize more user-generated content on their websites, social accounts, and in their ads.
Kristina said this about UGC:
“User-generated content plays a pretty big role in our marketing strategy as we use a lot of UGC for our ads. What better way to introduce our brand to potential customers than by having authentic and honest testimonials?”
She’s right. Stats show that 85% of consumers say visual UGC is more influential than brand photos or videos.
4/ Micro-influencer content
Good news for smaller DTC brands that want to grow a social media following: To create successful ad campaigns, you don’t have to partner with A-list celebrities or even the TikTok creators with millions of followers.
Micro-influencers (those with fewer than 10K thousand followers, typically) also have the power of persuasion. Influencer Marketing Hub reports that micro-influencers actually have higher engagement rates than their mega-influencer counterparts.
I asked Kristina whether Vessi uses micro-influencers in its advertising strategy, plus what difference in results they made. She said:
“Absolutely. Micro-influencers have created really tight-knit communities that are there to consume the content, take advice, and follow suggestions for products. Most micro-influencers have a super engaged audience, and there is a higher chance of a purchasing decision to be made.”
It’s true. Micro-influencers have already built a niche audience. When you don’t have to weed through a massive following to find interested consumers, you’ll see your ROI (and your follower count) increase.
TikTok has been an incredible platform for helping brands and creators grow organically.
My friend Jill in January started a TikTok account for fun and as a creative. She’s mostly been posting about co-parenting and has been uploading a video every day for a bit more than two months. She now has millions of views and more than 10K followers.
The platform is consistent in terms of rewarding good content from creators and brands with organic views.
But here’s the thing: TikTok isn’t only about organic growth. A smart ad strategy on the platform can also boost engagement rates and capture more followers for creators and brands alike.
Here’s an example from TikTok ad creative, Savannah Sanchez, on how ads are working for one of her ecommerce clients.
Ads are working on TikTok. But it’s also critical to remember that TikTok is still a baby, and what works on the platform isn’t necessarily set in stone.
Kristina puts it like this:
“We do invest in ads on TikTok. However, we're still learning best practices as TikTok is such a quick-changing platform.”
As such, remember to stay current with trends and test your creator-led ads often.
4. Smaller brands can benefit from creator partnerships
When I talked with Kristina, I also wanted to address the elephant in the room: Smaller DTC brands don’t have the same budgets as bigger brands.
Kristina gave me two essential pieces of advice for how new DTC brands with lower budgets can get started with creator partnerships:
- Complement your branded content with UGC – “I think having a balance of partner content and UGC in your marketing strategy is important. Creators can provide high-quality assets to be used across multiple channels where UGC is great firsthand testimonials for the brand.” It can be a lot more affordable for brands to capture UGC and repurpose it (with permission and compensation, of course) for TikTok. If your brand is new, start with UGC and branded content from micro-influencers. After you start seeing results, shoot for relationships with bigger influencers.
- Identify your niche, and creators will follow – “I think if you're looking to get into influencer marketing, you must first identify your niche/target audience,” Kristina said. “Once you've established that, start building your networking by sourcing and reaching out to local creators within that niche.” This is critical. Niching down doesn’t alienate your customer; it helps you identify them faster. If you know who your audience is from the get-go, you can create content that resonates with the people who actually want your products.
What lies ahead for brand and creator partnerships?
As a still relatively new platform, TikTok is constantly evolving. Trends change often, so stay ahead of the curve and keep Kristina’s advice in mind: Creators are the ones who are on top of trends and have niche audiences. A healthy partnership with the ones who fit your brand can be lucrative for both of you.
Trends change often on TikTok, so stay ahead by following your favorite creators and reaching out to them for branded content opportunities.