The rise of TikTok: From classroom practice to influencer status

Sierra Reed
Sierra Reed, junior in advertising, has become a TikTok influencer, earning several brand deals.  


Sierra Reed, a junior in advertising, first joined TikTok in August 2019 for fun. Little did she know she’d go viral doing modern twists on Romeo and Juliet, and eventually become an influencer on the video-based social media platform.

She first started gaining a following in November 2019. She posted a video and went to bed with about 100 likes. The next morning she woke up to about 1,000 likes. Then, at the beginning of the pandemic, she made another video that reached about 100,000 likes. She went from about 15,000 followers to 100,000 followers in the span of two weeks, she said.

It continued to grow from there. Reed now has 321.5K followers and 9.8M likes. Not only that, but she’s gotten a few brand deals out of her newfound stardom, including several clothing brands. She has also shared her Illini pride with her followers.

“If you had asked me a year ago, ‘Where do you think this TikTok thing will take you?’ I would never have imagined this,” Reed said. “I would never imagine that I would be a content creator on such a big platform. I never even imagined that a video of mine would ever reach over 500,000 likes.”

Marketing brands on TikTok is something Reed also practiced in Steve Raquel’s ADV 409: Media Entrepreneurship class last fall.

Raquel, an adjunct lecturer in advertising, would find something trending on TikTok, such as a song, and then have his students try to attempt it while promoting a brand. (In fact, one of his own TikTok demos for his advertising class went viral.)

“If you’re an influencer, somebody may give you a brand and then you’re going to have to figure out how to implement or integrate that brand into your platform,” Raquel said. 

Advertising lecturer Marisa Peacock said TikTok is an extremely important platform for marketing brands. It’s an opportunity for creativity and attracts a younger audience.

“People enjoy TikTok because it offers original, authentic content created by real people,” Peacock said. “And it is relatively low pressure—there's no need for accompanying text or context—it's fresh and fun while being customizable and introspective. Brands interested in exploring TikTok need to be fully immersed in a culture that promotes and supports experimentation, innovation, and creativity.”

Raquel said learning the platform teaches students how to take risks, an essential skill in entrepreneurship.

“The purpose of the class is really to help students understand the basis of entrepreneurship,” Raquel said. “And within that, there’s an element of taking risks and being comfortable with the uncomfortable. But over time, the goal is that you become a little bit more comfortable with the risk, a little more comfortable with the process. And there’s a lot of failure that goes on in entrepreneurship.”

Reed said studying advertising at UIUC actually helps her understand how to use TikTok. For example, she’s learned how to measure engagement and target videos to her audience.

“One thing that really stood out to me is, for a long time, I thought the people laughing at my videos were people my age,” Reed said. “They’re actually teenagers who are younger than me, like 14- to 16-year-olds are the ones who watch a majority of my content. So I was like, oh, that would explain why this certain video didn’t blow up as much.”

Although she never expected to become an influencer on TikTok, she said the experience is a positive one for her. Because of her success, she’s considering becoming a full-time influencer in the future.

“There are some younger kids who will be like, ‘Oh my gosh, you inspire me. You’re the type of role model I’ve always been looking for,’ and nothing compares to it,” she said. “It’s the biggest confidence booster.”

—Marissa Plescia, Communications and Marketing Intern