Monetizing pole dance on TikTok: is it possible?

Monetizing pole dance content on TikTok is a no-brainer. Having proven to be the fastest-growing social network during the past two years, TikTok has given pole dancers (including yours truly) exposure to an exponential following, to more brand partnerships and opportunities than before. But can we still monetize our content on the Chinese platform now that its community guidelines seem to lead to more pole dance censorship? I share my thoughts, tips and insights in this post.

Benefits of monetizing pole dance on social media

Talking about monetizing content makes me sound incredibly capitalist. But we do live in a capitalist society, where everything sucks, and where pole is a lifeline and a livelihood for many of us… as well as an expensive hobby. Which is why it makes sense to monetize it.

I was a writer and a blogger before I was a pole dancer, and as such I built a following throughout my pole journey both through my blogging and through sharing my dancing on social media. From then, as I improved, came opportunities to join studios as an instructor, as well as brand partnerships, media coverage and paid social media content. As someone who is still looking for a stable post-PhD job, every little helps, so using social media to both promote my classes and to earn money organically has been super helpful.

@bloggeronpole A new #choreo for one of my online 1-1s #danceclasses 💖 #choreography #beyoncelemonade #polechoreo #polechoreography ♬ 6 Inch – Corvyx

While monetizing your social media presence might not be everybody’s cup of tea, I am intentionally putting an emphasis on monetization because social media are a marketing tool and a workplace for many of us, and being aware of how they work and how they can be used for us to earn money is both our right and (technically) part of platforms’ own pitch to the masses.

Since I know and follow many pole dancers who have made the most out of Instagram marketing, I thought I’d write a post blending my social media marketing knowledge and my academic expertise on moderation to chat about where making money from pole stands on TikTok today.

Disclaimer

Despite the use of the word “monetize” mainly for SEO and ease, I am not one of those ‘growth hackers’ sharing unrealistic tips about growing on social media. Truth is, more often than not, I have no clue myself – not because, despite having worked in public relations and social media strategy for six years, I was useless at my job, but because when you post nude content a lot of ‘growth’ tactics go out of the window. You’re not only having to fight an already obscure algorithm – you have to fight against outright censorship, and that has been the case on Instagram, as my academic papers have shown, and on TikTok.

Because of this never-ending uncertainty, I can only share tips from my experience of monetizing pole on TikTok and, most importantly, from people who are more knowledgeable than me. This is why, in this post, you’ll see mentions to Unsah Malik’s social media marketing book Slashed It, which taught most of what I know and which can be bought here, and to Chris Stokel-Walker’s TikTok Boom: China’s Dynamite App and the Superpower Race for Social Media, which I recommend reading if you want to know more about how the platform works and how it came to be.

Last but not least, this article is pole dance specific because pole dance is my niche and where my expertise lies. I can only talk about the experiences I know of, which are those of a pole dance instructor. However, it’s important to acknowledge that users like sex workers have it a lot worse than pole dancers on TikTok, like on many other platforms: following the approval of FOSTA/SESTA in the United States, sex workers are being progressively de-platformed, and TikTok is one of the platforms that has pulled the rug underneath them. So the censorship of pole doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and it is partly due to how much we share with our stripper foremothers, who we need to campaign with and for when we can instead of trying to distance ourselves from them.

Pole dance on TikTok so far

Both I and others have written about my experience as a pole dancer on TikTok extensively. From my first few months trying out the platform in 2020 to that time I was banned three times in a week for “implied nudity“, to my qualms about the Creator Fund and the irony of being so heavily censored by TikTok while being a moderation expert, my life on TikTok isn’t a mystery and you can find more in-depth accounts of what happened in the posts linked above.

In short: TikTok has been both incredibly beneficial to me so far, gaining me nearly 350,000 followers and related brand partnership, and quite distressing, both due to online abuse and de-platforming originating from flawed infrastructure. My experience mirrors that of other pole dancers I have interviewed in the past, who found their content flagged, removed, shadowbanned while others repeatedly targeted them with abuse. It seems that TikTok’s relationship with pole is an uncomfortable one: on one hand, polers like @simonaspataro_ (1.8m followers, verified), @angelaaerial (723,800 followers) and me (347,000+ followers) drive traffic to the app, but on the other, we’re in that liminal space between sport (good for TikTok) and stripping (“THERE ARE KIDS HERE, AREN’T YOU ASHAMED OF YOURSELF!”).

@bloggeronpole #sundayfunday making my #choreography for next week to #theweeknd#wickedgames 💞 wearing @fannapolewear #top + a thong named after me 😛 #choreo ♬ Wicked Games – Tribute to The Weeknd – Heart Music

By creating content for TikTok, we make up 9% of the users who actually publish posts on the platform – the rest, according to research by Chris Stokel-Walker, just watch and lurk. And yet, despite providing value to TikTok, and despite sharing a state of undress with celebrities, influencers and dancers, navigating our presence and our earnings on the Chinese-owned platforms remains problematic due to censorship and online abuse.

TikTok’s algorithm

In TikTok Boom, Chris Stokel-Walker, who has interviewed multiple people within TikTok (and who helped me get my account back multiple times), writes that the key to harness the power of the platform’s algorithm is to attract the first few users who see your content. This is because TikTok’s AI first analyses content to send it to a small number of users to gauge their reaction. Their reaction then determines whether it’ll go viral and reach the For You Page or not.

Videos that perform well tend to be filmed with good light, and to be engaging within the first three seconds. They blow up because they have been shared using the app’s interface – and shares count more than comments in the quest towards visibility. So in a complex matrix that scores shares as number 1 in terms of desirability, comments 2 and likes 3, your video gets a score that, if it goes beyond a certain threshold, propels your content into the world. Otherwise, it’s dead on its ass.

Monetizing pole dance on TikTok through brand partnerships

If, despite having your ass out, you have managed to ‘trick’ TikTok’s algorithm and go viral, accruing a sizeable following, chances are you might be approached by brands to collaborate. This can happen in two ways: via direct contact outside of TikTok but for your TikTok (e.g. email, IG DM and so on) or via TikTok’s own Creator Marketplace.

TikTok’s Creator Marketplace

TikTok’s Creator Marketplace has been marketed as “a one-stop shop for marketers” who can “discover creators without involving a middle man, ensure content feels native to the platform” and stay connected without leaving TikTok. Thing is, Marketplace isn’t available to everyone: despite having hundreds of thousands of followers and millions of views (when, at the time of applying, only 100,000 were required to be accepted) my application was rejected multiple times. On top of this, I haven’t so far ever struck a brand partnership through Marketplace. Why? Because requests come from random brands that are not related to my niche, and that would not appeal to my followers. Brands who got in touch with my pole dancing account via Marketplace included – I kid you not – Long Eaton Motor Company (lol) and a toy helicopter brand (double lol). A potentially interesting clothes brand who got in touch only offered free products which, as I will explain below, I am often wary of accepting unless they fit my niche perfectly.

In short, pole dance is perhaps too niche (and too censored) an industry for some brands to want to tap into it natively within TikTok. However, some of the collaborations I enjoyed the most – e.g. LUNALAE and MARIEMUR – were centred on TikTok, and came through direct outreach from or to brands via IG DM or email. So what do you have to consider after someone has outreached to you?

@bloggeronpole What happens #behindthescenes of a pole #photoshoot 🤘🏻 #bts #photoshootposes #photoshootbts @mariemur__ ♬ original sound – bloggeronpole

What type of brand partnerships can #poledancersofTikTok expect?

Whether you are using direct contact or Marketplace, requests are often straightforward: e.g. posting a video in exchange for polewear / shoes / money, or using a song in your videos for a fee. When it comes to the former, you’ll generally hear directly from marketing managers or brand founders, who you may already know or follow because they may be part of the pole industry. The latter, or people asking you to dance to songs for a fee, may be artists’ agents or artists themselves.

In terms of gifts in exchange for content, I tend to only accept gifts from polewear brands or high-end fashion and lingerie brands because I can 100% be sure that I will use the clothes, and that they will not rot in the back of my wardrobe. This isn’t just for space or for environmental reasons: if an item is something I’d normally wear, my followers are more likely to believe I would love it, and that they’re not being sold something for the sake of getting a freebie, which would damage my reputation. Brands, too, get more out of a spot-on collab because I’ll continue posting content using their items.

@bloggeronpole Body parts #poledancers need for grip! Take 10% off ANYTHING at @lunalaestore with my discount code INFBOP10OFF 😍 #poletok #poledancing ♬ Myself – Bazzi

Sometimes other items outside of but related to our niche will pop up: wellness, sex toys, sexual health etc. But whichever the item, I always try to weigh up whether accepting a freebie is worth the amount of work of creating content: e.g. I know I will always use polewear or lingerie because I train a lot and I need a change of clothes while the items I’ve washed dry up, so receiving a freebie instead of having to buy a new set is economically beneficial to me. But if I have to wreck my brain to show how I can use a brand gift for my followers to relate, it’s probably not worth my time.

This focus on creating content that fits my niche seems like a no-brainer, but it took me years of experience, of rebrands and of understanding that I don’t have to appeal to absolutely everyone in what I share to get it right. To understand who you are as a creator and to tailor your content to that, I cannot recommend Unsah’s book enough – I did an interview with her if you wanna learn more about what she does.

Contracts and disclosure

Particularly if your following is big and if your previous collaborations went well, brands are then likely to offer payment as well as free items for your next collaboration. So accepting free items can lead to more work – just make sure you accept knowing what the brand expects from you, and what you can expect from the brand.

Let’s get things straight: if a brand is sending you a gift with no paperwork, you are not obliged to post about it, or to write a good review for it. A gift is a gift, and you can deal with it as you please. However, posting about gifts when you like them, or feeding back when you don’t, creates good relationships with brands that may continue into the future.

Brands that are expecting more from you, or that provide substantial gifts, will ask you to sign a contract even for freebies, particularly because they may want to be free to use your content. I strongly suggest asking for a contract or an agreement if you are locking in a big collab – this is because there may be exclusivity agreements and requests you want to have in writing when exchanging items worth big bucks.

The moment you REALLY want a contract is when money is being exchanged. A lot of the “agencies” pushing music artists on TikTok are not very legit and disappear when you ask them or contracts or actual bank transfers instead of PayPals. So make sure you only post once you have signed something that ensures you are getting paid.

Either way, to avoid getting into trouble with OfCom or whichever advertising ethics board, remember to hashtag your posts with #gifted when you get a freebie or #AD if it’s a paid partnership, so that your followers know you’re benefiting from that content.

Calculating your rate

The way you calculate your fee depends on your following, on your engagement and on how relevant to your niche the partnership you are taking part in is. While I can’t tell you what you should charge, I always recommend asking similar creators for their fees to make sure you are not underselling yourself.

Unsah’s book is now my blueprint to calculate my rates, but my fees are negotiable depending on whether I get free items on top of payment, on how much I want to work with the brand and on how much visibility a collaboration can get me.

TikTok Creator Fund

In TikTok Boom, Chris Stokel-Walker writes that, initially, the creation of the TikTok Creator Fund seemed ground-breaking for influencers: with followers and views in the millions, big TikTok stars felt like they could cash in. But then they came back to reality: the money you get from the creator fund is a teeny tiny fraction of your following and views.

To access the creator fund, some of your posts need to have gone pretty viral (100,000 views in the past month) and you need a minimum of 10,000 followers. Even when they have, you may be rejected several times before you can access this key benefit (as it happened to yours truly). Funds are calculated each day, and can be withdrawn once they go over £20. Some days, you may make only a few cents or pennies. Some days, however, you may be making £100 out of a single video. In short: earnings from the Fund are very volatile, and not something to be relied on. A whole Vice article has been written about how in May, despite having millions of views and thousands of followers, my first withdrawal was a meagre £20. I wasn’t the only one to complain – many creators from different niches have. To read more about how little TikTok stars are earning through the fund, read this.

Here’s what TikTok say about it (spoiler alert, not much):

The funds that each creator can earn are worked out by a combination of factors; including the number of views and the authenticity of those views, the level of engagement on the content, as well as making sure content is in line with our Community Guidelines and Terms of Service. 

No two creators or videos are the same, and there is no limit to the different kinds of content we will support with the fund. 

The Creator Fund total varies daily and is dependent on the amount of videos published by our community that day – so this will fluctuate based on the amount of content being published.

TikTok Newsroom

TL;DR: No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative. IT GETS THE PEOPLE GOING.

Even though you may not be getting rich from the Creator Fund, it’s good to have a reward for the time you put into the app, however small. The Fund is a good idea – so much that now Instagram has copied it. It’s just that, just like every aspect of social media governance, it needs more transparency for users to be able to make the most out of it. And more money, of course.

TikTok Shop

One of the latest ways for users to earn money on TikTok – and one of the newest features the platform have been pushing heavily since December 2021 – is TikTok Shop. TikTok shop is essentially online retail: users can create their shop within the app and sell through the platform. To promote it, TikTok is enlisting its creators to sell products by sharing them with them as freebies to sell through Lives or through posts. In doing so, creators get selling bonuses or affiliate commissions.

I was one of those creators. I received a TikTok Shop email and decided to take part just to document it, and to see if it was worth it for me. After filling out a form, I selected which product I was interested in trying to sell – just a pair of socks – but received a package containing the whole lot (hair mask, face masks and a phone charging cable). Afterwards, I received a set of very fishy-looking emails with no signature or logo with instructions for the campaign.

I have so far only created one TikTok Shop video (below), which I think makes sense for the types of posts I usually publish and for what pole dancers or wannabe pole dancers may be interested in. I have yet to receive money from it, but will update when and if I do. At the moment, I’m not raving about it: I am not loving the teleshopping vibes TikTok is pushing for this, and I have too much PTSD from growing up with Italian television in the early 2000s to join. I have also found the campaign outreach and briefing for TikTok shop slightly confusing, but maybe I’m too old for it.

@bloggeronpole My #beginners always ask me what to do if they wanna try #choreo #danceclasses but have no heels. The answer is: #socks! #AD ♬ Glamorous – Fergie

What I can tell you is that I have been contacted via WhatsApp by a TikTok employee to add me to a Lark group for TikTok Shop creators. This is an interesting hands-on approach that makes me feel almost like I’m working for a company, so I’m trying it out to see if the experience becomes less confusing. Will keep you posted!

TikTok’s new community guidelines

Now, the 1 million dollar question that many pole dancers have asked me this week is: this is all well and good, but how about the update to TikTok’s Community Guidelines in February 2022?

It’s not the first time that a social media platforms makes a rules update that might prevent pole dancers and sexy creators from making money, from being seen or from merely existing online – Instagram is the master of that, and our petition against its December 2020 update is nearly at 122,000 signatures. So let’s look into what TikTok is saying.

TikTok have revealed that:

“Over 91 million violative videos were removed during Q3 2021, which is around 1% of all videos uploaded. Of those videos, 95.1% were removed before a user reported it, 88.8% before the video received any views, and 93.9% within 24 hours of being posted. We continue to expand our system that detects and removes certain categories of violations at upload – including adult nudity and sexual activities, minor safety, and illegal activities and regulated goods. As a result, the volume of automated removals has increased, which improves the overall safety of our platform and enables our team to focus more time on reviewing contextual or nuanced content, such as hate speech, bullying and harassment, and misinformation.”

TikTok Newsroom

In short, as you may have noticed throughout the second half of 2021, a lot of our pole videos were automatically removed when posting, and then restored, killing their algorithmic recommendation potential. Although this press release is dated 8 February 2022, we all know this has been happening, and we already know why: the global impact of FOSTA/SESTA, and pushes for increased safety of minors with the exponential growth of TikTok. No news there.

Here’s a reminder of the content TikTok actively removes:

Content that explicitly or implicitly depicts sexual activities including penetrative and non-penetrative sex, oral sex, or erotic kissing

Content that depicts sexual arousal or sexual stimulation

Content that depicts a sexual fetish 

Content that depicts exposed human genitalia, female nipples or areola, pubic regions, or buttocks

Content that contains sexually explicit language for sexual gratification.

TikTok Community Guidelines

What seems to be new is that anything “overtly sexually suggestive” won’t be recommended. TikTok said:

To help maintain a comfortable and age-appropriate experience, content that is overtly sexually suggestive may not be eligible for recommendation. For example, content that depicts implied nudity, is blatantly erotic or sensual (like thirst traps or strip teases), or sexualizes body parts, would likely not be recommended into For You feeds.

TikTok – What is the ‘For You’ Page and how do I get there?

“Recommendation” means exposure to the For You Page, and “non-recommendable” is the language Instagram have used to discuss why they are not sending content to the Explore page. Recommendation is a euphemism for shadowbanning.

By targeting stripteases, thirst-traps and erotic dances, TikTok are openly targeting sex workers – who have already been de-platformed by them and other apps. This move will also reduce visibility for pole dancers, because what we do shares a history and an aesthetic with stripping.

The new rules will be coming into effect on 7 March, but my guess is that, similarly to what happened with Instagram in 2020, they are already in place and are only being formalised. Why? Because I and many pole dancers I have been speaking to have been struggling to get views for months, leading us to think we are shadowbanned. This has also happened to educators and high-profile creators who discussed sex education and sexual health.

TikTok’s new community guidelines update is yet another example of private companies deciding over public discourse, sanitising platforms to remove any mentions to or examples of sexual expression, affecting our lives and livelihoods to ‘protect users’ but, really, to protect their growing profile and earnings. If the platform remotely cared about safety, it would deal with the online abuse we get on TikTok.

The fact that, now, I go viral only when I don’t use pole dancing hashtags shows how users have to constantly keep up to date with changes and confusing rules to continue existing on social media. We are always walking on thin ice – and we are some of the most fortunate users who don’t always get outright deleted.

So here’s what pole dancers can expect from the new TikTok community guidelines: yet another sanitised marketplace, like Instagram, where to thrive, express ourselves and earn money we have to please the platform’s overlords. So far, we can monetize our content on TikTok. We just have to please the app and be within its (ever-changing, sexist, confusing, puritanical, whorephobic) guidelines.

I leave you with my Brut Media interview which was precisely about this.

@bloggeronpole @watchadoremedia #interview about my #research ♬ original sound – bloggeronpole
@bloggeronpole @watchadoremedia (with @brutamerica & @adoreme) #interview about my #research ♬ original sound – bloggeronpole

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