Editor's Note: The purpose of this article is to help higher ed marketers be thoughtful and strategic in their efforts to incorporate TikTok in their institutional marketing strategies. It is not to weigh-in on policy changes the United States Government is considering on the application, including a potential ban, citing security concerns. While a ban on a mobile app is unprecedented in the United States, some compare the potential move to the recent US ban of smartphones from Chinese manufacturer, Huawei. We'll update this post accordingly if those policy changes are enacted or there are other significant developments.
If you're like me, the age of COVID-19 and the onset of a national quarantine has presented you in these unprecedented times with…unprecedented amounts of time. Before my SimpScar colleagues with children throw their computers at me, yes, I know that many parents don't have this "problem" of free time. But for many of us, we've been searching high and low for activities to fill our days: baking sourdough, doing puzzles, or debating the potential crimes of one Carole Baskin.
For me, it was time to finally learn what the kids are up to: I joined TikTok.
Over the past four months, I have been one of the app's estimated 800 million monthly active users, and it has become a daily source of humor and joy. It's not surprising that 49% of teenagers have used the app and spend an average of 45 minutes per day there. 81% of users engage daily (compared to 61% for YouTube), and estimates put this number as high as 90% since the onset of COVID-19. In short: it's where our prospective undergraduate students are. Which leads me to a question I know many of us have whispered to each other for at least a year now: why aren't we?
"Facebook and Instagram feel over-corporatized and uncool to a new generation where authenticity is literally the only metric that matters."
In many ways, our students are on TikTok precisely because the adults aren't. As trust in Facebook and Instagram erodes and its founding generation ages out of young adulthood, these apps feel over-corporatized and uncool to a new generation where authenticity is literally the only metric that matters. TikTok knows the opportunity that it has: just last week, it finally unveiled its corporate advertising plan with "TikTok for Businesses". Over the next few months, I think we're going to see a lot of less-than-savvy marketing teams try some strategies that sound a little like this:
Note: Please don't do this.
I'm here to tell you that it's not going to work. Finding marketing success on TikTok requires a wholly new content strategy and pipeline, but those who invest the time and resources will elevate their brand and, vital for Gen Z, showcase the culture and personality of the institution. Culture is the heart of college and university brands, and the ability to experience that culture is what makes an institution distinct and desirable. Wear it on your sleeve, and put it on TikTok. When you do, here are some rules to live by:
1. Don't Make Ads, Make TikToks
This is the cornerstone of TikTok for Business's campaign. Unlike Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or YouTube, this app isn't meant for communication or promotion. It's designed to entertain. The randomization of TikTok's famed algorithm ensures users are given the unexpected, delivering content they'll enjoy but have never seen with near-precision accuracy. The worst thing you could do is interrupt that feed with self-promotion. Instead, participate in the culture.
2. Is it Perfect? You've Done It Wrong
As marketers, we've been trained for years to create a perfect product. The cut-and-edited video series, the focus-grouped viewbook, the perfectly cultivated student photoshoots. Bring that perfectionism to TikTok, and you'll blend in about as well two children in a trench coat pretending to be an adult. The generation on TikTok wants authentic and raw — that imperfect quality and the feeling that what they're watching wasn't designed for mass consumption. That means front-facing selfie camera footage, unbalanced audio, captions that cover video text, and videos that cut off sooner than they should. TikToks should feel like you've just dropped them into the world and don't even care if anyone sees them. If you nail it, millions will see it. If you bomb, the algorithm sweeps it under the rug. Let it go, and try again.
3. Prepare to be Reactionary
I know, I know: spontaneity? In a content strategy? Seriously. In a comms world where story pipelines extend for months and tweets are scheduled far in advance, chaos reigns on TikTok. If you want to reach audiences that don't already know you and love you (the ever-present echo chamber issue of higher ed social media), your social media manager must be ready to engage in of-the-moment viral trends. And finding love for your trend video is similar to the hardest part about brand strategy in higher education: how do you take something that so many others do well and stand out? Quickly identifying the intersection of a TikTok obsession and your institution's personality and quirks is essential to entertaining while showcasing your brand.
4. Find Your Stars
My colleague Emma Miller said it best when discussing how to reach Gen Z: "They are experts at sorting through information quickly to deem what is most important to them." TikTok knows this and capitalizes on it. As easy as it is to go viral on the app, it's even easier to be dismissed with a brief scroll of the finger. But unlike other platforms, where your content is continuously competing against other content and onscreen visuals, on TikTok for a brief and shining moment, you have a user's entire screen to yourself. In that moment, what do you deliver? It needs to be quick, but it also needs to grow to feel familiar. There's a reason that a 16-year-old in Connecticut can have more followers (69.9M) in just a year than stars like Will Smith or Selena Gomez. Your brand outside of TikTok means nothing — it's a world unto itself. Colleges and universities have to create a microcosm of their brand inside the app.
"Your brand outside of TikTok means nothing — it's a world unto itself."
Identify a core set of institutional stars to feature in your content, but don't go overboard. Too many, and users will never build a relationship with your content. This should be easy; where else in the world can you find the volume of eclectic talent available on college campuses? Stars like:
- Your mascot participating in dance trends with your quad or state-of-the-art facilities in the backdrop
- Students from the performing arts department dueting TikTok singers while wearing school swag
- That beloved chemistry professor teaching micro experiments, or that famously outspoken political science professor unpacking election poll inaccuracy
5. To Quote Madonna, "Express Yourself"
Nearly all of the content we feed to prospective students is designed to tell. We tell them about our talented students and our engaged faculty, we tell them about our collaborative environments, our friendly community, and we tell them how great it is to be on campus. A TikTok content strategy can amount to two words: show them. Show the talented students, the friendly community, the dynamic classrooms, the wonders of STEM, or the passion behind the arts.
Some schools are already killing it. Check out the University of Florida, University of Michigan, IU Bloomington, or Linfield University to see what I mean. But as you begin to craft your strategy, don't just look to the marketers — after all, they're only copying the teens. Watch and see what your prospects are doing. In making TikToks, they're telling you exactly what type of content they want to see.
We're living in a time when in-person tours are largely impossible, the residential experience feels cumbersome given the added stress and safety measures, and your potential students are starved for ways to learn if they belong on your campus. If usage numbers are any indication, we're all craving content right now. So, show them your brand's humanity. Make it fun, make it personable, make TikToks.