Marketing and communications professionals know that meeting our audience where they are is one major key to getting messages seen by those that need them. But this can quickly force us into the uncomfortable positions of learning a new platform, attempting to build a reliable presence in an already well-established space, or adapting our messaging to a new delivery and tone so we don’t appear forced or out of place. Trying to define a strategy and the tactics to reach our goals for a space we’re unfamiliar with compounds that difficulty tenfold.
For a lot of us, meeting our audience where they are has guided us to TikTok. Twitter’s usability and credibility are seemingly ever-changing, Reddit is in the throes of battling with subreddit moderators and the vocal user base about adjustments impacting third-party providers, and the Meta umbrella tends to attract an older audience when it’s not trying to launch a new platform. But our Gen Z students far outpace other age groups when it comes to TikTok usage and content creation. Aside from burning some time, learning a new skill, or looking for a quick laugh, Gen Z is also using TikTok as a search engine and primary news source. Pew Research Center states “about a quarter of Americans in this age group say they regularly get news” from TikTok, continuing a growing year-over-year trend while most other popular social platforms continue to decline. With uncertainty remaining about how TikTok will combat misinformation, marketing and communications professionals operating in the social space must remain focused on ensuring their audience receives accurate information in a way that meets them where they are.
So where do we start?
Sometimes it helps to look for inspiration outside of higher ed to see what works. Early on Sunday, June 11 an explosion under an I-95 overpass in Philadelphia caused a section of the major east coast thoroughfare to collapse. Content creator Alex Pearlman took his trademark Philadelphia charm to TikTok to react to the collapse and discuss the impact on drivers in the Philadelphia area. Three days later, Alex shared two more videos related to I-95, one from behind a Governor Shapiro press conference sharing the sights and sounds of the jobsite and another post-conference reaction with more context and detail. Alex shared that he was invited by the governor of Pennsylvania and peppers these videos with specific reconstruction plan details, delivered just as he does in his many other unrelated current event videos.
Over the course of four videos, Alex’s I-95 content was viewed upwards of 3.5 million times. I share that recognizing this is just one TikTok-curated vanity metric and more research needs to be done to truly quantify reach, impact, and unique views, but I do not want to let that discredit the value of the tactics we saw at play here.
- A local personality created content about an issue in their area.
- User-generated content (UGC) broke the news and gave a personal view about it to a mass audience on a platform dominated by a younger generation.
- The governor’s office partnered with the unaffiliated content creator to supply them with more opportunities to share unique perspective while also giving details of the plan and transparent behind-the-scenes views of the work being done.
Whoever is responsible for pitching the idea of this partnership deserves a ton of credit for their stroke of brilliance. This team showed a nimble approach to social media at a time when correct information sharing was critical, given the high-impact nature of the incident. They did not try to build from the ground up during a crisis but rather adapted their approach to allow UGC to connect with the audience they were trying to reach. Rather than compete for the generation of young adults getting their news from TikTok, they tactically provided access to an active user who already has that reach and entrusted them to bring their own personality and flair to delivering necessary information.
TikTok thrives on user-generated content, which makes it difficult for branded accounts, like a university or specific program, to break through the noise and establish itself as a credible source and not just a marketing or recruitment tool. That’s okay! If you’re considering a partnership, explore hashtags and locations or search for your institution and things unique to it like keystone traditions or campus landmarks. Who is talking about you, what are they saying, and can you help them continue to share about your institution? Determining what partnership can look like will be situationally (and budgetarily) dependent but can range from something similar to the Alex Pearlman example where you’re inviting established on-campus TikTok creators to events or to show off campus hotspots, to bringing a student on as a staff member to help guide the content of your branded account.
It’s not a guarantee that you’ll have an opportunity to partner with an existing content creator. This is not a barrier; this is an opportunity. See what other institutions are doing, reach out to other university account managers for tips, and keep relying on students. Students know the trends better than us, they know what will work for their peers, they know what will sound forced–trust them. Bring them into your team, pay them appropriately, and learn from them. A common thread for successful branded university accounts is their ability to highlight their programs or campus through the student lens. Partner with students to provide a day-in-the-life snapshot, dorm tours, campus hot spots, programs and events, and even the occasional meme when appropriate to capitalize on a sound or trend.
We may not always be the most appropriate outlet to get our messages across, but it’s up to us as communication professionals to identify who is. Strategy can always guide direction but don’t be afraid to let creativity in the moment influence the tactics you use to get there.