Once upon a time (the 2010s), the teens of Gen Z were flocking to Snapchat. But there’s a new game in town drawing Gen Z: TikTok, and the platform is creating new opportunities for education marketing.

Let’s look back on what drew your prospective students to Snapchat, why they’re pivoting to TikTok now.

What Happened to Snapchat? 

Simply put, the platform was outfoxed by Facebook.

One of the smartest moves Facebook has ever made was acquiring Instagram back in 2012, the same year Snapchat came out, though they didn’t know why at the time.

While they were worrying about Twitter, it was the up-and-coming social media platform Snapchat, not Twitter, that would soon be luring away teen users.

Teens fell in love with Snapchat’s unique features:

    • Ephemeral content. “Snaps” were short multimedia messages that disappeared after 10 seconds. They lived only in the moment. That was new. And cool.
    • Stories. Snapchat expanded on this idea by allowing users to create series of snaps, like a little multi-chapter show, that lived on the platform for 24 hours. 
    • “Lenses.” They popularized the use of augmented reality (AR) in snaps with what they called Lenses, or filters that could alter your facial features, put a cat on your head, and so on.

The problem was, those features didn’t stay unique for long. Facebook copied the idea of ephemeral content and drew Gen Z to Instagram by cloning the augmented reality features for Instagram Stories (and later for Facebook itself).

While millennials/Gen Y who fell in love with Snapchat over the last decade have stuck with it, Snapchat has struggled to maintain the attention of Gen Z with strong competition from Instagram … and now, TikTok.

What Is TikTok? 

TikTok is a new social media platform that allows users to create short, looping videos (no longer than 60 seconds) with filters and provides a soundtrack. 

It’s most akin to Vine, a discontinued Twitter property that capped looping videos at six seconds. Twitter dropped Vine in 2016. (It’s coming back as Byte, but that’s another post!) Meanwhile, Musical.ly was a lesser-known app that was also doing super-short (15-second) videos. 

Musical.ly was all about making DIY music videos, and that fun idea was bound to catch on.

Through an acquisition by parent company ByteDance, TikTok is the new Musical.ly. It combines the unique short-attention-span nature of Vine and sets it to music and dance.

@brodiepawson

What would happen if you tried this 😬 @khedoori #parkour #jump #dangerous #whatithought #2020 #rocks #tiktok #viral #dontlookatme #scary #floorislava

♬ Lose Control – Meduza & Becky Hill & Goodboys

That has proven a recipe for success as TikTok now boasts 800 million active monthly users.

And when 27 percent of those users are 13 to 17 years old, education marketing professionals need to pay attention.

Why Does Gen Z Love TikTok?

TikTok has captivated teens with many of the same characteristics Snapchat had. But as Snapchat has become increasingly focused on produced video content, including Snap original series, TikTok is focused on homegrown, user-generated content with a winning formula.

Nothing Serious, Just Fun

So far, TikTok has managed to maintain an atmosphere of fun. The user-generated content is almost entirely music, dance, humor and outright goofiness. Gen Z clearly wants this to be a space where they can escape the drudgery of the news cycle and just get silly.

Authenticity

TikTok culture is unconcerned with polish. In contrast to the increasingly produced feel of Snapchat’s discoverable content, TikTok videos – even when carefully produced – tend to feel like they were just thrown together. 

Kids love the in-the-moment, come as-you-are feel. These days, when teenagers are bored, all they have to do is pick up their smartphone and “make a TikTok.” Or watch others who are doing it, seemingly on a whim.

Self-Promotion

Ask younger Gen Z kids what they want to be when they grow up, and the number one answer is to become a YouTuber. They don’t want to be movie stars. They want to be the internet celebrity who talks to them about whatever they’re into: games, music, dance, fashion, etc.

TikTok is a space where teens on the cusp of figuring out the actual business of YouTube feel free to experiment with making content and creating a following.

What Education Marketers Are Doing with TikTok 

Let’s look at a few examples of how trailblazers in higher ed are engaging with the platform.

The University of Florida

U of F was one of the first higher ed institutions to have an official TikTok account, @uf. Kent Fuchs was the first university president to become a TikToker.

The account has been like a case study in how to adapt to a new social medium:

  • They embrace dance. One of their most popular videos is of two School of Theater & Dance students moonwalking inside what looks like the student center, set to popular music available through the app.
@uf

Chad and Emma moonwalking. S/O to our School of Theatre + Dance and the UF College of the Arts!

♬ original sound – eh72zm96sn

  • Not a trace of pretentiousness. President Fuchs understands exactly the kind of thing TikTok users expect, which is clear in one video where he attempts to spell the letters “U F” on the screen with his nose using the AR feature.
  • Silliness reigns supreme. They understand that viral content is often little more than unscripted sight gags, like a sped-up video of their gator mascot doing a terrible job of sneaking up on you, foam head flopping about as (he? she?) “hides” behind trees.
  • Music is the backdrop for life. Whether showing off UF metal artists welding in slow motion, a graduation ceremony, or a post-football game celebration, they consistently use catchy music to provide the emotional flavor that makes it all so engaging.

Brigham Young University

BYU gets that TikTok is all about fun. Their brilliant idea was to choose someone for the face of their account whose job it was to delight fans: their mascot, Cosmo the Cougar.

His account, @cosmo_cougar, has been extremely successful:

  • Dance and acrobatics. The first video of Cosmo doing “The Rollie” with the BYU dance team at a football game has 27.6 million likes to date. Since then, videos have captured his halftime antics, including getting launched from the 3-point line to score a slam dunk.
@cosmo_cougar

Rollie Rollie Rollie! #gocougs #cosmocougar #fyp #foryou #foryoupage

♬ Rolex – Ayo & Teo

  • Keeping it light. TikTokers tend to stick to lighthearted content, even during a pandemic. Cosmo’s approach to “addressing” COVID-19 was a video capturing his quarantine routine, taking cues from Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5.”
  • Doing hashtag challenges. The #ICarlton dance challenge was (and still is) to do the best dance inspired by the corny moves of Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Cosmo gathered a couple of his dancing buddies to show us how it’s done.

Indiana University at Bloomington

IU Bloomington got into TikTok eager to do more than engage with young people about their future. They wanted to speak the language of now.

Through TikTok and savvy social media leadership, @iubloomington has done just that:

  • Tapping into micro-trends. One of their most popular videos tapped into a trend where wealthy kids showed off their mansions, saying, “Rich kid check.” The IU women’s volleyball team showed off their facilities, opening with, “Hey yo! Hoosier check.” (“Hoosiers” are people who live in Indiana.)
@iubloomington

Welcome to the crib. #volleyball #hoosiercheck #realitycheck #foryou

♬ Hoosier Check – iubloomington

  • Nothing sacred. They’ve had a lot of fun with a statue of the late Herman B. Wells, past president of IU. Trusting Gen Z to sense no disrespect, they’ve praised him for his “listening skills” and put a cowboy hat on him to the tune of “Old Town Road.”
  • Corny is good. One of their videos takes you through several majors, featuring a student sorta kinda dancing while they act out their future career (think of a nurse swaying to the beat while using a stethoscope on a dummy). It’s corny, and it totally works for TikTok.
  • Viral sound. Music and sampled voice material work like audio memes on TikTok. A line from the Disney movie Inside Out about wondering what’s going on inside someone’s head, followed by music sampled from the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” is a popular one. They use it to introduce a dog with an IU hat doing tricks.

12 TikTok Tips for Your School

The popularity of these TikToking institutions are revealing some best practices for creating content for the platform.

  1. Pay attention. Get a feel for the stew of niches and sub-subcultures that is TikTok. Spend some time on it to get a sense of what you might respond to (a la “Hoosier check”).
  2. Shoot vertically. Ignore the usual advice about turning your phone to landscape orientation to shoot video. Not with TikTok (or Snapchat). These platforms live vertically.
  3. Use trending sound. You can provide your own sound, but the most popular videos are the ones set to trending music and voiceovers. Lip syncing is all the rage.
  4. Always use hashtags. More than any other platform, hashtags are essential for making your videos discoverable. The most basic one is #fyp (For You Page, every user’s main content feed). Use several that you see trending.
  5. Work with student influencers. Recruit students who have a TikTok following to do their thing with school-branded swag.
  6. Involve staff and faculty who get it. Again, TikTok is about fun – dancing, lip syncing, self-deprecating humor. Staff and faculty who get it are likely to participate in the joke of “old” people TikToking. Those who don’t are likely to be the butt of the joke.
  7. Do hashtag challenges. TikTokers don’t connect with discussion, they do it with dares. Hashtag challenges (e.g. #ICarlton or Jimmy Fallon’s #TumbleweedChallenge) are all about saying “I dare you” – to dance, lip sync, roll, etc. Engaging is doing.
  8. Start hashtag challenges. If you think you’ve got a cool idea that will get buy-in among the student body, go for it. With enough momentum, it could go viral and get you great exposure.
  9. Experiment with duets. “Duets” are split screen videos that show your recording alongside another user’s video. It’s a fun way to showcase musical talent (especially during a pandemic), or to “collaborate” with a famous TikToker in a funny way.
  10. Be careful tapping into the culture. Other popular video types include “react” videos and “cringe” videos. Both can be done in good fun, but can also promote bullying if you’re not careful.
  11. Don’t pay for advertising … yet. TikTok does not have the robust ad features of, say, Facebook yet. At the moment, there’s a lot of opportunity to connect with Gen Z just by using the app.
  12. Have fun. Social media management is work, but users tend to connect more when you’re able to have fun with it. With TikTok, if you’re not getting a little silly and enjoying yourself, Gen Z is likely to dismiss you and scroll on.

It’s Time to Embrace TikTok

There was a time to get onto the Snapchat bandwagon. It’s where your prospective students were going. It was where you needed to be. 

But while Snapchat still has a strong following among Gen Y (making it worthwhile to experiment with, perhaps as part of your grad school enrollment or degree completion strategy), it’s rapidly losing ground among your traditional student prospects.

As the YouTube generation turns to this exciting new platform that makes every YouTube aspirant with a smartphone a TikToker, education marketing has to embrace the moment.

Gen Z has spoken. This moment belongs to TikTok.

For more tips and ideas for creating engaging videos for TikTok and other social media platforms, and how to use them for education marketing, contact me

I’m happy to guide you through this moment, and help you keep an eye on whatever comes next.


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Featured image by Valua Vitaly via Adobe Stock