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Is your institution a haven for LGBTQ students, known for unemployed graduates or a magnet for the smart kids? It may be portrayed that way on TikTok. A late-night TikTok binge clued me in to students’ perception of hundreds of institutions. Based on view counts, hundreds of thousands of teenagers likely also watched the crowdsourced, 50-second, low-budget videos produced by students just like them, and it may influence how they view your campus.

TikTok users have started categorizing campuses using an obscure audio clip (originally created by user @snoted) that surfaced on Oct. 9. A mostly monotone voice wishes “good night” to 14 groups of people named by stereotypes as mundane as people who miss going to the library (i.e., the smart kids) and as polarizing as people with daddy issues. It includes multiple references to Gen Z pop culture like The Magic Tree House and Warrior Cats book series, as well as phrases not fit for this publication.

There are over 7,000 videos with this audio, which makes it relatively niche for the app (over 500,000 videos were created with Fleetwood Mac’s "Dreams" audio, popularized by a skateboarder drinking cranberry juice). Not all of the “good night” videos are about colleges, but the first -- and most popular -- was about California universities, and it spurred others.

"Goodnight to California Universities" includes campuses ranging from Chico State to Stanford. It’s been viewed over a million times, shared nearly 5,000 times and received over 2,000 comments. Grouping institutions by state is the most popular format for this meme, with at least 24 states represented. A student’s take on Pennsylvania colleges and universities has over 600,000 views, and quite a few other state compilations have hundreds of thousands of views. In Canada, Ontario is most popular, with multiple versions racking up over 300,000 views total. There are also versions for the Ivy League, Big Ten, liberal arts colleges and Boston schools.

Besides the view counts, there are thousands of comments on these videos. Current students are confirming the creator’s classification of their school, while others are offended that their campus wasn’t included. Some high school students are discussing if the meme affects their perception of the campuses they’re applying to. For example, a student commented on a video about North Carolina institutions with over 70,000 views, saying they were just accepted to a specific university and asking, “Should I decline now?” Current students chimed in with pro and con arguments, discussing the social scene, their pandemic response and unsubstantiated rumors about its fiscal status.

While marketers love to describe their brands with phrases like “world-class faculty” or “interdisciplinary learning,” those phrases aren’t top of mind for the average students nonselective institutions need to fill their classes and generate tuition revenue. Those students are wondering if there will be people like them on campus, and if they’ll be able to find a good job after graduation. The “good night” TikTok meme offers them that sort of categorization.

The moment for this TikTok meme was brief (video creation slowed to a crawl by the end of October), but students share perceptions of higher ed brands every day on social media sites like YouTube, Reddit and TikTok. Prospective students know this and flock to these sites for an unfiltered view into campus life they don’t see in official marketing materials. In his latest book, Who Gets In And Why, Jeffrey Selingo advises students and their parents to “Go beyond what colleges are offering and look for students on social media who attend the schools you’re interested in. Search through Reddit and YouTube for threads and videos about campus.”

Higher ed marketing leaders must recognize they no longer control their brand message (if they ever did). In The Brand Gap, Marty Neumeier writes, “Brand is not what you say it is. It’s what they say it is.” Brands are defined by individuals, not marketers. Leaders can shape their brands through experiences, outcomes and storytelling that produce congruent messages whether from the campus itself or the TikTok account of a new student. When assessing their brands, they must pay just as much attention to online word of mouth as prospective students and parents do through social listening. Memes like this shouldn’t be dismissed -- they’re a learning opportunity (just like they were during the quick shift to online instruction). An opportunity for campuses to embrace the positive and authentic parts of their brand that are already present in their hallways, on the quad and on TikTok -- and reckon with the negative perceptions that can’t be plastered over with a billboard.

Liz Gross is the founder and CEO of Campus Sonar, a social listening agency dedicated to higher education. Find her on Twitter: @LizGross144.