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Higher ed institutions are beginning to get the hang of TikTok.
Many college and university marketing teams are now taking advantage of the short-form video application to show off hidden study spots, dispel campus misconceptions—such as that the dining hall food is lousy—share glimpses of the average day in the life of a student and more. According to a 2022 Pew Research study, two-thirds of teenagers use TikTok, making it a vital recruiting tool for colleges.
In recent months, however, some state governments and university systems have banned TikTok, restricting student and employee access to the app—typically by blocking it on campus Wi-Fi networks and university-owned devices. Now the Biden administration is threatening to ban the app in the U.S. unless ByteDance, its Chinese owner, sells it, NPR reported.
Marketing teams at institutions with minor restrictions have circumvented them by simply creating and posting videos using their personal networks and noncampus Wi-Fi, according to Josie Ahlquist, a digital engagement consultant. For those at institutions where state regulations now prohibit them from promoting themselves on the app, she recommends posting a goodbye video, explaining where else their followers can find them on social media.
It’s unclear how a nationwide ban would impact college marketers—though pivoting to Gen Z’s second-favorite app, Instagram, would be the natural solution. Ahlquist noted that TikTok’s popularity has helped make vertical video—videos that are taller than they are wide, thereby filling up a typical smartphone screen—one of the highest-demand forms of content on other apps.
“I would encourage everybody to download their videos, because what we know is that vertical video is doing fairly well on different platforms,” she said. “YouTube is putting a lot of investment into that. They’re even paying content creators to do more of that … Reddit just added kind of a vertical video–esque element. We know that, at least, that type of content is working.”
Cassaundra Sigaran, executive director of new media strategy at Washington University in St. Louis, said that while TikTok is home to a unique culture, she expects that culture—and the creators behind it—would easily shift onto Instagram’s vertical-video platform, Instagram Reels. She noted that the university’s analytics show that content they reposted from TikTok to Instagram actually does better on the latter site.
“You look at Snapchat. Snapchat was so big and so hot in its heyday, and then Instagram came out with Stories and it changed everything,” she said. “We thought, ‘How could it be the same?’ But then it was the same, and then it was better. I don’t think that there should be any fear in it, because we’re talking about creativity, and creators are going to create in whatever outlet is available to them.”
Reaching Gen Z
Still, universities have put significant time and energy into learning to use TikTok.
Wash U first launched its TikTok account in the early days of the pandemic to showcase projects students were working on at home. Sigaran said she was drawn to the platform because young people seemed to find immense joy in TikTok videos even amid the stress of the pandemic and online classes. But there was a steep learning curve.
“We didn’t have a lot of knowledge about TikTok, and neither did my students, because the students at that time were kind of that bridge between millennials and Gen Z, and TikTok, at that time, was very much a Gen Z type of platform,” she said. “Even my interns at the time were like, ‘We don’t know what this is.’”
Other universities were unsure if they should even launch TikTok accounts back then; it was clearly the direction social media marketing was heading, but it was also obvious that it would cannibalize resources and time that universities were putting into their existing social media accounts.
“As new platforms emerge, we tend to watch and see how they play out before we jump in, [asking,] ‘Is our audience there? Is it something we need to invest our time in?’ Because our resources are limited,” said Kira Thomas, director of university marketing and communications at the University of Montevallo in Alabama. “It was a while before we got into TikTok in October 2021.”
Nowadays, many university marketing departments, including those at both Montevallo and Wash U, hire teams of student interns to help create content. The students bring to the job knowledge of what performs well on TikTok and what trends are currently gaining traction.
Wash U employs four students, who pitch video ideas once weekly and spend the week tracking the latest trends and recording footage around campus.
Sam Hirsch, a senior and a social media intern for Wash U, wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed that his videos aim to put “twists” on popular TikTok trends while also being “reflective of WashU’s values.” One of his favorite projects so far, posted two weeks ago, showed a group of students going to see the capybara at the Saint Louis Zoo. As Hirsch knew, the large South American rodents are currently trending on TikTok.
Following popular trends appears to have paid off. The account’s most popular video, a skit about a professor swapping places with his students, has been viewed about 589,000 times. Most videos routinely get over 10,000 views.
“On campus, our videos have a great reception,” Hirsh said, adding that his fellow students often ask him if they can be featured in a video. “From outside of the WashU community, we reach a large number of prospective students, and I am always happy to see people commenting about how they have just submitted applications, got into WashU, will be touring campus, etc.”
This was certainly true of the capybara video. One commenter jokingly said the Saint Louis Zoo’s capybara was “the real reason I want to go to WashU.”
The interns also help give the videos a sense of the student perspective—an important quality on an app where authenticity is considered a valuable asset, according to marketing experts.
Maureen Finn, senior digital marketing strategist at Creative Communications Associates, a marketing agency targeted at higher education clients, said universities tend to think their TikTok videos “need to be super polished, or they’re thinking of people doing these choreographed dances and flawless transitions. What we kind of tell them is that that’s definitely not what you need to be doing … don’t overthink it. Just put together a quick video. You can just take some B-roll of walking around the campus and put up a quick campus tour.”
Of course, some universities—especially elite institutions—get free advertising from students who are TikTok creators or vloggers. It’s not uncommon for these students to post aesthetically pleasing videos outlining a day at their university, whether that means hitting up a cozy campus cafe or studying in the quad.
One video with over 191,000 views, posted in January by TikTok user claaaarke, shows the Columbia University student’s “last first day” at the institution, outlining the classes she’s taking in her final semester. Many of the comments focused on how exciting her schedule sounded or how much her videos made viewers want to attend Columbia.
“Wow, the classes at Columbia are amazing,” one user remarked.
“The Columbia campus is so pretty,” another said.
It remains to be seen whether that particular form of unintended advertising would survive in a post-TikTok digital world.