Should your university be on TikTok?

Social media platform, TikTok, is loved by teens and boasts higher global engagement levels than both Instagram and Twitter. So why is getting your university to sign up not quite the no-brainer it appears?

In October 2020, TikTok overtook Instagram on the list of American teenagers’ most used social media apps, its 29% share second only to Snapchat.

A year earlier, the figure was just 4%.

Tiktok’s reach might be slightly less in the UK – in the third quarter of 2020, it was used by 24% of those aged 15 to 25 – but its take-up trajectory has been no less vertiginous.

While a social media site best known for sharing short videos might not immediately sound like the most natural place for a university to tout its wares, those user numbers are stark: never mind the content, feel the demographic targeting.

Clearly, your higher education institution should be on TikTok. Shouldn’t it?

“Universities should be careful with media like TikTok,” says Dr Janina Steinmetz, senior marketing lecturer at The Business School, noting that the platform is most commonly used informally among friends.

“A university wants to be taken seriously, so being seen as too much of a friend might hurt its image,” she adds.

“I would say that some engagement on TikTok can be really nice and engaging for current and prospective students, as long as the overall mission of the university – e.g., promoting education and research – is supported by the social media engagement.”

The exposure we’ve received on TikTok has been huge, considering the spend – Matt Horne, Newcastle University

TikTok’s potential image problem runs rather deeper than boasting a level of gravitas closer to Snapchat than LinkedIn, owned as it is by a Chinese company, ByteDance.

Could it really be a good look to be aligned with a network known to have censored content on the instructions of the Chinese government? And how strong are safeguards against data harvesting in Beijing?

On the other hand, TikTok is no Huawei, bedding down in critical national infrastructure. More fundamentally, Chinese influence in UK higher education already extends rather further than choice of social media platform, as a report by former universities minister, Jo Johnson, revealed in March.

“If the question is about whether a university should ally with a social media platform, I agree with Janina’s point,” says Wanqing Zhang, marketing lecturer at The Business School.

“Universities should be always cautious. However, this caution is not limited to China-based entrepreneurships. Care should be spent on all social media platforms, such as Facebook,” she adds, noting its involvement in the Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

Choosing which social media channels to keep using can be as important as selecting which to adopt. Universities need to be aware of the speed with which a major online freeway can become a grass-flecked road to nowhere; it doesn’t need a social media guru to tell you that a higher education institution touting a Myspace account might as well hope to attract bright young things with the promise of reasonably priced quills and vellum.

The example is less extreme than it sounds. Once upon a not so long ago, Myspace, like Facebook today, was the largest social network in the world. And while January’s recording of 2.74bn active users suggests that Mark Zuckerberg’s virtual behemoth remains in rude health, only old timers – the over-25s, say – are likely to think that its predominance is inviolable.

You may also like: Arts University Bournemouth launches ‘disruptive’ prospectus via Instagram

It takes only the shallowest of dives into the data set that recorded TikTok’s usurping of Instagram to see a likely change in where the coming cohort of would-be undergraduates weigh up their university options online.

In the autumn of 2012, Facebook was the most popular social network for 42% of US teens. Five years later, the number dipped into single figures. Come autumn 2020, it was the go-to network for a mere 2%.

More than two-thirds (69%) of TikTok users, by contrast, are aged 13-23. The app boasts higher global engagement levels than both Instagram and Twitter, ranking below only Facebook and YouTube in popularity, and with a direction of travel still determinedly on the rise – two billion downloads made it the #1 app of 2020.

“With over 690 million active users, mostly in an ideal demographic for universities, TikTok is definitely a channel that can work for universities and colleges,” says Piero Tintori, CEO, higher education digital marketing specialists, Terminalfour.

None of which means that the Facebook should be thrown out with the MySpace just yet. A platform designed for micro-films is no substitute, on its own, for one more suited to providing the depth of detail required by those deciding where to spend take their student pound.

“To succeed on TikTok, a marketing team will need to spend serious time creating authentic organic content, probably more than on other social channels,” adds Tintori. “It is worth investing in, but only as part of an overall mature social media playbook.

“In plain English, it’s not just about setting up an account and sharing a few boring bits of content. For a university to gain traction the content will need to be authentic, designed for TikTok and as part of an overall campaign.”

To succeed on TikTok, a marketing team will need to spend serious time creating authentic organic content, probably more than on other social channels – Piero Tintori, Terminalfour

As Newcastle University recognised, TikTok has more in common with YouTube than Facebook when it comes to users’ toleration of advertising.

The university signed up to TikTok for Business and, via a suite of in-feed ads, showcased the institution’s appeal with films of student ambassadors and the campus’ ever-popular red-brick architecture. Users were then invited to click through to a landing page on the university’s website.

The ads’ fortnight run reached over 1.1 million young people, resulting in more than 7,000 visits to the website.

“The exposure we’ve received on the platform has been huge, considering the spend,” Matt Horne, paid media manager at Newcastle University, told Terminalfour.

“If the question is about whether a university should open a TikTok account, my opinion is why not?” says Zhang. “In order to facilitate the communication with students from different backgrounds and countries, a university should diversify their digital channels to meet students’ needs. Eventually, this will help recruitment and conversion.”

Ultimately, the answer to whether your institution should be on TikTok – alongside the more established likes of Facebook and Twitter – is the same as questioning whether a student should play hard or study hard to get the most out of their time at university: to optimise results, it’s all about the balance.

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