The News Publisher's Guide to TikTok

While TikTok was first launched internationally in 2017, for many news publishers this is still an unexplored platform. Of the handful of traditional print publishers on TikTok, most are still in an experimental phase, trying to understand what content works best. We have dug into this question and prepared a guide for publishers interested in experimenting with TikTok.

Opportunity to reach a younger audience

TikTok has been downloaded more than 1.5 billion times on the Apple App Store and Google Play. This number will continue to grow as Q4 2019 saw a 24% increase in the number of installs compared to the previous quarter. It also overtook Facebook to become the second most downloaded app worldwide. Users on TikTok are also heavily engaged with the app.

On average, a user opens the app about nine times a day and spends more than 45 minutes on the platform.

Eric Jacks, Chief Strategy Officer, Collab

Overall, TikTok has more than 500 million active monthly users, of which surprisingly only 66% are under the age of 30. For an industry vying for the attention of the next news generation, it is clear we cannot overlook the potential TikTok brings. We know that news brand preferences are often formed early on, so it reasons that publishers would benefit from building relationships with young readers.

On a pure business level, it would be completely crazy if you didn’t try to appeal to an app that 1 billion people have downloaded — many of them under 20. That’s so many potential subscribers to your newspaper, so why wouldn’t you take them seriously?

Dave Jorgenson, creative video at The Washington Post

Potential to educate a new generation of news consumers?

The Washington Post was one of the first legacy publishers to experiment with TikTok, thanks to a push from Dave Jorgenson, on their creative video team. Since launching in May 2019, they have racked up 362k followers and over 18 million likes. The team has found that TikTok is a way to humanize the news industry to a younger audience. For example, in a recent post, they poked fun at the growing trend of news avoiders.

With many young people not remembering a time before #FakeNews was a thing, TikTok’s ability to show the human side of journalism is helping younger audiences rebuild trust in mainstream news outlets. The Florida Times-Union recently posted a TikTok that helped dispell some of the common myths around journalists, in a popular meme format. TikTok also stands out for the relatively limited amount of mis- and dis-information campaigns, compared to other platforms such as Facebook and Twitter.

However, publishers do run the risk of trivialising the news with their TikTok strategies. Nicole Dahmen, an associate journalism ethics professor at the University of Oregon, cautions other publishers from copying The Washington Post’s strategy. For example, while this TikTok about hiring a dog to work at The Washington Post is clearly a joke, it raises the question of if publishers should be joking about how they work in the age of fake news.

What content works on TikTok?

Thanks to this running list compiled by Francesco Zaffarano, senior social media editor for The Daily Telegraph, we have reviewed the accounts of news publishers currently active on TikTok. From this, we have a few tips to keep in mind when trying to decide which content to post on TikTok.

1. People connect with people

One running theme from the successful accounts is the clear sense that there’s a person or a small team running the account, not just simply the larger news organisation as a whole. TikTok appears to be a place for people, not for brands, which some news brands have understood. This is something Adriana Lacy, audience engagement editor at The Los Angeles Times, advises as well: Gen Z is more invested in people and relationships than companies and institutions.

When The Dallas Morning News launched their TikTok account, they posted a Full House-style intro of their whole audience team. In Switzerland, 20 Minuten has achieved this personal feeling by posting relatable moments from around the office such as a recent video about the excitement of leaving work on a Friday.

2. Non-chronological display is more suited for stories than breaking news

Since TikTok’s homepage uses a personalised algorithm to decide which videos to show users and the feed is not chronological, TikTok is not a good platform for breaking news. Instead, publishers should aim to provide timely content that is still relevant in the hours and days after. For example, La Nación in Argentina found success by posting a video with tips on how to make a positive difference on the environment during the Global Climate Strike this past autumn.

3. Find a new way to tell the same story

Publishers have to find the right balance between reporting on the news in a respectful, but entertaining way. One way to achieve this is to take a popular meme format from the platform and interject news-related content. For example, USA Today recently explored the impeachment trial by sharing the weird fact that senators are only allowed to drink water and milk while in session.

To stand out on TikTok, publishers will also need to find new ways to tell the same story. MSNBC shared the news that President Trump was changing his permanent residence from New York to Florida through a mash-up of his own speech. TikTok users are much more likely to re-share this post than a static text post. NBC News recently learned that lesson when they tried reappropriating a text article into a TikTok. Even though the content itself was perfectly aimed at Gen Z, sharing that the meme “Ok Boomer” had been used in the Supreme Court, the post received massively fewer engagements than their other posts. While their other recent posts have received anywhere from 2k to more than 300k likes, this post had less than 900.

4. Explainer videos do surprisingly well

While publishers such as The Washington Post have found success by posting non-strictly news content on TikTok, other publishers have seemed to crack the code for injecting news content into their TikTok feeds. Well-produced explainer videos on big stories seem to do particularly well for a variety of publishers. For example, in Australia, The Guardian managed to get close to 10k likes on a recent explainer about the Australian bushfires while their other recent posts receive just a few hundred likes. In Germany, Tagesschau regularly receives thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of likes for their explainer videos from a few different hosts. A recent explainer on the Coronavirus outbreak received more than 100k likes.

5. Mix in lighter news and offbeat stories

Just as older generations consume news to be informed, younger generations want to make sure they don’t miss out either: they want to be the first to know about offbeat stories to share with their friends. That’s one reason why The Telegraph recently had success by publishing a post on how rats are being used to help detect landmines. This was only their second post ever on TikTok, and it received almost 70k more likes than their first post, which was a look at the growing humanitarian crisis in Bosnia.

Should you be on TikTok?

Publishers need to decide if it makes sense to invest resources in a platform that does not seem to have much monetization potential for now. For The Washington Post, they can spend up to four hours on preparing a single TikTok post. Some publishers have decided to redeploy their teams working on Snapchat Discover to focus on TikTok, since the time and resources required to post on TikTok are less.

It is looking like 2020 will see TikTok court publishers more, especially in Europe where it has set up an office of more than 150 people in London. This builds on their efforts last year to create a content partnerships team that works directly with publishers to assist them in growing their audiences on TikTok.

Ultimately though, we recommend publishers at the very least grab their name on TikTok now, in case they do decide to experiment on the platform in the future. Learn from the mistake of The New York Times, which wasn’t so fast and has had its name taken over by a Francophone teenager.

Mary-Katharine Phillips
Mary-Katharine Phillips
Media innovation analyst @ Twipe
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