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Is Time Up For TikTok in Higher Education? 

Is time up for TikTok in higher education? Here's how to develop a contingency plan, by Josie Ahlquist

TikTok has become a major platform for Gen Z, and colleges have increasingly used it to connect with potential students, to showcase campus life, and communicate with their community. 

According to data gathered by Thred, Gen Z are on TikTok for 12.4 hours a week on average. And on the app overall, they make up 60% of the total user base. But Gen Z aren’t the only ones on TikTok. Of TikTok’s estimated 80 million active users, 4/5 are between the ages of 16-34. 

  • Users open the app 9 times a day.
  • Users spend an average of 95 minutes in the app per day.
  • 5 million businesses actively use TikTok in the U.S.
  • Nearly half of Gen Z is using TikTok and Instagram for search instead of Google, according to Google’s own internal data.
  • #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt: 55% of users have bought something after seeing it on TikTok.

However, at the time of writing, more than two dozen states have banned TikTok on government-issued devices and many colleges including the University of Texas at Austin, Auburn University, and Boise State University have blocked it from campus Wi-Fi networks.

This is due to a senate bill called the Restricting the Emergence of Security Threats that Risk Information and Communications Technology or the RESTRICT Act, which was proposed in Congress in March 2023. As a business or organization that uses TikTok for marketing or communication purposes, it’s important to develop a contingency plan in case of a potential ban.

In 2019 I wrote a popular piece, “TikTok is Coming to Campus” and then two years later, in 2021, “A Student-Centered Campus TikTok.” I have advocated for the platform, whether as a social listening tool or part of your community-building strategies. I personally enjoy the platform, but, as I publish this piece in 2023, I wonder about TikTok’s future and the unknown anxieties that social media professionals are dealing with.

The question is also: Why? Why are universities and states banning TikTok? 

According to Rob Buelow, “The concern is that China could require TikTok’s China-based parent company, Byte Dance, to share all data associated with the app, providing a direct source of intelligence and ongoing data collection opportunities for US citizens.”

TikTok, however, has a laid out private policy page that goes over the information they collect, how they use it, an app user’s rights, and so forth. Their own researchers even conduct a technical analysis of their practices

Current Implications for TikTok Bans on College Campuses

  • Impacts student recruitment efforts. As we’ve discussed, the app is popular amongst Gen Z, which is a significant demographic for colleges to target. 
  • For those who have been building up TikTok accounts for student organizations, mascots, the college itself, it could feel like a wasted effort if no longer allowed to post and leverage the channel.
  • Colleges may need to adjust their social media and marketing strategies, focus on alternative platforms like Instagram or YouTube, and shift their content and messaging accordingly.
  • TikTok has become popular for college students to showcase their campus experiences and culture. A ban could impact the ability of students to share and celebrate their college experience.
  • Bans limit faculty and researchers from using TikTok as a teaching tool.
  • Colleges may need to address cybersecurity concerns related to the use of TikTok on campus networks. With the ban, these concerns may no longer be relevant, but colleges will need to remain vigilant about protecting their networks and data. 
  • Some universities have already banned the app from use on university-owned devices or for devices who are connected to the campus WiFi.

While the ban is unprecedented, it is not surprising given the cybersecurity concerns related to the app. Colleges and organizations need to prepare for the possibility of its removal if their state or college isn’t already affected. 

Developing a TikTok Contingency Plan

1. Invest in Vertical Content on Alternative Platforms 

The first step is to identify alternative social media platforms that you can use to reach your target audience that specifically has vertical video integration. Right now, re-invest in Instagram Reels, Facebook Stories, and YouTube shorts are some options to consider, and it’s important to adjust your content and strategy to suit each platform.

2. Inform Your Audience

If a ban is announced in your state, communicate the news to your audience, including current and prospective students. Explain how the ban will impact your social media and communication efforts, and provide them with information on alternative channels they can use to stay connected with the university.

3. Review Your Contracts

If you work with influencers or content creators on TikTok, review your contracts and consider how a ban may impact your existing agreements. You may need to adjust your contracts or seek alternative partners. 

Businesses and organizations can consider collaborating with influencers or marketing agencies to shift their “TikTok” presence to alternative platforms. Social listening agencies or tools, such as Campus Sonar, can also help with monitoring and analyzing social media conversations.

4. Preserve Your Content

Download and backup all of your TikTok content, including videos, images, and captions to ensure that you can still use your content on alternative platforms if TikTok is banned. You can also consider repurposing that content if it’s evergreen. 

5. Stay Informed

As the social media landscape continues to shift, it’s important to stay informed and pivot quickly if the situation changes. Users are shifting to platforms like Lemon8, and short video content is becoming more popular, emphasizing authenticity and even awkward content.

If You Had One TikTok Post Left…

Here are some ideas you can pre-create in case your state is not currently banned but has a high potential to be in the future.

Compilation of favorite moments: Create a video montage of their favorite TikTok moments, including their most popular videos and collaborations with other creators. This could be a way to reminisce and celebrate the community built on the platform.

Thank you message: Create a video thanking their followers and the TikTok community for their support and engagement. This could be a heartfelt goodbye and a way to express gratitude for the connections made on the app.

Dance or lip sync: Create a final dance or lip sync video showcasing their skills and creativity on the platform. This could be a fun and energetic way to say goodbye to the TikTok community.

Follow Us: Create a video showing where and how they will be communicating outside of TikTok once the platform is no longer accessible. This could be a creative way to segway into a new or underutilized platform. 

What Now?

If your state or institution is already banned, discuss as a team whether hiring a marketing firm to place paid ads makes sense. This would allow the college to stay on TikTok without posting natively through an account.

Another alternative is to explore if a student-run account can fill the gaps like The City University of New York has done. It would just be important to spell out in the contracts that video should be captured off the TikTok platform (to create a general bank and use for other platforms), and posting cannot be done while not on any university-owned WiFi. 

The Bottom Line

I was interviewed recently for a piece in Inside Higher Ed, where I share that it is essential for universities and organizations that currently create content on TikTok to prepare for the possibility of its removal. 

With the potential for a nationwide ban looming, colleges and universities may need to adjust their social media and marketing strategies to account for the absence of TikTok. This could include focusing on alternative platforms, such as Instagram or YouTube, and a shift in content and messaging. 

To protect your privacy on TikTok, you can employ the same practices used to protect yourself on other social media platforms. That includes not permitting apps to access your location or contacts. And, thanks to a new feature, you can also watch TikTok videos without opening an account.

How Can Josie Help?

I support campus marketing and communications through various mediums and work with you and your departments to meet your goals — no matter the platform.

I help coach and train your staff with customized keynotes, full-day or multi-day facilitations. I offer consulting on a semester or yearly basis, and once a year, I host the Digital Community Building Cohort, teaching social media strategy skills to higher ed professionals.

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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Rebekah Tilley

Assistant Vice President, University of Iowa Center for Advancement

Rebekah Tilley is the assistant vice president of communication and marketing for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement (UICA). In that role she supports fundraising and alumni engagement efforts for the university, including its CASE Gold winning Iowa Magazine, and serves UICA in a variety of strategic communication efforts.

Previously she was the director of strategic communication for the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, and the director of communication for the University of Kentucky College of Law. She is a Kentucky native and a proud alum of the University of Kentucky.

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