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A Student-Centered Campus TikTok: For students, by students

A lot has changed about TikTok since I first posted about this “new” platform taking higher education by storm. But TikTok’s popularity, particularly among teenage users, has not. TikTok was the single most popular app downloaded worldwide in 2020, and nearly 69 percent of American teenagers – higher education’s primary audience – are using TikTok. These kinds of statistics have caught the attention of higher ed executives, who’ve in turn asked their marketing and social media leaders to develop TikTok strategies, sometimes with little notice.  

“We made our case by letting our leadership know that we wanted to promote the university’s image and reputation among young, digital native, and prospective student demographics,” says Morgan Campbell, a social media specialist at Indiana University Bloomington, who led the launch of the university’s TikTok account in January 2019. “The demographic cliff was coming, and we knew we had to be creative in the ways we reached our students.”

In the past two years since I penned “TikTok is Coming to Campus,” TikTok has become an indispensable tool for Morgan and scores of other higher ed digital communications professionals. It’s a unique way to offer virtual campus tours, provide an authentic “day in the life” view of the school, and share important campus news, such as the constantly changing COVID-19 protocols over the past year and a half. But many of these teams are changing their approach to creating that content. 

“Originally, when we launched the platform [in September 2019], our strategy was to use it as a content development platform for Instagram stor[ies],” says Rebekah Tilley, director of communications for the Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa. “We changed the strategy [in 2021] to primarily develop content for TikTok itself.”

Digital communication professionals like Morgan and Rebekah are learning that the most valuable tool they have to develop content for TikTok exists in abundance on their campuses: Current students. Although most universities have featured students in their TikToks since they first adopted the platform, some trailblazing institutions are beginning to hand over some — or even all — the responsibility for TikTok strategy to their students.

Are you ready to take the latest TikTok Challenge? A student-centered TikTok strategy. 

City University of New York (CUNY) sure is, listing in their bio as a "Student-run" account.

For this post, I took a deep dive with several digital communication professionals and the students they employ to learn more about how they’re starting down this new and exciting path. It will focus on:

  • A snapshot of TikTok use in higher education today
  • Different structures for incorporating students into a campus TikTok strategy
  • Actual student experiences being part of a TikTok strategy, and
  • Advice for empowering and training students to take up the TikTok reins.

If you’re new to TikTok or its use in higher education, you’ll want to bookmark the post you’re looking at now and start with this one, where I give a detailed overview of both topics. Among the “Tips and Tactics” I shared in that first post was this: Invest in your students. “Just hand over the tools to the students,” I wrote. “Some are familiar with TikTok and can create something great.”

I highlighted Taylor Slifko, the former social media coordinator at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee, who gave her TikTok password to a student who was an incredible dancer and asked him to put together a video to Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” during the song’s TikTok peak. “All I did is tell him my vision and give him the password. He had a friend help him record, and he edited the video himself in the app,” Taylor told me. 

Cape Fear Community College in Wilmington, North Carolina, recently did the same with a student who created a video explaining why she chose the school as she pursued a career as a dental hygienist. The post went viral, with more than 92,000 views, 6,000 likes, and 130 comments, and was featured in a May 2021 Inside Higher Ed article:

A few institutions have already approached Cape Fear for advice on how to start up their own TikTok accounts One of the main advantages of the platform for colleges is the personal touch of having “peers looking to their peers,” said Erin Fabian, the college’s digital marketing analyst. When Cape Fear posts a TikTok video, she sees a spike in visits to the college’s website, and she thinks that dialogue between students is partly why the platform is so potent.“

It eliminated the institution from the communication,” she said. “It kind of was just student to student, student to prospective student, and it made students feel more comfortable and excited to watch those things. It eliminated that gap, that barrier.”

Including students in your TikTok content is an important step toward connecting and resonating more with students and eliminating the institutional messaging that may create a barrier. Some institutions are hiring students as TikTok “talent ambassadors”  to help create content to recruit future students. Pepperdine University in California is one example. 

“I’ve been working to create a group of student creators to help with content style and volume,” says Laura Nickerson, Pepperdine’s social media, in this article from TerminalFour. “They’ll be working to highlight campus life, our gorgeous Malibu location, and the unique experience of being a Pepperdine student.” 

Put simply, featuring students in your TikTok videos isn’t enough. If you’re not incorporating students in your overall TikTok strategy process you’re probably not getting the most from the platform. Students provide the best insight into what your audience wants because, demographically, they are your audience. 

“Our student interns are so crucial to have at the table when discussing content ideas,” Morgan shares. “There are things that they’ll bring to me that our leadership would not really understand, and it can be some of our best content. They have fresh ideas and so much pride for their school that they have always been a huge help to our team.”

There are various ways you can involve students in your campus TikTok strategies and efforts — Morgan breaks them into these categories.

Where does your strategy fall? Let me know with this brief survey to be featured! 

Option A: You’re pulling the wagon.

 You are in full control of your content and pick up things along the way – students’ original videos, which you ask for permission to use – as part of your content strategy.

Option B: You’re in the driver’s seat.

 You’re in full control of what’s being created, but there’s a student in the passenger seat next to you – and in front of the camera in your videos.

Option C: You’re rowing a canoe with your student(s). 

You’re both putting in the same work to get your content out there, but sometimes you’re in the front and sometimes you’re in the back. You integrate students into the development of your TikTok strategy, but you or another staff member approve content before it’s posted. Most of the digital communications professionals and students I spoke with for this piece operate in structures like this.

Option D: Your student is on a bicycle.

You’ve trained them and given them a push. It’s up to them to push the pedals, but you’re always available to lend a hand. You hand over the password to your TikTok account and let students manage all aspects of it. Many of these accounts are referred to as student-run. (The CUNY account highlighted above is an example of this kind of arrangement).

In my conversations with campus digital communications professionals, I learned that all seem to follow some variation of Option C, with teams of two to more than six students.

  • At the Tippie School, Rebekah has one designated student creator and four other contributors for social media, but a staff member guides the strategy and approves the content. 
  • Morgan has a similar setup at Indiana, where four student interns contribute the content before she approves it for posting. 
  • Teddi Tostanoski, the social media manager at the University of California, Davis, employs a more top-down approach – a staff member approves the strategy and the content that student interns create. But she says she gives the students a little more latitude with TikTok than with other platforms. 

Some of these teams involve students dedicated just to TikTok, but the majority create content for multiple social platforms. 

“TikTok is different because of how quickly trends shift, and students can be drivers of content creation because they have a pulse on these shifts,” Teddi says. “They’ve learned that they can create TikToks without asking and more than likely be told, yes, that it’s usable, because they’ve creatively combined a trend with something related to UC Davis.”

That insight into the Gen Z experience is one of the biggest benefits communications leaders say they receive when engaging students in strategizing and creating content for TikTok. Another, unsurprisingly, is more bandwidth to produce great content. 

“I am very lucky to have content AND video interns who are able to help me execute different ideas we come up with,” Morgan says. “If I was doing this all by myself, it would be much more challenging to execute the number of videos we have been able to put out the past two years.”

 There isn’t a cut-and-dry process any of the professionals I spoke with follow when hiring students. Most indicated that previous experience with TikTok is a plus – but not a requirement – in candidates. They say they typically hire students for creativity, a sense of humor, and a broad set of skills applicable to any social platform.  

“The team, as they’ve been creating content, has helped shape some of our rules and best practices as we continue to ask more students to create content,” Teddi says. 

No matter the model you choose, it’s important that your students be compensated, trained, and consistently coached. Their work should not only advance your strategy but also allow them to grow their skillsets. These positions should be more than jobs; they should be transformational experiences that open up career options for your students down the road.  

Training itself can take a variety of forms. 

  • At the Tippie School, Rebekah employs a “partial peer-training model.” An older or more experienced student worker will mentor a new hire who will, eventually, pick up the baton after their mentor graduates. 
  • At Indiana, Morgan doesn’t provide a specific training program but shares articles, webinars or training programs she comes across to help the students deepen their understanding of TikTok and remain current on trends. 
  • At the University of Victoria in Canada, Digital Media Manager Ali Baggott ensures student workers have a clear understanding of the boundaries within which they work. “Students making content still need guidance,” she says, “help with the messaging and appropriate framing.”

Once students are hired and trained, these digital communications professionals recommended keeping some structure for the students to work within. This can include weekly meetings or reports during which students and staff can jointly review metrics, analyze what is and isn’t working in their strategy, and discuss ideas or important topics they need to cover in the near future. Teddi also recommends keeping an open door for informal communication with student workers. She often interacts with both her workers and other student TikTok volunteers via email.

Hear how four campus communications pros train and empower students in this Higher Ed Digital Community Builders webinar.

 In addition to speaking with full-time higher ed communications staff, I also reached out to students who work on some of the most successful institutional TikTok accounts to gain their perspectives on their roles. 

Each of the four students I spoke with – Emma Hapeman from the Tippie College, Caroline Buckheit from Indiana, Julliet Hill from UC Davis, and Daniel Shirley from Clemson University – cited a variety of sources for their TikTok inspiration and education. 

Emma said she read a lot of articles about how TikTok has been used in higher ed and watched TikToks from prolific producers like the Washington Post. Caroline, Julliet, and Daniel credited spending a lot of time just using the app.

“The best resource in learning about TikTok as a campus marketing tool is TikTok itself,” Caroline says. “Our goal in using the platform as a campus marketing tool is to get as many people onto ‘IU Tok.’ Spending time on the app learning the effects and sounds, and keeping a close eye on the trends is the best resource to learn how to get your page to its fullest potential.”

She mentioned that one day, she was browsing food TikTok and saw a lot of content for gourmet meals and charcuterie boards performing well. She had an idea: Why not make a charcuterie board, but with food from an IU dining hall? 

“I texted my boss immediately and made a video that afternoon,” Caroline recalls. “It’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had making a TikTok.”

@iubloomington charcuterie board sponsored by our local dining hall *chef’s kiss 😚* #iubloomington #dininghallfood #fancy #charcuterieboard ♬ CEO of speaking French - I.y.a

Each of the students I spoke with said that having creative freedom – from creating ideas to producing and editing the content – was a benefit they appreciated. It’s also why they believe their videos perform well. “TikTok is the perfect platform to feed information to audiences in a different way,” Caroline says. “It allows you to be creative and make the information known in an exciting way for students.” 

But while freedom is appreciated, the students indicated that constant feedback and support from communications staff is essential to a well-rounded strategy. Emma noted that she uses her staff mentors in the Tippie College as sounding boards who “help me build off of (ideas) if I was ever stuck.” For a couple of TikToks, Daniel said he needed help accessing video Clemson had previously produced, as well as time with the university’s Tiger mascot

“There are so many ideas that I’ve had as an intern that fit this platform specifically that I wouldn’t really be able to create anywhere else,” Julliet says, “And there’s not one idea that (my staff supervisors) have shut down.”

“If you start big, you may just get your full creative vision fulfilled,” Emma says. “It never hurts to ask. The worst you can get is a ‘no.’”

The students I spoke with see the benefits they bring to their institution’s TikTok strategy as threefold. 

Humor and laughter

  • Students know what they — and their fellow students — want from TikTok. “They want to laugh at common experiences, professors they’ve had, or classes they’ve taken,” Emma says. 

Knowledge of TikTok trends

  • Students keep a finger on the pulse of TikTok trends better than staff do. They know their peers like seeing a school’s unique twist on these trends in their own For You pages.  “Oftentimes, it almost provides a ‘shock’ that their schools are keeping up with trends,” Julliet says. 

Striking the right tone

  • Students can help colleges and universities achieve the informal tone that TikTokers respond to. “We don’t want super formal videos that make us feel like we’re on Facebook or Instagram — otherwise we’d be on that app,” Daniel says.

Students are applying this knowledge to TikTok about just about every kind of topic you can think of: majors and programs, campus videos and tours, general campus information, and student takeovers. Most are posting about one to two times per week for their school. To measure success, they and their teams are looking at metrics like views, likes, watch time, and what percentage of people see their videos from their following versus the For You page.

But the benefits of hiring students to run your TikTok aren’t one-sided. The students I spoke with highlighted a variety of benefits they felt they received from their experiences as contributors to their institutions’ TikTok strategies, which fell into these categories:

Honing transferable skills

  • “I learned to create original content, figure out a platform and master it, and work autonomously,” Emma says. Daniel agrees: “I gained a myriad of skills, from content brainstorming, to creation, to captions, to analytics. I was able to do it all.” 

Greater understanding of social media management

  • “Working on managing content and trying to build a community, you become hypersensitive to those needs,” Julliet says.

Hear four stellar student social media leaders talk about their experiences in this Higher Ed Digital Community Leaders webinar.

After working on the front lines of their universities’ TikTok strategies, these students have learned a lot of lessons. Here’s what they’d recommend to other students just starting out in supporting their schools’ TikTok accounts: 

Use what’s popular, but do it fast, Julliet says.

TikTok trends come and go quickly, so if you see something you like and want to recreate it, do it ASAP. Even just waiting a week might not get the performance you’d like. 

Go with the flow, Caroline recommends. 

TikTok is very hit or miss. Some videos get hundreds of views and interactions, while others only get a few. Sometimes you hit a trend spot on, and sometimes you miss it. Everything on TikTok changes so fast, so it’s important just to keep an eye on what’s popular and go with the flow of the trends. 

Creativity is key, Daniel says. 

People go on TikTok to see original content. Even if it is copying a trend or using another school’s idea, make it yours. Our most popular videos are the simplest ones to make, so it’s not necessary to have a high production value.

The time of day is important, Emma advises. 

When are people active? In between classes and right before they go to bed/after they wake up, because our phones are always the last thing we see before going to bed and the first thing we look at in the morning.

Ready to get students more deeply integrated into your TikTok strategy? Here’s the advice our digital communications pros – and their students – have for you. 

Tap into established student influencers.

Find a student on campus who already has a large following on their personal account. These are the best for training, idea creation, and bring many new followers.” – Emma Hapeman, student, Tippie College of Business at the University of Iowa

Lay out expectations early.

Give specific, positive feedback regularly so when you make corrections, they know it’s coming from a person who sees the positive, too. And if another opportunity comes up for (your student workers), encourage them to pursue it.” – Rebekah Tilley, director of communications, Tilley College of Business at the University of Iowa

Be a consistent guide.

Help them learn how to navigate and research the current trends and guide them on how you can tie it back to your brand. Just because (students) have the TikTok app, it doesn’t mean they are going to be a TikTok expert. As our students have learned our brand more and our tone/voice, they have been executing content with less feedback. – Morgan Campbell, social media specialist, Indiana University Bloomington

Trust their ideas.

If the student knows their ideas are valued, the metrics tend to show that. We’re still there to provide risk management and assign content, but it’s wild how creative students can be when they are not told “no,” or their manager goes above and beyond to make credible content. – Teddi Tostanoski, social media manager, University of California, Davis

Invest in them.

I nurture little areas they want to grow in, whether that’s video, social strategy, photos, etc. I treat them like royalty – surprise them with coffee cards, buy them swag, let them be part of big things. I go in expecting that I will give more than I get. – Ali Baggott, digital media manager, University of Victoria (Canada)

Give students a lil space.

Let the students lead and be open to their suggestions. They know what they want to see and what other students are looking for. – Julliet Hill, student, UC Davis

Don’t quit.

We have had so many videos do poorly, but when you get one that blows up, it makes it worth it, and then those new followers can see your other videos about the campus that may not do as well. – Daniel Shirley, student, Clemson University

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this post, so to summarize what you need to know:

  • TikTok has become one of the most powerful tools in a school’s social media arsenal, helping with everything from connecting with prospective students to communicating with current students. 
  • To use TikTok to its greatest potential, you need to recruit students to play a key role in your strategy — in front of AND behind the camera. 
  • Listen to the students you hire — they have a finger on the pulse of what your audience wants to see on TikTok and a keen understanding of what they don’t.
  • Empower your students with compensation, access, resources, and freedom — but ensure you also provide constant training and frequent feedback to help them grow their skills.
  • Have fun. That’s what TikTok is all about!

I am so grateful to Rebekah, Morgan, Teddi, Ali, Emma, Caroline, Julliet, and Daniel for taking the time to share their experiences with me – and you – for this post. I hope their words and ideas have given you inspiration, as well as some concrete next steps, to incorporate more students in both the planning and execution of your TikTok strategy. 

And don’t forget to keep an eye on the original content your own community is creating. You never know what kind of TikTok gold is waiting to be uncovered! Just like this one below.

@amoneyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy0

Professor Tato, Po… btw he proceeded to teach the material this filter#umich #college #universityofmichigan #rossschoolofbusiness

♬ original sound - Amoneyyy

For more information about TikTok basics, how higher ed institutions are succeeding on the platform, and more, check out these articles I’ve found most useful:

TikTok is Going to College

Higher Ed TikTok Directory

#Discover: TikTokHigherEd

Training and Empowering Students as Digital Community Builders

Student Leaders as Social Media Managers

Let’s Stay Connected!

If you’re looking for more examples of how institutions are using TikTok, check out our College and University TikTok Directory! Don’t see your campus TikTok account listed, but want to share it? We’d love to add you, so please reach out to us.

I’d also love to invite you to stay updated on the latest trends in higher education digital leadership by subscribing to my monthly newsletter.  

Who Else is Talking about TikTok in Higher Ed

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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