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TikTok is Going To College

Throughout the years I’ve geeked out on this blog about trending platforms and why higher education institutions and campus leaders should pay attention, such as Instagram, Instagram Stories, and Snapchat. I have had my eyes on TikTok for some time now, known previously as Musical.ly.

So when I started to get more and more questions about the app, campus-based accounts started to pop up, and most importantly college students were becoming active users – I knew it was time to write about it. 

This post will explore TikTok, including why higher education institutions should be paying attention and ways for campuses to approach the platform. I will also provide some examples, feedback, and advice from higher ed professionals and universities that are taking the leap to become a TikToker

Already have a College/University branded account? Add your campus to this TikTok directory: https://bit.ly/TikTokHigherEd

What is TikTok?

TikTok formerly referred to as Musical.ly officially hit the scene in 2016, first in China. Fast forward to 2018, TikTok was one of the most downloaded mobile apps for Apple and Android devices with nearly 1 billion downloads as of February 2019. This article shows the fast growth of this app from in comparison to other social networks. It joins the club of short-form mobile video apps alongside Snapchat and Instagram Stories. Refinery29 described TikTok as

“A social media platform teeming with Gen Z users, TikTok is basically the new Vine, with a music twist.” 

TikTok and Musical.ly started off as lip-syncing apps where users could sing along to their favorite songs and edit the short video into a 15-second experience. Today, TikTok has shifted into a platform that can do much more.

It has turned into a launching pad for viral memes, comedic skits, musical sensations, and the most popular TikTok collaborative trending challenges. Take a look one such trend #BeautifulPeople, using the Ed Sheeran song (Sheeran recently started his account):

Challenge Culture

This app thrives off of challenges and trending hashtags. These are community-created that usually start off with one short video introducing the challenge, then everyone else catches on by recording their own version. Challenges can fade away just as quickly as they started, but if it gets picked up, so far by a celebrity or big online influencer, it can last for months. 

For example, take the “Pretend Instrument Challenge” that Jimmy Fallon featured on the Tonight Show during his new segment “Tonight Show Challenges” where he makes up new challenges and encourages viewers to participate on TikTok. You may be familiar with what was dubbed the “Yeehaw Challenge” which stormed the internet and brought Lil Nas X and his music single “Old Town Road” to fame. 

Jimmy Fallon introduces the audience to TikTok on the Tonight Show

The list of challenges and trends go on and on, and keep users coming back day after day. More than 500 million people around the globe use TikTok monthly, with the largest population of users coming from India.

These users usually spend close to an hour a day using the app. 66% of those 500 million users are under the age of thirty! Which leads me to who the most common creators and viewers are, Generation Z. 

Gen Z, College Students & TikTok

Generation Z is defined as anyone born between 1997-2015 making it the youngest, most recently named generation. Gen Zers are currently (2021) between the ages of 6-24 years old. As it pertains to media consumption, this generation has most likely had some kind of “access” to mobile phones whether their own or parents/guardians. The majority of their world has been hyper-connected to technology.  

There are lots to be learned about this generation. Check out this book by Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace, Generation Z: A Century in the Making, where they “offer insight into nearly every aspect of the lives of those in Generation Z.” Prior, this researcher/author duo released Gen Z Goes To College, which goes into a bit of about the influence of social media and technology on this generation. TikTok isn’t one of those apps, but when they do an updated version I am positive it will be. Why?

TikTok is to Gen Z as Instagram is to Millennials. 

Based upon user statistics, Gen Z is loving TikTok with 41% of TikTok users between the ages of 16-24 translating as a major demographic for potential and current college-aged students. With teens able to log on as early as 13 (even though it appears tweens also have found “creative” means to be the app), they have single-handedly propelled the success of the app. 

Gen Z users report feeling included in a digital community that isn’t chalked full of famous influencers. They love TikTok for it rawness and realness compared to the perceived perfection of Instagram and Youtube. It’s a straight forward platform that is centered around creativity and just having a fun time. But fame is also following.

TikTok Gen Z Influencers

Via the Atlantic, Taylor Lorenz wrote about the annual VidCon conference. Usually, Youtube and consequent influencers from apps like Instagram run the show, but this year everyone was a buzz about TikTok. Taylor writes, “wherever TikTok stars go, they are surrounded by fans.”

In this article, Lee McCall, a TikTok content creator who has nearly 2.2 million followers, commented on how different TikTok is from other social apps. “While YouTube and Instagram are heavily saturated with influencers, TikTok is fertile ground for would-be social-media stars looking to build an audience.”

Creators who couldn’t render a following on YouTube are thriving on TikTok, and it hasn’t yet become saturated with influencers and advertisements (even though those are quickly flooding in). “If Gen Z is a target demographic and your brand is not on TikTok, you may be missing out,” according to an article about whether brands should care about TikTok by Hootsuite and this message also goes out to colleges and universities too.

The University of Florida listened.

The First Signs of TikTok on Campus

Former Social Media Specialist at the University of Florida, Ryan Morejon, “I can’t stress this enough: as social media managers in higher education, our job is to keep the university relevant. If TikTok is the new thing, jump headfirst and immerse yourself in it and start creating. The user base is mostly middle/high schoolers, who will eventually attend college. So it just makes sense for us to engage directly with that audience.”

The University of Florida was one of the very first on the platform, setting a trend and possible future common practice in higher ed: making TikTok part of Campus Life. 

TikTok has Arrived at College

With over 70,000 fans and nearly a total of 921,000 hearts (on other apps referred to as likes), the University of Florida has paved the way for higher ed institutions on TikTok. In June 2019, UF was the first verified university account. President Kent Fuchs was happy to introduce himself to the UF TikTok followers, serving as the first president to make an appearance on the platform.

The UF social team, Todd Sanders & Ryan Morejon, were featured on an episode of Higher Ed Social podcast where they briefly talked about their leap of faith into the TikTok app.

Todd and Ryan began by giving kudos to UF’s president, Kent Fuchs, for being really engaged and authentic in the content creation process. Fuchs’ open embrace to social, and frequent involvement with it, made it possible for their social team to try random and fun new things like TikTok.

To professionals looking to start a TikTok, Ryan says, 

“Flex your sense of humor and have fun with it. We’re here to educate, yeah, but most of all we’re here to entertain! Be open to what TikTokers are doing.”

Here is one of UF’s most popular post on the platform to date

Morgan Campbell, Social Media Specialist at Indiana University Bloomington, had her own personal TikTok account before starting one at IU in 2018. After testing it out and gaining some student interest, Morgan and her team started to interact with TikTok more often. They also decided to dive into TikTok, 

We knew that the demographic of prospective students is living on TikTok right now and that’s just another channel where we can get in front of them.

Both Morgan at IU and Taylor Slifko, former Social Media Coordinator at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee, expressed that they used University of Florida’s TikTok as inspiration to design their own university accounts.

Morgan explains that for inspiration, “we (obviously) look at the University of Florida, but also at brands like Washington Post or looking at the ‘for you’ page on TikTok.”

The “for you” page is similar to Instagram’s “explore” page where TikTok curates a special feed based on past content you’ve engaged with. Exploring this page helps Morgan’s team “find the hot trend/challenge and figure out how to incorporate it within our brand.”

Morgan and Taylor both pointed out that there are still very few universities currently on TikTok, so it is an opportunity for creativity and exposure.

According to Taylor, “it’s not crowded right now with other universities which is another reason I wanted to jump in as one of the firsts!” How often do you get the opportunity to spearhead a presence on a social media platform? 

Student Reactions to a Campus TikTok Presence

Another exciting reason is the positive response thus far from TikTok users, who discover university branded accounts. Students are shocked and proud to see their schools on TikTok. It’s almost like they get brownie points for going to a school that’s “in the know.”

Check out some of these comments and reactions to TikToks posts by the University of Florida and Austin Peay State University:

The students are into it! How affirming is that!? I am happy to see such positive reactions and excitement!

Students also talking about and posting content about their college experience. For example, this TikTok post about waking up on Monday mornings from students of Alabama State University titled “College am I right” received over 75,000 likes and 318 comments. They are wearing Roll Tide apparel and the comments are full of users reacting to their school spirit.

Comments like the one below reiterate the target TikTok audience and further explain why higher ed pros should learn more about this new platform.

Find Your Student TikTokers

TikTok is making such an impact at some universities, 17 colleges to be exact, that there are jobs for it. In order to expand reach to more students, TikTok is hiring student talent ambassadors.

The job description for the University of Florida calls for “leaders, entrepreneurs and out-of-the-box thinkers to help build awareness for TikTok,” and insists that the job isn’t just about handing out TikTok swag but about sharing the message of TikTok in creative ways to other students. TikTok the business is literally coming to college.

But what if universities took their TikTok presence and influence into their own hands, and employed students into their TikTok strategy?

Here is one example of a freshman about to start at the University of Minnesota, who should be immediately hired either as a creator or consultant by the campus.

Considering this idea and more, let’s cover a few tips and tactics for higher ed and TikTok. 

TikTok Tips and Tactics for Campuses

As we turn our attention to how TikTok can be utilized for colleges and universities, Liz Gross, in a recent Campus Sonar Brain Waves Newsletter, explains that before jumping into TikTok and producing content we should

“Listen and identify opportunities to learn from (and potentially partner with) content creators who are affiliated with your campus.”

Liz Gross, CEO of Campus Sonar

Ryan from UF points out that, “every new app invites creators to look at content differently. And in higher education where we live through basically the same life cycle every year, an app like TikTok allows you to view content in a new lens.” 

As with any social media tools or digital strategy, it is critical that before adding platforms you take stalk of your goals. Why this platform? What is the purpose? Who will be the main audience you are communicating and connecting with? Logistical considerations are also imperative. Who will manage, moderate and if necessary need to approve the account and/or content? 

Explore First

It is always a good idea to do your homework before introducing your institution to a new social app. Spend some time with it to see if it even fits for your university and your students. Morgan got pulled in to the app after seeing so many ads for it,

“When I started at IU Bloomington in September 2018, we didn’t have any intention of being on the app. As the months went by and I kept scrolling on the app once I got home, I realized that it wouldn’t hurt to at least try to put our brand on there. There wasn’t much to lose!”

She was a user before she even started working at Bloomington and brought her personal research with her.  

Invest in your Students

This is a great reminder to not only meet students where they are but include them in the content creation process. Just hand over the tools to the students, some are familiar with TikTok and can create something great. For example, Taylor handed the TikTok password over to one of their students who happened to be an incredible dancer to put together a video to Old Town Road while it was at its peak on TikTok. 

“All I did was tell him my vision and gave him the password. He had a friend help him record and he edited the video himself on the app.” You’ll notice that the majority of the post on Austin Peay’s TikTok page include students. 

Morgan’s goal at IU this fall is to “feature the creativity, talent, and diversity of IU’s student body.” She plans to create more posts like the one below to showcase athletic teams, musical groups, and outdoor recreational teams. 

Ryan agrees, “since dancing is so popular on TikTok, and we have a School of Theatre + Dance, we decided to reach out to see if any student dancers would be game to hop on some current TikTok dance trends but also create some original ones to see if it picks up steam.” One of the videos got 2.2 million views! Ryan hopes to create comedy skits with their student interns in the future.

Be Trendy

If you’re going to dive into TikTok, you have to be prepared to keep up with the ever-changing trends and new challenges on TikTok. Taylor, Morgan, and Ryan all agree that learning the nuances and specialties of the app was the hardest part. “It seems like every week, there is something new, for example, Old Town Road, the bottle cap challenge, the Git Up Challenge and even moonwalking,” says Morgan.

There are certain songs to go along with specific videos or challenge, additionally specific hashtags. Taylor insists that “You have to know these details to participate.” 

Participating in TikTok culture would require trust, as well as timely and realistic approval processes to get content out that is still relevant and trendy, or a whole lot of trust and autonomy for the person managing this account.

Use Popular Music

Although TikTok is no longer a solely lip-synching app, the music component of the app is still prominent. Matter of fact, all TikToks have some sort of soundtrack whether it is a song or voiceover. You have the opportunity to create your own sound or music, but Morgan suggests that it doesn’t get as much exposure as a popular song.

When you use a song from TikTok’s music library your post gets categorized in a feed with other videos that used the same sound. 

Hashtags Really Help

TikTok isn’t the place to skip out on hashtags. Using hashtags is how users find content similar to how Instagram once was. Morgan explained that “a huge component to getting your content noticed is using the right hashtags.” If you don’t put a hashtag in your post it virtually won’t be seen by anyone. She suggests using the #foryou or #foryoupage tags which help get your post featured on TikTok’s main timeline. 

Repost to other Platforms

You may be worried that your followers on other platforms won’t “get” TikTok, but especially for a university that is new to TikTok and doesn’t have many followers repurposing your TikToks to Twitter can go a long way. For example, Taylor at Austin Peay reposted a TikTok about finals week in the likeness of the Office intro sequence and the crowd went wild! It has nearly 18,000 views on Twitter with 6,000+ engagements.

https://twitter.com/austinpeay/status/1122926246248296448

Challenge ideas for the first week of class:

  • Challenge students to document the (safest) fastest route to class.
  • Have students share their first week of classes morning routines.
  • Upload your school song to Tiktok and challenge the community to get the words right!

Edutainment Videos on:

  • How to navigate campus parking
  • How to apply for work-study
  • How to register for classes
  • How to start a club or student organization
  • Where the gender-neutral bathrooms are on campus

Feature the following:

  • Dance/music troupes from campus to dance to trending TikTok challenges.
  • The campus improv group or drama students to act out comedic skits.
  • Campus building/landmarks by coordinating a scavenger hunt throughout campus.

Don’t forget about staff/faculty: 

  • Similar to the University of Florida, have the President and other campus leaders jump on to introduce themselves to the platform.
  • Feature a staff member or professor on TikTok each week or month, such as a lecture.
  • Create a quick welcome video from different area/offices on campus.

I am far from an expert (or even content creator) on TikTok, but I am learning so much about this app every day – the entertainment between working the book doesn’t hurt either. 

I hope this blog gave you some foundational knowledge on what TikTok is and how it can play a role (or already is playing) on your campus. I strongly believe that it is not necessary for institutions to jump onto every new digital platform. I think each school should reflect on their institution needs and goals, and what the platform can do for them. Nothing is worse than having a whole bunch of inactive social accounts sprinkled all over.

Keep me updated about your institution’s TikTok journey and other things that you’re learning about the app as you explore and experiment. 

Calling all Campus TikTok Accounts! 

A very special thanks to Morgan, Taylor, and Ryan for offering a peek into their TikTok strategies and recommendations for other campus professionals considering at this platform. Learning from others who are tasked with managing university digital engagement platforms like TikTok is critical, especially a unique platform like this. 

So, I am pulling together a list of College & University TikTok accounts. Please help support these accounts with a follow. Reach out to the manager behind the account to give kudos, ask questions and maybe even dream up a TikTok collaboration!

Submit your campus TikTok here: https://bit.ly/TikTokHigherEd

Check out the College/University TikTok Directory

Let’s Stay Connected!

Want to stay updated on everything I’m writing, podcasting and speaking about? Subscribe to my monthly newsletter. Yes, I promise only once per month! Sign up for my Digital Leadership Download here!

Bonus Resources

Still wrapping your head around TikTok? Check out these articles below that I’ve found helpful to understand usage, culture, and strategy of the platform:

And if you and your team are ready to jump in, here are a few resources to help:


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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