TikTok is where high-school and college-aged students are increasingly spending their time – 63% of Gen Z youth use the app weekly (Forrester). Many brands – colleges and universities included – are trying to crack the code of what this younger audience wants to see.
Recently, I spoke with Emily Newhall, Editor at the Learning Abroad Center at the University of Minnesota. The Learning Abroad Center has worked with over 6,600 students studying abroad over the past four academic years, and Emily works not only on the office’s social media presence, but on print materials, e-newsletters, content calendars, and more
Emily shared insights on her team’s approach to TikTok, how they have found success reaching their audiences, and how to balance social media when it’s just one of the many hats one wears in a day-to-day role.
EY: What made you decide to create a TikTok?
EN: At the Learning Abroad Center, we strive to go where our audiences are, and high school and college students are overwhelmingly on TikTok. Our team conducts a lit review every three years to learn more about where Gen Z spends their time and what they are interested in. In 2018, we noted that video was becoming a huge trend.
We started looking at TikTok in early 2019 – our Marketing Director set up meetings to experiment with the app, take silly videos of our team in our office, and experiment with songs. She was not afraid to try something new, and she encouraged us to be playful and try the app out.
EY: How do you partner with students to create content?
EN: We have several student workers in our office, and one in particular who specializes in communications. She looks at what’s trending on the app and proposes content that allows us to hop on these trends.
The content that we put out does differ week to week and depends on the personality of the student making the TikTok. Some are excited to be on the app, others are more deliberate and like to create videos of others.
We also email all of our students studying abroad each semester and ask if they plan to post about their travels on social. If they are interested in having us repost their content, we will follow them and share their posts throughout the semester. On TikTok, we use the ‘duet’ feature to add our own video on a split-screen.
Right: The Learning Abroad Center TikTok team makes use of trending songs, like Dua Lipa’s “Levitating”, to share information about the breadth of programs and support they offer.
EY: How do you make sure they are creating appropriate content? What is the approval process like?
EN: There is definitely a level of trust that needs to be there with the students. Sometimes a student will propose a video that I have to say no to, or at least need to ask our Marketing Director to get another opinion on. Overall, we try to stay non-controversial, fun, and positive with our content.
For students who take over our accounts, we share a document with them that outlines the student code of conduct and we monitor what they share. We try to partner with student leaders, or students who are affiliated with the office in some way.
EY: Are you on TikTok a lot?
EN: I am on TikTok frequently, but I do lean on my students to gather many of the trends. My role within our office is an Editor, which means I am working on print materials, e-newsletters, content calendars, and more – social media is only part of my responsibilities so it is hard to be an expert.
Some people in higher education could ask ‘Why create a TikTok channel?’, especially when I have so much on my plate. The best part of TikTok is that it can start small and it can be student-run. It doesn’t have to be A+ produced like other channels, and there is a lot of room to have fun and show levity.
When I worked in advertising, we would spend a ton of money to research Gen Z. In higher ed, it’s unique in that you can walk down the hall and ask student workers or students what they think of something.
Right: Student workers and students that are studying abroad help keep a pulse on what video formats, songs, and sounds are popular on the app.
EY: Are there certain strategies that you’ve found success with?
EN: We conducted a lot of research before joining the platform, and we made our first post in fall of 2019. Sharing student-led content is huge. It’s important to lean on students because they are so accessible, they’re already on the app and they know what resonates. Gen Z is on TikTok to be entertained. It’s the responsibility of brands to fit in with the platform and be entertaining while still educating their audiences.
We try to maintain agility and subtlety on TikTok. We experiment with trends and videos at home or in office as a team. I made it a priority to learn about why and how some videos do go viral. The TikTok algorithm tailors content to users not just based on who they follow, but also on their interests. Due to this, anyone can go viral!
In general, we try to keep videos short, have a few relevant hashtags, and make sure that our videos are high-quality and not grainy.
EY: Are there other brands or schools that you think ‘do TikTok’ well?
EN: New social media sort of feels like the ‘Wild West’, so it is encouraging to see other schools and offices like us out there trying.
The University of Florida was a school we discussed as part of the first conversations we had about TikTok. They were an early adapter creating smart, fun content on the platform – and they continue to. They are in a different tier than us and have frequent access to their mascot and president. That’s a lot of star power that just one office on campus may not have.
When I look at big brands like that, I think about what they’re doing and how we might be able to scale it down to study abroad. It can be intimidating sometimes, especially since the most interesting part of our content is abroad and not on campus. Being light and playful and fun is very prized on TikTok and higher ed doesn’t always access that, but every office has an aspect of it that can be showcased.
Right: By partnering with students studying abroad to source content, the Learning Abroad Center can showcase experiences around the world, though the office is based in Minnesota.