This article brings together resources and case studies for attendees at a webinar I delivered on 7 January for WAN-IFRA South Asia. I hope it will also help journalists and media outlets considering joining TikTok or expanding their presence on the platform in 2020. If you want a workshop, webinar or coaching session for your outlet or organisation, or as an individual, let me know.
What is TikTok?
This Business Insider Australia piece by Paige Leskin (July 2019) provides a simple overview of how TikTok was created in 2017 by the Chinese company ByteDance, and how TikTok growth took off in 2018 when ByteDance bought the Musical.ly app and eventually merged the two platforms.
What are the risks?
User privacy: TikTok has different privacy policies depending whereabouts in the world you live. You can read the regional privacy policies on TikTok’s website here.
This piece by Kate Jackson for The Sun (November 2019) provides an overview of recent pitfalls and concerns around online safety and data privacy, and this piece by Jason Wingard for Forbes, published in December 2019, provides more recent information and external links. It’s worth noting that in December the US Army and Navy banned members from using the platform citing security concerns, so do some research and decide if the platform is right for you and your audience.
User behaviour: If your audience includes children and teenagers, you may want to share tips and resources with their parents on keeping their children safe on the platform. This “Parent’s Guide to TikTok” from ConnectSafely.Org is an excellent resource, and InternetMatters.Org has published a step-by-step guide on how to use TikTok’s parental controls.
Freedom of speech: When deciding whether TikTok is a good brand fit or not, journalists and media outlets need to take into consideration allegations that TikTok moderators have removed posts that criticise the Chinese government or its treatment of Uighur Muslims, and that posts from people with visible disabilities, or who were overweight or gay, may also have been removed or hidden, depending on where users are accessing and using the platform.
This piece by Andrew Hutchinson for Social Media Today (December 2019) reviews recent freedom of speech issues, and it’s worth following Andrew on Twitter. I also recommend reading this comprehensive overview of TikTok pros and cons by Daniel Van Boom for CNet (December 2019). Daniel acknowledges the app’s positive atmosphere and addictive qualities, but says — for him — the risks are so high that he recommends not using the app at all.
What are the benefits?
For media outlets hungry for eyeballs in 2020, the reality is that young audiences love TikTok, and even if they’re aware of the risks, they’re signing up to the platform in huge numbers.
In November 2019, Sensor Tower reported that the TikTok app had been downloaded more than 1.5 billion times. Nearly half a billion people in India have downloaded the app.
The other thing about TikTok is that using the app is fun, because a lot of the content on it is upbeat, whimsical and clever. In late 2018, Kevin Roose called it “the only truly pleasant social network in existence” in this piece for the New York Times.
So the platform has a significant youth audience, and the playful tone of much of the content being posted to it makes a refreshing change from flame wars on Twitter and in the comments on Facebook posts.
Should you join TikTok? I can’t make that decision for you, but my advice is to treat it like any third-party social networking site, where the onus is on you as the user to research and understand the risks as well as the benefits. Then you can take an informed decision on whether it’s a good brand fit or not, and develop a clear plan — ideally embedded in your organisational social media policy — on how you will manage known risks, and new ones as they emerge.
How do you use TikTok?
Once you download the app and create an account, you will immediately start to see a feed of content marked ‘For You’. If you swipe to the left, you’ll see a feed of accounts you’re following.
Like most social networks, there’s little transparency to TikTok’s algorithm, but it will track what you engage with and search for, and serve up more of the same on the ‘for you’ page. It will also offer you more content from creators in the country where you are using your phone. On a recent trip to Fiji, my ‘for you’ page was full of Fijian content, which I no longer saw when I returned to Australia.
Creating a post is pretty simple. Press the ‘plus’ button at the bottom of the screen, and start shooting a video — set to a maximum length of either 15 or 60 seconds. You can add multiple shots to create a short film or skit, and once you’re finished filming you can add text, stickers, and special effects.
TikTok also has a sometimes fractious agreement with record companies, which allows users to select snippets of songs — from obscure tracks to big hits — and use these as backing music to their video story, as dance videos, or as the main feature — where the music or soundtrack is the story. If you like a sound or music track used by another TikToker, it’s easy to select and use it in one of your own videos.
The app also has templates for photo montages, and a live-streaming feature. Many of the tools from other social apps — hashtags, comments, followers — will be familiar.
Here are some of my favourite guides to using the app:
- TikTok’s own TikTok University launched in October 2019
- Your Guide to Using TikTok (Julia Alexander, The Verge, April 2019)
- A Beginner’s Guide to TikTok (Louise Matsakis, WIRED, June 2019)
- The Ultimate Guide to TikTok, the hot app Gen Z is obsessed with and Facebook is terrified of (Paige Leskin, Business Insider Australia, June 2019)
- How to find your liked videos on TikTok (Jamie, TechJunkie, December 2019)
- If you prefer video tutorials, this playlist from Techboomers on YouTube is simple and easy to follow. Here’s their introduction to using the app:
TikTok tips for journalists and media outlets
So how might a media outlet hoping to catch a share of all those eyeballs use the platform in 2020? Here are some recent resources with case studies of TikToks from publishers already on the platform:
- How publishers are using TikTok, the latest hot app (Kerry Flynn, Digiday, 23 April 2019)
- Meet TikTok: How the Washington Post, NBC News and The Dallas Morning News are using the of-the-moment platform (Christine Schmidt, NiemanLab, 18 June 2019)
- Should journalism schools teach TikTok even if newsrooms are on the fence? (Gavin Allen, Medium, 30 July 2019)
- The kids are on TikTok, should you be too? (Lindsey Breneman, IJNet, 1 November 2019)
- TikTok trends to take into 2020 (Timothy Armoo, The Drum, December 2019)
- TikTok without generational prejudice (Francesco Zaffarano, NiemanLab, December 2019). Francesco has also created an open-access Google Doc of media outlets and journalists using TikTok, which you can find — and add yourself to — here.
Finally, here are some tips based on what I’ve learned in the six months or so since a Twitter thread by Sally Kuchar inspired me to join up.
1. Share evergreen content
Content shared to TikTok doesn’t display chronologically, so it’s not ideal for breaking news, although one relatively new Australian account, NewsFlashAus, is giving it a try.
Evergreen content is a better bet. If you have access to exciting, funny or dramatic behind-the-scenes content like this drum rehearsal by Kolars, or this photoshoot by Mr.nycsubway, it’s a perfect way to get started. Upload direct from the app or from your non-linear editing system, ideally as a vertical video. Even if it’s a bit time-sensitive, posts like this special moment for teenager Cebby Johnson with his favourite football team will rate well for days or even weeks.
2. Use the app to create your videos
While you can upload pre-produced content — like this explainer from the World Economic Forum on tree-planting drones — TikTok users reserve their respect for creators who film and edit their videos using nothing but the smartphone app.
So this mildly NSFW explainer on the US Constitution by Cory Mane is as good or better than the WEF offering, because it’s funny, clear, and was made using TikTok’s own video editing tools. Another example — this time from a publisher — is this guide to impeachment by NowThis Politics:
NowThis Politics on TikTok
NowThis Politics(@nowthispolitics) has created a short video on TikTok with music original sound. Everything you need…
Don’t worry if your videos don’t look too polished. TikTok is for authentic, real stories, not the airbrushed perfection of Instagram. If you search the hashtag ‘tutorial’, you’ll also find thousands of short classes and behind-the-scenes tips from users on how they achieved a particular shot — like this slow-motion backflip, or this reflection shot of Tower Bridge in London.
3. Use first-person narratives
TikTok is changing fast. There are lots of organisational accounts arriving as more brands and outlets sign up, but the best-performing content at the moment tends to be first-person narrative.
My sense is that this will continue into 2020, so if you can find a great brand ambassador with a gift for selfie journalism, that’s a winning combination, whether you’re Dave Jorgenson, who manages the hugely popular Washington Post account, or a doctor like Dr Leslie, a police officer like Ofc_lamb, or a United Methodist pastor like Grant, whose cheerful posts and dry sense of humour have earned him nearly a quarter of a million followers.
4. Share a skill
The platform is crammed with tutorials — from hairstyling tips to clever photography ideas to ab workouts. There are also loads of tutorials by TikTok users about how to use the platform — even what equipment to buy! If you or members of your team have a skill to share, consider creating short standalone TikTok classes.
5. Find new talent
The filming and editing tools that TikTok offers makes it a powerful shoot-edit camera, which millions of content creators are using right now to share their concerns, passions, interests, and sources of frustration and happiness.
That makes TikTok a great place to discover and connect with talented, creative people, and you can filter for specific interests using hashtags. That includes geographic hashtags like #manchester, which is how I found this beautiful midnight ballet by a dancer called Jonathan Silva. In Australia, where I live, a lot of Indigenous creators use the tag #aboriginal, which has introduced me to the work of brilliant singers, actors, comedians, artists and activists.
6. Post your TikToks to other platforms
I specialise in teaching mobile journalism, so I’m interested in TikTok’s enormously powerful in-app video creation tools, and the ease with which you can download and reshare your content to other platforms.
Downloaded videos will come with a TikTok watermark, but if that doesn’t bother you, any video created with the app can be easily saved to your phone and reposted natively to other platforms like Twitter. This terrific video from the Netherlands Red Cross picked up half a million views on TikTok, but cross-posting to Twitter earned it another 1,000.
A word of caution: downloading TikTok videos is extremely easy. You can save any video on the platform — no matter who created it — by long-pressing and choosing to save it. However, the creator’s name will be burned into the video as well as the watermark, so if you’re using TikTok as a source of UGC, check that the user name matches the name of the account you saved it from before you cite it as a source. Check the comments on the video post, too —users tend to be quick to call out content that’s been reshared without attribution.
7. Generate revenue..?
There are already plenty of ads on TikTok, and last year the platform established processes for advertising and hyperlinking, so it has potential for publishers that already have, or are exploring, branded content offerings. Meanwhile, there’s nothing to stop you putting a link in your bio to revenue-generating spaces like a website, Instagram or YouTube.
For media outlets, though, paying customers are unlikely to be on TikTok — and even for brands, the advice from Social Media Examiner in October 2019 was to prioritise brand exposure over sales, at least until you understand how the platform works and whether you have a monetisable audience using it. TikTok represents a great opportunity for publishers to build a brand relationship with a new generation of digital citizens in their teens and early 20s. These audiences, according to the most recent Reuters Institute Digital News Report, are less likely to be buying newspapers or watching TV.
As Abhik Choudhary wrote in this piece for Quartz India in November 2019, in two years every major brand will have a voice on TikTok, so now’s the time to experiment, find your voice, and decide if TikTok is a good fit for you and your brand.
8. Learn more from me in a workshop or webinar:
I have been teaching digital-first journalism technologies and workflows as a consultant and educator for newsrooms, media development agencies, NGOs and businesses, and at last count had trained more than 4,000 reporters and communicators since 2013.
I specialise in creating practical skills programs in digital multimedia and social media production, mobile journalism and podcasting, and organisations I’ve worked with include The Times of India, Forbes India, WAN-IFRA South Asia, Thomson Reuters Foundation, BBC Media Action, the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, Journalism.Co.Uk, Media Programme Asia, Learning Waves Ireland, Oxfam, Medecins Sans Frontieres and the World Health Organisation. I organise an annual Mobile Journalism Conference in Asia, speak regularly at international conferences, serve as a judge for the WAN-IFRA Digital Media Awards, and have guest lectured at universities all over the world.
I’ll finish up with one of my favourite TikToks from the Washington Post, and hope you found this post useful!