Filling the Progressive TikTok Gap: Results and Recommendations
Findings and Takeaways from our 2022 Program
By Ben Resnik, Kate Gage, Valeria Sosa Garnica, and Oluwakemi Oso
After the 2022 midterms, the Cooperative Impact Lab published initial findings for the Digital Innovation Fund, telling the story of how, in just four months, we stood up and administered one of the most extensive research-grant programs focused on TikTok’s uses for progressive politics and social good.
Across the space, from TikTok newcomers to seasoned professionals, virtually no progressive groups feel they have a grip on what effective political TikTok content looks like, how to generate it, or how to have it support organizing strategy consistently. As established digital tactics like Facebook ads get more expensive and less effective, the knowledge gap on how to speak online is becoming downright dangerous.
Since November, we’ve been hard at work studying the results, crunching the numbers about what works on TikTok, what doesn’t, and why. Below you’ll find a read-out of our strongest signals, what we think they mean, and what we believe needs to come next.
This work is not just about tactics on TikTok — it’s about rethinking how we, as a movement, can invest in digital messaging and persuasion that is authentic, collaborative, and relationship-driven — and how we’re supporting the talent within organizations to lead the way.
Takeaway One: Narrative Content Blows Strictly Informational Content Out of The Water
We divided our cohort’s 82 pieces of content into whether it simply shared information on how to vote (“strict information”) or explained why to vote (“narrative”). Narrative content deployed direct-to-camera storytelling, skits, memes, and other techniques to make the information contained more relatable and enjoyable.
Those tactics worked: Narrative content produced higher average engagement than strictly informational content overall in twelve out of fourteen sub-categories where we could compare directly.
This trend also held up when looking at views — arguably the most important metric on the platform. Narrative median views exceeded strict info overall in eight of twelve sub-categories.
This is hugely important because strictly informational content is often the default for new political entrants to TikTok; it’s even present in most of the few Analyst Institute studies that mention TikTok.
That means that many pilot and research programs may be shooting themselves in the foot, putting out subpar content that isn’t set up to succeed by the platform’s standards and suppressing their own results in the process.
Takeaway Two: Peg to Identity — Or Not At All
Content produced by the DIF ’22 cohort pegged their content to a combination of issue (e.g., abortion), geography (e.g., Kansas), or identity (e.g., AAPI heritage) to power their messages, and some did not explicitly include any of these elements.
Overall, identity-pegged content was the clear winner for views, with a median view count of 2.7 times the cohort median. Interestingly, issue-based content was a loser: Not only did issue-focused videos hit barely half the cohort median views, but issue-pegged, strictly informational content was some of the worst-performing content of the entire cohort. That match-up had median views of less than half the cohort median and an engagement rate a third lower than the cohort average.
Takeaway Three: In-House Content Can Work, But Only If You Break from the Meta Playbook
Looking at the raw numbers, one clear takeaway was that new TikTok accounts struggled to achieve meaningful organic reach. Overall, in-house content earned a fraction of the views of influencer-generated content in the DIF cohort, likely in part because the group of (mostly new) in-house content creators had a dramatically lower floor for audience reach, frequency of content creation, and the knowledge of best practices that influencers track closely.
Of course, that’s true on all social media platforms, not just TikTok. But because of the way TikTok decides what videos to promote, a run of flat, less-than-top-tier content that earns few views and poor engagement — almost a guarantee for an organization dipping its toes in a new social platform — risks trapping that account in a self-fulfilling prophecy of low views and low engagement forever.
To counter this, an organization spinning up a new, organic in-house TikTok program needs to invest in high-quality, high-frequency content production from their first post before really knowing the return on investment. For organizations with limited digital budgets, this may be a deal-breaker.
However, that isn’t the end of the story for in-house production. Another key takeaway from the DIF ’22 cohort was the power of “boosting,” paying to put one’s content on more people’s feeds. Boosting can solve the viewership problem: Cohort-wide, boosting had an accessible ~$12.50 CPM and generated not just more views but higher quality views, with a higher engagement rate on boosted posts across nearly every segment.
But regardless of this money-powered shortcut, the performance of DIF’s in-house cohort suggests that for the average nonprofit organization, creating a TikTok footprint looks different than just opening an account and trying to post regularly, the model on older platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Innovative tactics like content-creator fellowship programs, as piloted by Accelerate Change, or content-amplification networks like the Better Internet Initiative, can be critical partners for groups to get the payoff for in-house content that TikTok promises.
Takeaway Four: TikTok Is Still A Black Box
Promising results aside: TikTok’s stance on political content is arbitrary and opaque. Every account running paid content in the DIF ’22 cohort experienced takedowns, including one whose entire ad account was shut down. Detroit Action’s ad campaign was disapproved several weeks into its flight — the reason eventually given was that voter registration and the words “vote” and “be a voter” were banned on the platform, even when the content was 501(c)3 compliant. This restriction is not listed in TikTok’s public political advertising guidelines.
Meanwhile, our colleagues at Accelerate Change uncovered evidence of algorithmic suppression around the word “vote,” an experience matched by DIF cohort member Noticias Para Inmigrantes in Spanish-language messaging.
The regulatory future of TikTok is uncertain, with the possibility of a nation-wide ban still on the table. At a bare minimum, most organizations will need guidance and expertise to navigate TikTok’s ever-shifting political messaging landscape.
However, it is important to point out that content suppression is also well and alive on established platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Content suppression on TikTok is a convenient albeit inadequate excuse for progressives unwilling to invest in emerging platforms — for content creators, it is simply a fact of life and most have back-up accounts in case of an account ban.
Where We Go From Here
One of the most important insights we took from this cycle of the Digital Innovation Fund is that TikTok is not just about one platform — it’s about rethinking our entire relationship to persuasion and messaging. This collaboration between funders, movement organizations, creators, and experts has yielded a blueprint for the future of messaging and persuasion on emerging platforms:
- Capacity for Grassroots Organizing: TikTok, when paired with a strong organizing infrastructure within frontline organizations, has the capacity to support offline engagement, including volunteer recruitment, canvassing, and vote tripling.
- Influencer Recruitment and Engagement: Effective influencer recruitment and engagement requires time to establish long-term relationships with mission-aligned content creators. Organizations need support in developing influencer-organization partnerships and building out a slate of trusted messengers on TikTok that can push effective messaging.
- Continued need for best practices & research: Organizations in the cohort cited access to best practices on creator recruitment, content production, or metrics for political programs as the most significant area where they needed support. Organizations need continued support in maneuvering TikTok’s ever-evolving policies and trends — not just access to funding.
There is still a need for adoption of new tactics within movement organizations, research on narrative change and measurement, and innovation in the digital space to make sure the progressive movement keeps up with changing trends.
At Cooperative Impact Lab, 2023 is a critical year to build up the necessary digital infrastructure for greater wins in 2024. The progressive movement needs infrastructure that empowers our organizations to build relationships with content creators, connecting trusted messengers with the correct message on the right medium, and the creation of best practices that can be adopted movement-wide.
By running programs like DIF, we can start 2024 with leaders across the movement already equipped with effective messaging, persuasion, and voter engagement programs, rather than scrambling to build out digital strategy and recruit talent.
At Cooperative Impact Lab, we are excited to build upon last cycle’s learnings and continue the work by:
- Continuing to build the internal capacity of movement organizations
- Connecting organizations with networks of content creators and influencers to expand their reach
- Improving the knowledge base around online and offline measurement + metrics for TikTok content
- Partnering with experts in the field to provide coaching and training
- Building a community of practice to share learnings and best practices with the broader progressive community
Thank you again to the Alliance for Youth Organizing, the Movement Voter Project, Piece by Piece Strategies, Community Change Action, Way to Rise, Vocal Media, Propel Capital, Rufus and Mane and our cohort participants for making the 2022 Digital Innovation Fund possible.
A special shout-out to Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman and Ben Resnik, who joined the CIL team to make this program a reality.
Interested in learning more or want to partner with us? Please reach out at DIF@cooperativeimpactlab.org.