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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

How three media outlets are taking their own approach to TikTok

March 18, 2020 | By Corinne Podger—Director, Digital Skills Agency@corinne_podger

The TikTok app has now been downloaded nearly two billion times. And a recent surge in new users is being attributed, at least in part, to people escaping the boredom and worry of coronavirus self-isolation and lockdowns. At some point, the pandemic’s tempest will subside, so what long-term strategies can publishers and journalists put in place to get the most from the platform into the future?

In January I wrote a lengthy Medium Post linking to best practice examples and tutorials. In this piece, three very different media outlets share what’s worked, what hasn’t, and their advice to publishers joining TikTok for the first time.

The national paper

Dave Earley, Audience Editor, Guardian Australia
TikTok Account: https://tiktok.com/@guardianaustralia 

The extraordinary success of The Washington Post’s account piqued Early’s interest in TikTok early on. But he hung back for a while before signing Guardian Australia up. “I couldn’t make a commitment to a personality-driven approach like the Post,” he says. “After noticing a few other media outlets posting straight news videos, I decided to get started that way in August last year.”

Guardian Australia’s account has two aims. The first is to build brand awareness with young audiences. The second, says Earley, is to “reach young people who share a deep interest with some of our key coverage areas, like the environment.”

Successful early posts paired news clips with popular sounds. More recently, hits have focused on national challenges like the recent floods and bushfires. “Our bushfires explainer did quite well, taking inspiration from a NowThis Politics impeachment explainer on TikTok that went viral,” Earley says.

However, their strongest performing video has been a surprise. Nancy Pelosi’s reaction to an apparent handshake snub by Donald Trump has had 2.2 million views since it was uploaded in February. Earley attributes these numbers to the fact that TikTok showed the video to Indian users as well as Australians.

Guardian Australia’s news differs from the approach many publishers are taking to focus on timeless content, given that TikTok doesn’t display the date a piece of content was posted.

TikTok’s metrics are also quite limited. However, Earley says that’s fine while Guardian Australia continues to find its best voice on the platform. “Our use of the platform is still experimental and not a top priority for maintaining a regular posting schedule,” he says.

“I’m looking at topline followers and likes, not so much as a measure of success, but more to keep an eye on overall growth. I also look at the individual video play counts and number of comments to see what gained traction.”

The online regional

Chiara Rinaldi, Head of Audience, Wales Online
TikTok Account: https://www.tiktok.com/@walesonline

Wales Online’s account also launched in August last year, targeting people under 24 living in Wales.

“For us, the aim isn’t just to grow a large TikTok following. It’s also to learn more about how we serve Generation Z and get a better understanding of the way they express themselves and consume news and media,” Rinaldi says.

“When we started, we were the only UK regional publisher [on TikTok] so we didn’t have anyone to compare to or look up to for good practice.”

Every publisher I spoke to, including Rinaldi, has mentioned The Washington Post as an example of best practice. However, it’s not one they necessarily want or need to duplicate. “I didn’t think emulating [the Post] would achieve what we set out to do, so we’ve just experimented a lot to see what worked for us,” she says.

That has meant actively seeking the right tone and approach for content, and developing new production skills. “Our newsroom is quite confident in producing social videos but we quickly realized that we needed a completely new approach on TikTok, from our ideas process to how we shoot and edit,” Rinaldi says.

For Wales Online, top performing videos have combined “person-led Welsh identity content” with TikTok trends and popular sounds. These include an American pronounces Welsh places and reasons to marry a Welsh person. Videos of beautiful locations have done best of all, like this mid-winter sunrise at Snowdon.

Repurposing user-generated content has been “a mixed bag” in terms of response, Rinaldi says. “We’ve found food, comedy, and climate change content has performed well,” she says. “But we’ve also had videos that bombed, like people singing and a dog that can say hello. It’s [also] a lot harder to get traction for videos that don’t fit with a challenge, like our videos of the South Wales floods.”

Following seven months of trying different things, Wales Online has begun formulating a clear strategy to engage its TikTok followers with more serious news content. And this is a goal Rinaldi says will be challenging given that on-platform metrics consist primarily of video views, follower numbers, and likes on individual posts.

“So far, we’ve found TikTok to be a really receptive and encouraging platform to work with,” she says. “Our audience is very open, provides us with regular updates and they’re happy to answer our questions, which is refreshing!”

The specialist publication

Jake Banas, Social Media Manager, Futurism
TikTok Account: https://www.tiktok.com/@futurismmedia

New York-based publisher Futurism is using TikTok to connect with young science and tech enthusiasts all over the world. “We began by implementing a video strategy we’ve run with on most other platforms – posting our most popular short clips and well-known viral memes to attract attention,” Banas says.

Futurism’s best performing videos have combined educational clips with popular sounds, like this explainer on how astronauts take a bath in space.

Later on, The Washington Post’s runaway success inspired Futurism to expand its uploads to include videos featuring its staff and newsroom more candidly. However, doing this well has turned out to be harder than it looks. “While everyone wants to be Dave Jorgenson, it’s incredibly difficult to do,” he says.

“Most newsrooms don’t have a dedicated TikTok team. The biggest challenge is simply the amount of time it can take to produce quality content, but the good thing is that – unlike traditional video – TikTok has made it easy for many people to utilize powerful video editing tools to create posts for a mobile-first audience.”

Banas says Futurism is learning what it can from TikTok’s limited metrics and whimsical algorithm to achieve specific goals, such as engaging with young women interested in science and technology.

For now, Futurism has “pulled back” from regular posts to focus on other priorities. But Banas says timeless clips posted weeks or months ago still attract fresh audiences – another example of the evident irrelevance of time to the TikTok algorithm.

Thinking of joining TikTok in 2020? Here are some pro tips:

Earley, Rinaldi, and Banas have these tips for newcomers to the platform:

  • Spend time as a user and watch plenty of content before diving in head-first.
  • Think about what you want to achieve on the platform
  • Ask yourself how you’d explain a big story, or what it’s like to be a journalist, to a teenager.
  • Try some or all of these genres: explainers, vlogs, text on screen to music, lip syncing.
  • Decide whether you can commit to putting staff on camera and let them do “fun stuff.”
  • Use the ‘drafts’ function to learn the basics like adding and timing captions.
  • Read the comments to better understand who you are reaching on the platform.
  • Don’t feel under pressure to post often.
  • The ethos of TikTok is authenticity, so embrace it and get the whole newsroom involved.
  • Be prepared to relax your brand guidelines for an entirely different platform.
  • Interact with your audience. Creator comments and replies mean a lot to viewers.
  • Be original and have fun!

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