Top tips for TikTok communications in universities

By Crispin Thorold.

Love it or loathe it there’s no avoiding TikTok as a communications tool.

It’s the world’s fastest growing app, a standout winner among Gen Z, and for a while Donald Trump’s least favourite social channel. TikTok is never far from the headlines. It began life as Musical.ly, a platform where kids danced and lip-synched before being relaunched as TikTok in 2016. Back then it had 150,000 users. In March 2021 there were 689 million users.

This versatile platform of 15 seconds and 1-minute ultra-creative videos cannot be ignored by communicators, especially those who want to reach teenagers.

At a recent talk organized jointly by the CIPR Education and Skills Sector Group and CIPR International, social media leads and strategists from four universities in the UK, Ireland, and the US discussed their experiences on TikTok. Gen Z’s favourite platform is providing the sector with exciting opportunities to showcase their institutions with potential future students as young as 14.

You can watch the full webinar online, but we also wanted to give you our panel’s 9 top tips for education communicators venturing into the world of TikTok. Thank you to the panel for all your insights:

  • Anu Hautalampi, Cambridge University
  • Morgan Campbell, Indiana University Bloomington
  • Sheena Doyle, University of Limerick
  • Matt Horne, Newcastle University

Look at the Trends

TikTok started as the home of lip-synching, choreography and dance. While it is now about so much more, never forget that it is trends that drive traffic and provide the best chance of landing a viral video. How about following University of Limerick’s lead and piggyback a trend, giving it a graduation day spin.

@universityoflimerick

Has anyone done this in their graduation robes yet? 🤔🎓 #fyp #foryou #ireland

♬ The Git Up – Blanco Brown

Or if you don’t fancy dancing, how about the #handchallenge ?

@iubloomington

Hands up if you’re a Hoosier #HandChallenge #Emoji #fyp #foryoupage

♬ Lalala – İlkan Gunuc Remix – Danila Carvalho

The main advice – lead with people, ‘people relate to other people’.

@cambridgeuniversity

Happy InternationalDanceDay! Show us your best moves 😃 #dirtydancingchallenge #Cambridge #punting #InternationalDanceDay2021

♬ Attractor – Clutch

Do your research, but also experiment

Yes, you need to dive deep into TikTok and spend lots of time absorbing content, understanding trends, and audience behaviour.  However, there’s not necessarily a formula to TikTok so if an experiment doesn’t work, move on and try something else.. our panellists warn just don’t make it too cringey!

Here are a couple of creative videos we loved:

@iubloomington

happy graduation day, Hoosiers ♥️🎓

♬ original sound – Gervs

@ucla

@ucla.scattertones showing us how it’s done a cappella style. 🧼🙌 #coronavirus #duetthis #fyp #tiktokuniversity

♬ original sound – UCLA

Own the handle and engage with the users

Work with TikTok to really own the account, by getting that blue tick. This gives your channel legitimacy and ensures that you are capturing the audience who want to find you.

Once you have hooked in your audience, prospective or existing students, engage them in the comments section. Morgan Campbell from Indiana University Bloomington says don’t underestimate the power of TikTok as a touchpoint for prospective students – some children as young as 14 are already engaging with the university. Comments sections also provide great ‘intelligence’ on what prospective students are looking for from the university.

Draw on the student community to get the best content, that’s relevant for users

Student social media officers are the perfect content creators, they understand the audience and the platform, and they’re digital natives who can produce magic from not very much at all.

@iubloomington

We gave @michael_winner21 a microphone so he went to the streets. #indianauniversity

♬ Grammarg – BLVKSHP

The format doesn’t have to be elaborate, especially if you have a presenter with charisma.

@universityoflimerick

Some Good News at UL pt 6 🌞💚 if you have good news email us somegoodnews@ul.ie #irish #college #positivity

♬ Some Good News at UL pt 6 – University of Limerick

But remember that sometimes that special content creator you are looking for, can come in the most unexpected of forms.

@cambridgeuniversity

Meet a Cambridge rebel with a bowtie: Dr David Williams, a lecturer at St John’s College 😄#CambridgeUniversity #Cambridge #university #bowtie

♬ original sound – Cambridge University

TikTok is a journey..take your time, find your talent

It’s OK to take it slow and to find your feet on the platform says Cambridge University’s Anu Hautalampi. Remember that growth takes time on social media channels. Take advantage of in-house talent and use other platforms to talent spot. Cambridge discovered their very own John Travolta in the Department of Earth Sciences, through a student post on Instagram.

@cambridgeuniversity

This is what a Cambridge lecture can look like! 😄#learnontiktok #earthsciences #edutok #light

♬ original sound – Cambridge University

On the other side of the pond the president of Florida University, Kent Fuchs, has developed something of a following on the platform with his spirited and light-hearted posts. A pioneer amongst university presidents.

@uf

A welcome message for #UF23 from President Fuchs!

♬ Happy – Pharrell Williams

@uf

So many stairs, don’t let this flop.*

♬ original sound – FLORIDA

Don’t believe the doubters who say that you can’t use TikTok for lead generation

Matt Horne from Newcastle University says that TikTok is showing promise to be a strong lead generation platform when compared to established rivals like Instagram and Snapchat, and it’s also close to the cheapest cost per acquisition.

Learn more about Newcastle University’s use of In-Feed Auction Ads to inform young people about the best ways to write a personal statement in their applications.

https://www.tiktokforbusinesseurope.com/inspiration/newcastle-university

Be imaginative as you source content, but remember that the subject can be serious

Cambridge University is using TikTok to showcase its world-leading research. To do this they’ve played with formats from slide shows…

@cambridgeuniversity

The #snow around the #Antarctica coastline is turning green. #cambridgeuniversity #learnontiktok #algae #climatechange #science

♬ With Resolve – Jacob Yoffee

…to the reworking of content from other platforms

@cambridgeuniversity

How to scan a pregnant #mantaray#mantatrust #learnontiktok #animals #ocean #cambridgeuniversity cambridge@mantatrust

♬ BREAK FREE FROM THESE CHAINS – Hitfeeling

They’re also experimenting with FAQ formats, for example to dispel myths about the Cambridge interview process.

@cambridgeuniversity

What’s the Cambridge Uni interview really like? 🤔 #cambridgeuniversity #cambridgestudent #university #goingtocambridge #cambridgeuni

♬ original sound – Cambridge University

Provide users with what they want from TikTok – fun!

Keep the tone light and casual, make posts that throw a window on the student and university experience.

@universityoflimerick

Hey pudgy can I get a snOWA snOWA? #sneactha ❄️ #irish #college #snow #sleet

♬ The Weeknd – Often (Kygo Remix) –

That doesn’t mean that the pieces shouldn’t have messages .. just find ways to deliver the more serious content in an entertaining way, like this vaccination video from Indiana University Bloomington.

@iubloomington

march 31, wya? 🧐

♬ presleywalker – PresleyWalker

Take advantage of those beautiful campus vistas

Sheena Doyle from the University of Limerick advises that campus videos and imagery are as popular on TikTok as other platforms, especially that ubiquitous drone footage.

@iubloomington

fly with us ❄️

♬ original sound – Indiana University

@universityoflimerick

Congrats to everyone who received their #CAO2020 offers, especially if it was a UL offer. See you soon #WelcomeToUL #LeavingCert #Irish #College

♬ original sound – Sammy Sprinkler

Try also to have fun with landmarks on campus. The University of Limerick pushed vital Covid messaging out by getting an Anthony Gormley statue on campus to ‘talk’ on TikTok about the need to wear a mask.

@universityoflimerick

A message from Antony Gormley’s “Together and Apart” statue (aka Brown Thomas) #WearAMask😷

♬ A Moment Apart – ODESZA – Hannah Stater

And if you’re lucky enough to be communicating on behalf of a University that is overflowing with campus beauty, then why not encourage several colleges to participate?

@cambridgeuniversity

Enter the Dark Side of Queens’ College! Credit: @queenscollegejcr #CambridgeUniversity #CambridgeColleges #Cambridge #uni #college

♬ original sound – Cambridge University

@cambridgeuniversity

A tour of Trinity Hall College! #CambridgeUniversity#CambridgeColleges#Cambridge#unicollege@tithalljcr

♬ original sound – Cambridge University

Crispin Thorold has worked in more than forty countries leading the communications for global not-for-profits and international organizations. He is currently a crisis communications and issues specialist for the University of Toronto, Canada’s leading and world top 20 university. He started his career with the BBC as a resident correspondent in the Middle East and South Asia.

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