I’ve learned two intriguing things about the short-form video-sharing app TikTok in the past week. The first is largely insignificant, the second, however, is illuminating.
As a start, I’m too old to ‘host’ TikTok videos. Why? Well besides my grey hair, if you were to ask me how to mimic the action of taking a photograph, I won’t be tapping my thumb on a virtual smartphone. Rather, I’ll be mimicking holding a make-believe camera tapping it from above with my index finger. But here’s the real newsflash. If I should then, perhaps out of sheer vengeance and having the make-believe clout, convince the world to ban the TikTok platform entirely from the face of Earth, the TikTok format of video-making will outlive the ban.
But it’s best to speak about TikTok with a generation that actually gets it. Erika Marzano is project manager in audience development at Deutsche Welle (DW), a German state-owned international broadcaster, serving 32 language groups. It was as early as 2019, while optimising opportunities in the digital space to build audience relationships, that Erika and her team recognised the potential of TikTok for the dissemination of news.
Not a nicety, a necessity
They wanted to reach audiences as young as 14 years old, explains Erika, and soon realised that to achieve this TikTok would not be a nicety, but a necessity. Where most of their young potential audiences were on TikTok, among other platforms, some of the younger generations, such as Gen Z, were exclusively active on TikTok.
Once you reach these young audiences with news, they are not afraid to engage. “On average, they tend to engage more,” says Erika.”TikTok audiences are three times more likely to comment, share, or engage with any type of video, in general. And they’re more willing to, maybe due to their younger age, or in general, to ask questions. It could be just to clarify something that was said, but often they want to know more. That means there’s also direct news gathering from this. We know what they’re interested in based on what they write in our comments or what they request from us.”
Meet Erika Marzano at Mx3 Barcelona on 12-13 March 2024, where she will be one of our speakers. Read more about the off-the-record event and sign up here. Our discounted pre-agenda offer is available until 7 December 2023.
The effort put into TikTok worked and they have the numbers to back this up. Last year TikTok was DW’s biggest social network grower. “It managed to beat Instagram and take its place as the third most successful social media platform of the year for Deutsche Welle. Its usage was nine times higher than in 2021, clocking an average of 81 million video views per month. This was in 2022 when we had 11 active accounts. Right now, we have 16, and in 5 days, we will have 17. So we are on a trajectory of even increasing this.”
This way of storytelling will remain
Erika is convinced that even without the TikTok platform, the short-form vertical image format it brought to the world will continue to thrive. “Many times people ask me what if TikTok disappears, what if it shuts down? We’ve seen in India it was banned, just when we were about to open our DW India account, and then there were talks about the US banning it.
“My answer is simple: if TikTok per se disappears, then it’s not a big deal because the TikTok way of storytelling will remain, and that is what we have learned, and we are improving every day in this. Wherever TikTok as a platform itself ends up, doesn’t really matter because this way of storytelling will stay on other platforms, the existing ones like Reels, YouTube Shorts, even Twitter X is focused on vertical content.”
From their experience, the TikTok format works best with a host, or at the very least, a host voiceover. “So there’s someone explaining what’s happening, if it’s real footage, or someone sharing a piece of information, a piece of news. It is snackable… each video, in person, is a piece of content, it’s (a) complete story.”
Context for inquiring young minds is easy to add, explains Erica. “There are various ways to add context, even if it’s not directly in the video. It could be in the video caption, in the description text on the video that is not what is being spoken, so additional information. More in the comments, so actively asking for questions, or just stating explanations in the comments section or going back and doing maybe a part 2, part 3.”
This all leads to achieving a complete story in one short video – the most important reason why it is so easy to share on social platforms.
Erika says although they tend to stick to these “generic rules” for TikTok style production, these can vary for specific accounts and departments to include other formats, such as quizzes and Q&As, “or we could have sketches and re-enactments of real-life scenes”.
As for being the host or face of these videos? Well, younger is better. “We don’t want the audience to feel like they’re being preached upon… And maybe with older generation (hosts), it might feel like that… Some of our younger presenters are on TikTok themselves, so they already know the language, the memes, the trends and they get used to it more easily.”
Hence the ‘taking of the make-believe picture’ test. The moment you tap the virtual camera with that index finger – that’s it – you’re disqualified.
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Piet van Niekerk is a retired gas engineer. He also worked as a journalist and editor earlier in his career. Based in Bristol, he now writes about media and content innovation. Mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org