Hacking TikTok

From the Curator’s Desk

Greetings friends:

This week’s newsletter is continuing the tradition of inviting members of our community to write From The Curator’s Desk, and for this edition, I’m happy to hand it over to Ferdinand Omondi, who is a journalist with BBC Africa.

Please send your guest writing pitches for this section to chris@barazalab.com  if you’re interested in being our guest curator on the newsletter, and you have something of interest to share to our community — a trend you’ve noticed or something you’d like us to think about.

~ Christine

I have been wondering how to “hack” the Tik Tok audience for a while now. And then it just… happened.

I went live on Tik Tok for the first time on 20th March, covering Kenya’s opposition protests. When I started the day, I had only 444 Tik Tok followers.

By sunset, I had more than 20,000. To put this in perspective, I gained less than 500 followers on Instagram the whole of 2022.

Before this revelation, I struggled with figuring out how to connect with that Gen Z audience. I suspect millennials like me have had a similar challenge. On social media, I  have built my largest visibility in “uppity” Twitter , now at 268,000 followers, patiently over 14 years (inclusive of that early, what-am-I-doing-here period when we all didn’t have the foggiest idea how to use Twitter, logged off and returned two years later). Twitter is considered a mature, formal audience. Kings, The Pope and Elon Musk have accounts here (OK, so did ISIS). 

But Tik Tok is largely associated with fast-lane, impatient under-25s, who many assume are too busy watching funny videos, thirst-traps and fancy 30-second tutorials to ‘watch the news’.

So how does a 41-year-old newsgathering veteran connect with Tik Tok? Well, I got the answer when, on a whim, I decided to go live on Tik Tok that Monday. The response was dramatic. I streamed live, non-stop, for 30 minutes. I started with an audience of three. By the time I had to cut off the live stream,  more than 4,000 were steadily watching, and sending flowers, diamonds and all manner of those-things-they-share-to-show-that-they-care.

Thousands watched and reacted to every snippet I sent. A video of me cowering in a stall, marooned between police teargas and stone-throwing protestors got over 2.8 million views to date, and counting. It was active validation and an encouragement to keep going. They wanted more. 

After noticing the large livestream audience and an alert from Tik Tok that I was getting too many notifications, I checked my followers. It gained some 8,000 new followers while I was live. Some 24 hours later, I was pushing 30,000 followers!

This taught me something. This theory that younger audiences don’t watch news or aren’t interested in current affairs is inaccurate. Younger audiences care about what’s happening around them. But you must take that information to them, and on a platform they understand.

Because they’re never coming to you. 

Short videos are especially popular, and the nice little Tik Tok watermark which owns your work for you is a great touch. Which means your video can be re-shared and cross-posted on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, but ultimately you get credit for it because your name is on the video.

Tik Tok is the sixth most popular app in the world, according to recent statistics.. But it’s the fastest growing, and the only app that has doubled its audience in the last two years. More than 60% of Tik Tok’s one  billion users are aged 25 and below. Sure, the data shows they primarily love entertainment, but not all of us can dance, or act, or spend hours before a green screen generating content. So how do you “hack” this audience ? 

My answer: Focus on your strengths, and do what you do best. There’s an audience for what you do. I grew my Twitter audience purely on my  journalism. When I shifted to Tik Tok and tried the stereotypes, they didn’t work for me. And then I took what I do best – journalism –  to Tik Tok. Boom.

I am writing this piece three days after the first protest. I now have 44,000 followers on Tik Tok and counting. In three days! I also have 26,000 new Facebook followers- an app I joined in 2010.

Stop this ‘Tik Tok is for kids’ nonsense.

Tik Tok is the social media home of the most populous demographic in the world.

It’s the fastest growing social media app.

And Tik Tok is the most disruptive.

If you’re serious about growing your brand, you can’t ignore Tik Tok, Chinese spy stories notwithstanding. 

And that’s digital first 101.

In the meantime, here’s:

  • What We’re Reading: A brave, heartfelt, powerful open letter published in the Daily Monitor to the President of Uganda, from a group of mothers of LGBTQ individuals in the country, asking the President not to sign Uganda’s punitive Anti-Homosexuality Bill. To quote: “Our children are not punching bags; our children are not enemies of the state. Our children are not disgusting. Our children are not any of the derogatory names they have been tethered with; our children are not criminals or anti-government. Our children are more than their sexuality and gender identity. Our children are Ugandan citizens, just like you and me!”
  • What We’re Watching: Two American Families, a 2013 documentary by Frontline PBS, available on YouTube, where two families – one white, one Black – do all they can to survive mostly on minimum wage jobs, in a battle to keep from sliding to poverty. This one will make you feel all the feels.
  • What We’re Listening To: Are Content Creators Copying Each Other? The latest episode of the podcast It’s Related, I Promise. We’ve featured this podcast before, but this one is good for a re-up.

As always, 

Christine Mungai

Curator | Baraza Media Lab


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