Audience Engagement Platforms
8 mins read

Reaching Gen Z: TikTok tips for publishers

When it comes to news, young generations, and especially Gen Z (those born between 1997 and 2012) are hard to reach. Or, to be more specific, they’re hard to reach via news apps, news sites and television broadcasting. We know they don’t consume news in traditional ways, and the much-documented decline in trust in media and institutions doesn’t help much either.

But, that’s not to say they’re socially disengaged. It’s also a fact that this is a highly politicised generation (think Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ+, and climate change campaigning for starters), and although there’s a good chance the young generation won’t have a Times digital subscription and may even avoid Facebook like the plague, they will certainly be online, probably right at this very second. But where?

There is a social media platform that has 1 billion users, of whom 47.4% are between 10 and 29 years old. So, it’s a true Gen Z media platform. Here, an average user spends approximately 52 minutes a day on that platform, where much of the content they’re viewing is user-generated and all of it is video-based.

Yup: you’ve guessed it, we’re talking about the Chinese tech phenomenon, TikTok.

TikTok: lip syncing fun…. And news?

While TikTok began life as an app called Musical.ly, it’s now gone beyond its initial premise of “singing! and dancing! to music!”. Users love it because it’s fun, snackable, user-created content – and the video format suits its audiences’ behavioural tendencies and technological capacity (let’s not forget that this is a generation that isn’t just digitally native, they’re smartphone and wifi native too).

So, while news provision might not be your first thought when we’re discussing TikTok, this is in fact exactly the point.

Consider this: almost half (42%, if we’re being specific) of Gen Z adults say that social media is the main way they consume news. But, how many newsrooms are truly embracing the potential these new platforms offer? Some might feel like it is not worth the time and money investing in reaching this generation, since it will not directly lead to more subscribers or engaged website visitors. But, possibly, Gen Z will eventually turn into your future’s audience and potential subscribers.

So, in order to reach them in the future it is important to bind them to your news brand right now. And based on the numbers, TikTok is the biggest platform for this generation, which makes it something you simply can’t neglect if you want to grow your audience base in the long run. So, let’s explore TikTok a bit more and learn from its potential …

1: Get familiar with how the TikTok algorithm works

How does the TikTok algorithm work? Very simply stated, engagement on TikTok is measured by:

  1. Whether your audience watched your video to the end
  2. If they shared it
  3. If they started following you after watching the video
  4. or whether they responded with (negative) feedback

This algorithm helps TikTok decide which content hits each coveted ‘For You’ page. The more content a user consumes about a specific topic, the more videos that fit that topic will appear on their For You page, because TikTok recommends content based on the users’ watch and like history. In other words, TikTok chooses videos based on the needs of the user, although they also claim to select random videos to balance out any potential problems with filter bubbles.

There is no exact science about how you can get videos high on someone’s For You page (especially if they’re not looking for you) or how long it takes for a TikTok to go viral, but the better engagement you get, the higher your chance becomes!

And, as we know, the best way of enjoying high engagement rates is to create content that is relevant, and resonates with your audience.


When you’ve produced a TikTok of great quality, the TikTok algorithm goes to work. It chooses a group of people who it thinks will engage with your video, based on user interactions, your video information and their device and account settings. If this selected group indeed shows above-average engagement, the algorithm will place your video on the For You pages of another group of users and now their engagement will determine whether your video will be shown on even more For You pages. This loop continues until the overall engagement drops.


2: Adapt to the TikTok style

In order to be relevant on any platform, you have to understand what the audience there is looking for: TikTok users are likely expecting something different from those on Instagram, or even your homepage. So, while creating content specific to each channel shouldn’t be a new idea, there are two things in particular that you need to pay attention to in the case of TikTok. Implementing these tips will improve all kinds of different content on TikTok, no matter what specific content you are posting, so use these tips as your first guidelines to start building relevance on this Gen Z dominated platform:

  1. First of all, TikTok is more fast-paced than any other social media platform out there and users expect to be entertained every second, so it’s crucial you grab their attention quicklyShow the value of your TikTok in the very first seconds of your video by opening with a powerful or attention-grabbing statement or emotion. Aim for a video between 12 to 15 seconds where every second is highly saturated with content using a visually attractive format.
  2. Another crucial element of TikTok videos is music88% of TikTok users say that sound is an essential part of their TikTok experience. So always choose a supporting sound or music, and choose them carefully. A good rule of thumb is to hop on viral trends, so if certain TikTok songs are going viral, get involved. Also, fast-paced sounds work best. And don’t forget to design your videos in such a way that the music is played off automatically when users scroll by.

3: Optimise your content for specific elements

Users who previously engaged with specific elements of a video are more likely to receive recommendations of videos with similar elements, so from a publishing point of view it makes sense to optimise for these elements. These elements include: your caption, the used music or TikTok songstrending hashtags like #foryoupage or #fyp and viral trends.

Besides looking at the inclusion of specific elements that users previously engaged with, TikTok also positively rewards videos that use TikTok’s native features like visual effects and on-screen text. There are hundreds of options for effects and on-screen text treatment, and using them helps make your content feel more native to the platform.

4: Building trust is more important than ever before

The relevance of TikTok has been made more apparent in the past weeks, as the Ukraine crisis unfolds. Dubbed ‘the first TikTok war’, the platform has broadened the way people communicate with one another about such events. And, unlike Vietnam, ‘the first living room war’, (when the world viewed the conflict via extensive daily television broadcasts) with Ukraine, the content we’re seeing isn’t necessarily curated by a news agency or those with a journalistic background and training.

So, why’s this important? Well, simply put it’s an issue of expectation. People read news, or watch TV bulletins expecting a one sided report. The trust in news professionals ultimately goes one way. With TikTok (and of course other social media) the reality is different: trust has to be earned. And, to do that, it’s imperative that you understand the conversation.

Engage with them!

Building a relationship with your audience starts by engaging with them yourself first. Start building a community by liking, commenting or sharing videos of other TikTokers. 21% of TikTokers say they feel a better connection with companies that comment on other people’s videos, so it’s clear that being part of the conversation (and not just a commentator on it) is important. And don’t forget to monitor comments and engagement on your own videos, and react to them as well.

Carefully choose your format and tone

As with any new platform, to use it, you need to buy into the format and tone. The last thing you want to look like is the parent who wants to sit at the kids’ table. These formats may not be familiar to some journalists, but a little poking around will reveal what makes the platform tick (or tok). In the case of TikTok, a playful tone, succinct text and considered design rank highly.

And remember, just because the platform is mainly focused on fun and entertainment, doesn’t mean serious topics can’t be addressed. Most serious topics are already being addressed on TikTok anyway, so addressing them from a journalistic, explanatory point of view will only improve the provision of information amongst youngsters. In order to convey the relevance of the topic, try and connect your news topic to daily life.

Three TikTok accounts worth paying attention to

  1. The Washington Post TikTok account has 1.2 million followers and more than 51 million likes. Their secret? 28 year old Dave Jorgenson, also known as the ‘Washington Post TikTok guy’, who perfectly combines the joy of the platform with the seriousness of news events, creating both funny and informative content. Jorgenson has full power to run the account and informs his followers on relevant news, but what truly makes him trustworthy is his personal touch and his low-key, informal and relatable posture and content.
  2. Max Foster takes a more serious approach, but it still works. The 49 year old CNN news anchor mainly posts short news updates under 30 seconds in which he explains or shows some footage of current events. His tone is far more serious than Dave Jorgensons’, which fits his age and experience much better. His followers are very responsive, engage in political and racial discussions and thoroughly reflect and discuss the topics raised in Fosters’ videos. In response, he actively builds trust by participating in these conversations, and does so while respecting the platform and staying true to who he is.
  3. IDN Times, a youth-orientated news platform based in Indonesia boasts a very impressive 1 million followers, and has a clear identity. What do they think about this? Here’s editor in chief, Yogie Fadila:

“We had the idea of a TikTok account by late 2019 because the platform’s popularity keeps growing and growing. By early 2020, we decided to start an account to reach Gen Z who don’t see FB or Twitter as their go to media social. They don’t go scrolling around to see endless feeds of URL posts. They don’t dive into a bottomless Twitter timeline to see what’s trending. They do, however, interact with short videos and the latest moves and music. They join the conversation from women empowerment, financial freedom to K-pop on TikTok. While it doesn’t contribute to our north star metric, TikTok presents us an opportunity to top of mind news sources for Gen Z.”

Yogie Fadila, Quality Control Editor – IDN Times

It’s easy to assume that as users age, they’ll somehow grow into or gravitate towards ‘traditional’ digital media, but this is far from certain. Newspaper sales are declining as the last generation habituated to its age. For all we know the future of news looks nothing like a digital masthead and a digital fold.

Reuters have already predicted that newsrooms will be putting more effort and resources into social media, so it’s important to consider how platforms like TikTok can work for your newsroom now.

by Eveline de Boer

Republished with kind permission of smartocto, the world’s most actionable editorial analytics system offering a bird’s-eye view on The Story Life Cycle©.