In the news publishers’ quest to reach younger audiences, TikTok has become a crucial channel for many companies. But how can they create journalism content that stands out on a platform that many still associate with dance and lip-syncing video clips?

“Don’t try to be something that you are not,” was the key advice from Tobias Henning, General Manager of TikTok Germany, Central Eastern Europe and Israel.

“A video will always provide room for authenticity, for being who you are, what you stand for. You should use the skills, the know-how, that you really have. Don’t pretend to be something else, and don’t pretend to serve an audience that you don’t understand,” he said.

Tobias Henning, General Manager of TikTok Germany, Central Eastern Europe and Israel, speaking at Digital Media Europe 2023 in April in Vienna. Photo by Roland Rudolph, APA, for WAN-IFRA.

Henning spoke about TikTok’s potential for news at WAN-IFRA’s Digital Media Europe 2023 conference in Vienna. Working for TikTok since 2020, he was previously General Manager Premium at Axel Springer SE, where he helped build the company’s paid content business.

TikTok a way to reach several communities

TikTok might be best known for short-form video content, but Henning said this reputation is now somewhat misleading. These days TikTok also supports longer videos, up to 10 minutes. And it’s not only short clips that perform well.

“More and more videos that get really wide coverage are more than one minute long,” he said. 

Another common misconception is to see TikTok’s user base as a one homogenous mass of people. “Actually, it’s not just one community,” he said.

In fact, several communities have formed on TikTok around specific interests. A well-known example of this is the #BookTok phenomenon, which is a community for booklovers who review and discuss the books they read.

This spring, TikTok hosted a Ramadan event in Berlin, bringing together creators from the Muslim community, Henning said. And according to him, the LGBTQIA+ community has also embraced TikTok.

TikTok’s reputation as a platform for teenagers is also increasingly outdated: “We have now an audience that is becoming older by the day. The vast majority of our users are well above the age of 18,” Henning said.

“At the moment, our core users are probably between 20 and 30, but we are heavily growing in the age group of 35 and well above.”

Content matters, not number of followers

Given that the biggest TikTok influencers have follower counts in the tens of millions, news publishers might wonder how they can possibly compete with them for users’ attention on TikTok.

But focusing on the number of followers is misleading, Henning said.

“TikTok is not about followers,” he said. “That is the most important thing that everybody needs to understand. We are not a social graph.” 

According to him, how widely any video will be seen on TikTok is not determined by the number of followers you have. What matters is the content itself.

He explained that TikTok’s technology analyses videos based on several factors, such as the length of the video, how much of it has been viewed, and how many interactions it has generated (such as likes and shares).

“All this interaction gives the technology an idea whether a content is attractive, and it can then get played out to an even wider audience,” he said.

This means the focus should be on creating content that engages, rather than on building a large following. 

“I hear people sometimes say, ‘Oh, we don’t want to start another platform. It costs us so much to get a million or 100,000 followers on a new platform. We won’t do it again,’ “ he said.

“Yeah, you should not do it again. But you should still start on TikTok because you can go viral without any followers,“ he said.

For a video to be successful, Henning highlighted one specific element: the first few seconds. “It needs to have a good intro. That’s where you catch the user when he or she scrolls through TikTok.”

Common approaches for news on TikTok

As for specific strategies for using TikTok for news content, Henning outlined five different ways they have observed:

Personality driven: One person acts as the “face” of the account, explaining the news and interacting with the community. This helps users identify the account and builds familiarity.

Journalist led: Journalists with their storytelling and other skills are in the centre and actively participate in the content creation.

Explainers: Focus on short explainer videos that dive into current news topics.

Repurpose: Publishers that already have a bigger video operation can reuse their existing content and reshape it for TikTok.

Collaborate with creators: Find and join forces with creators in your market who already know how TikTok works.

Publishers can, of course, try different combinations of the above to test and find the formula that works for them. But regardless of the chosen approach, Henning underlined one factor:

“You need someone in your organisation who knows TikTok and who really is passionate about it. And there will be people, of course, because TikTok is mainstream now … You will have people in your organisation who understand TikTok and who are keen to work with it. Don’t force anyone to do it,“ he said.

Sports and entertainment work well

Henning also discussed some journalism outlets that have been successful on TikTok.

One is Tagesschau, the German TV channel, which he said was one of the first news brands to join TikTok. In addition to news content they produce explainers and also create behind-the-scenes videos.

Henning highlighted behind-the-scenes content as something publishers should consider: “That’s something that we know works very well. Things that people don’t see anywhere else. What does it look like in a working newsroom? How is news made? That can be a good starting point to get in touch with the community.”

He also mentioned Funke, which in their videos features one of their journalists interviewing politicians and doing political explainers.

See also: TikTok: Le Parisien’s journey from zero to 400,000 followers

Finally, Henning gave examples of specific content categories that tend to get high engagement. Sports, for instance, has a lot of potential, as for example Sportschau has shown. Another topic that works well is entertainment, as content related to movies, TV shows and celebrities often gets a lot of views.

More recently, some outlets have started to experiment with using TikTok for local news, which Henning highlighted as another promising use case. An early-stage example of this comes from Germany’s Rheinische Post, which has created an account dedicated to news about the city of Düsseldorf.

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