How Your College Can Use TikTok Without Trying Too Hard to Be Cool

March 25, 2021

When someone on your college or university’s marketing team brings up TikTok as a new way to connect with students and prospective students, there’s a good chance that what follows is a moment of awkward silence, right? Someone says they will look into how to use it effectively, and the conversation ends there. Because let’s face it, if you’ve never been on TikTok, just the idea of it can seem like an alien world.

That said, to engage a younger audience, TikTok is where you need to be. Check out these stats:

  • In 2020, TikTok was the second most downloaded app (after Zoom) in the App Store.
  • 52% of TikTokers say they discover new products from ads.
  • TikTok is seeing a 300% growth in educational content.
  • Social engagement on TikTok exceeds all other social platforms.
  • TikTok has 100 million monthly users in the U.S.

Uber popular with Gen Z in particular, the platform is the perfect place to show your students and future students a more human side of your university’s brand.

Now, if you’ve spent any time around young people, you know that they think, speak, and act differently. They have come of age in social media culture, and they understand social media like a fish understands water. You realize that when you jump in with them, this is not your native habitat as it is for them. You know you’re not as cool as them.

But that’s okay. Because here’s the beauty of TikTok: It’s not about who is the coolest kid in school or has the most intricately made videos. It’s about celebrating our quirks, our foibles, our humanity. It’s about the real, day-to-day joys of being alive—reveling in the absurd, finding the fun, and laughing at ourselves.

So dive in. And use TikTok to show students and prospective students the real-world, people-centered side of your institution. Some advice:

Be Authentic

Young adults today can sense inauthenticity like a shark can smell blood. And they have two responses to it: ignore it, or mock it. Obviously, you don’t want either. So don’t make anyone in your institution present a persona that isn’t authentic to them. 

If the president of your school has a more reserved personality, embrace it—even have fun with it: Show people interacting with her, trying to get her to be more lively, then pan to her being stoic and amusingly not amused. TikTok viewers want to see people’s individuality. So let them.  

Be Joyful

TikTok videos are short vignettes of the little things that make life amazing. Users spend an average of 52 minutes a day so they can get doses of humor, energy, and happiness. Give them something that will make them smile.

The easiest way to do this is to simply share what makes you (or your students) smile. What are the little things about your school that make being there a joy? Of course you’re proud of all the big things—the academics, the athletics, the extracurriculars, the facilities. But what are the everyday tidbits of being on campus that make you grin when you think about them? 

Maybe it’s the staff member down the hall who sometimes brings in home-baked cookies. (You could show her putting a plate down in a common area, walking away, and a horde of coworkers running over to gobble them up.) Perhaps it’s the barista at the coffee shop in the student union who can charmingly (intentionally?) never spell anyone’s name right. Or what about the simple relaxing act of sitting on the bench by the lake on your campus: the breezes, the birds, the sound of a distant laugh. Find the tiny joys of being a part of your school’s community and share them with the TikTok world.

Let Your Guard Down

Sometimes academic culture can feel a little, well, stiff. And institutions have a lot at stake and take great care to protect their legacy, and understandably so. But when you’re trying to attract young people and let them know that your campus is a place filled with a dynamic community, they need to see real people being real. 

Beyond the marketing materials and the polished recruiting videos, show the deeper, richer, more nuanced aspects of your school’s brand identity. For instance, to illustrate the sense of camaraderie at your university, you could share a video of students trying to teach a dean the latest TikTok dance craze—and the dean doing terribly at it, laughing at himself, and the students laughing with him. 

Don’t be afraid to show a wider spectrum of emotions, too. If there has been a tragedy, you can help users see that your school comes together when it matters. Give a glimpse of administrators’ real emotional responses so viewers know that behind the university’s prepared statements about the event are leaders who have been deeply impacted as well. 

Celebrate Your People—Especially Those Who Need It the Most

Perhaps one of the best things about TikTok is that it spotlights people who have been historically rendered invisible. It elevates the perspectives and lived experiences of individuals from marginalized communities. You can use it to do something similar.

While your website and marketing materials showcase the big happenings on campus—the athletics programs, or the science team who won a competition—TikTok is where you can highlight the work students are doing that typically flies under the radar. There are so many otherwise ordinary young adults doing extraordinary things all around you. Let them know you see them and think they’re equally as amazing as your football team’s MVP.

Millions of people engage with this account of a user who’s amazing at calligraphy. And then there’s the story of the college student who built a massive following by…mixing paint. (It’s kind of a controversial story actually, but it ends happily.) So ask your students if they have ideas and/or want to get involved. After all, 3 of 4 people say TikTok is a place they can openly express themselves. 


So, next time someone suggests adding TikTok to your institution’s social media portfolio, don’t be afraid. While this platform may not be your natural habitat, if you enter ready to enjoy it for what it is, TikTok viewers will get to enjoy your institution for who it is.

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