Building Your Brand on TikTok

By Becky Sebo

When I was social media manager at Hillel International my goal was to meet students where they are online. Through internet deep-dives, I realized that Generation Z was rapidly migrating to TikTok, a platform where users can create videos up to one minute long.

With the humor of Vine (rest in peace) and the individuality of Instagram, TikTok is the next big thing and the top social media app in the world. Over a year ago, I had to ask myself if TikTok was worth Hillel’s time as an organization. With the mindset of “yes, lets” and after months of preparation, Hillel became the first major Jewish organization to debut on TikTok. The decision to join the bandwagon paid off.

When university campuses across the country closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and many students were trapped at home, TikTok became an escape from reality and a method to connect socially during this stressful time.

Sixty percent of TikTok’s users are between the ages of 16 and 24. The majority of users on this platform are college students or soon-to-be-high school graduates. Creating a brand on TikTok not only connected Hillel to their main following, but promoted Hillel to future members as well, increasing name recognition in a key demographic.

Unfortunately, I myself don’t fit into this demographic. While I believe I am a ‘cool’ millennial, I knew I couldn’t become the face of Hillel’s account on an app dominated by Gen Z. I needed students’ ideas to make authentic content relatable to the audience.

I assembled a team: the Hillel International TikTok Ambassadors. These ambassadors worked with me to follow trends on the app and create videos with a fresh Jewish lens. After convincing the team at Hillel and assembling a group of tech savvy teenagers, we hit the ground running. Through trial and error with the platform algorithm, we were able to learn a tremendous amount in the first year.

Understanding the algorithm 

TikTok consists of a mix of viral videos and “fill-in-the-blank memes.” In these videos, the premise of the joke is always the same, but the subject matter differs.

For example, in one trend on TikTok users describe themselves like a video game character, with their “skill set” displayed on the screen. The user pretends to move like an animated figure in slow motion. The common thread for this trend was the sound, a dreamy slowed-down version of Frank Ocean’s song “Chanel.”

After the announcement of Hillel’s new president and CEO, Adam Lehman, in January, I knew this meme would be a perfect way to introduce him to the organization’s followers. The TikTok team re-created this meme, and the popularity of the sound pushed it onto the For You page, TikTok’s algorithm-based newsfeed, where 99% of the 115,000 video views came from.  At the time, the account only had 600 followers. Since that video, the follower count has more than doubled. By monitoring trends and creating memes relating to your mission, your organization can also join the conversations happening on the app.

Relax, its the internet

In the beginning, my team spent days fine-tuning the details of drafted TikToks. Over time, we relaxed into the creation process knowing that sometimes the videos with the least effort perform the best. Gen Z can easily identify when brands are being fake or trying to sell to them. It’s easy for them to sniff out a corporate voice. Today’s young adults understand that there is a person behind the phone who is running a brand’s social media accounts, and that person is who they want to interact with.

Don’t be afraid to make fun of yourself or your organization and experiment to see what works for your channel. A great example of this strategy is a video Hillel posted based on a trend called “I’m shy.” Users were filming themselves doing normal tasks in an exaggeratedly shy way with specific body language and music. In the practice of first-thought-best-thought, I got out Shabbat candles, pulled up the trending audio and made a quick video of Shabbat preparation with my feet turned inward and my pointer fingers touching, like a shy anime character would.

The video received extremely positive comments, including: “This is the targeted content I’m here for” and “This is hilarious, thank you for making this.” Three days after posting the video, Hillel’s account had 300 new followers. While this is was not the accounts most-viewed videos, it did have the most interactions, with over 7,500 likes. By going with the flow, your organization can share its authentic voice with tremendous results.

TikTok and COVID-19

Since state and federal governments implemented changes to flatten the curve, TikTok has absolutely become a resource for Gen Z to grieve everything they have lost and cope with a new way of life. While some content is “business-as-usual,” the overarching video theme has become how people are handling the Coronavirus pandemic.

From songs about the 10th time a user’s mother has suggested a walk in one day, to new creative ways students are entertaining themselves at home, like spinning phones in an open washing machine to get a dreamy 360-degree video, students are turning to their community for empathy.

What began as a way to get Hillel’s name out there with a new Jewish audience, turned into a method of supporting students during this crisis. Through laughter and authenticity, you too can connect with your followers even if it’s only for 15 seconds per week. Every day, more and more organizations are joining the app in an effort to connect with their communities. We don’t know how long we will be in this place of solitude while the world battles coronavirus, but we do know where we can go to meet community. One of those places is TikTok.

Becky Sebo is a social media consultant and former social media manager of Hillel International.