Why Universities Can’t Ignore TikTok Anymore

As universities look at new ways to reach Gen Z, TikTok is proving it needs to be part of the discussion.

TikTok logo

I’m sure you’ve heard a lot about TikTok, especially over the last year and a half. I remember downloading TikTok at the tail end of 2019 to see what the big deal was, and I quickly became addicted myself. That was only fueled by the endless hours at home during the pandemic — and I’m not alone in this.

Over 2020, TikTok became the social media star of the pandemic. I think this had a lot to do with everyone being stuck at home, separated from others and longing for connection. TikTok provided that connection. You would hear about things on the news, but you would really see it on TikTok. We saw countless videos by people we didn’t know of people howling for nurses during shift change, New York City being shut down, Black Lives Matter protests and more. Even though we didn’t know these content creators, these videos brought us together in a familiar way on social media. Instead of seeing posts by our friends and families, it was strangers, and for me it made the world feel a little bit closer while we were all physically distanced.

While Millennials like myself have been hopping onto the app, TikTok is really known as the go-to app for Gen Zers, and brands are taking notice — as they should. Over half of all Gen Z consumers are now on TikTok, and brands are starting to find their voice on TikTok as they try to reach the next generation.

​​What’s tough for brands entering the TikTok space is the raw, authentic culture of TikTok. It’s really different from any other platform, and the best I can compare it to is Vine (RIP). The two platforms have a lot of similarities, especially when it comes to content culture and style.

Videos that go viral on TikTok are often simple: someone filming with their iPhone with few edits, subpar lighting, and no script — very homemade. Kind of like these examples.




I don’t think she gets it #foryoupage#foryou#fyp#dogs#stayhomestaystrong #loungewear #collegememories #voiceover #progamer #keepingbusy

♬ original sound – kieerrraaaa<3


#fyp #MicroRaveWithRoni #MyTeacherWins #foryoupage #pov #foryoupage

♬ original sound – Faith Aikens

But as brands, we’re used to sharing highly produced and beautiful imagery that shows off our brand’s products or services. Brands are facing the harsh reality that TikTok isn’t Instagram, and it’s not a place to recycle Instagram content — it’s an app being shaped by Gen Z, and they don’t want another Instagram.

When it comes to advertising, Gen Zers don’t hate being marketed to, but they are savvy to it and are more attracted to new, unique and authentic forms of marketing. What worked two years ago on Instagram (or even today on Instagram) doesn’t work on TikTok.  

If you want a good example of a university doing TikTok advertising right, take a look at what Lancaster University is up to. Lancaster University promoted its online open day using in-feed TikTok ads to reach its Gen Z target audience. The university used trending songs, filters and text overlay to make its ads fit the TikTok aesthetic. And it worked. Their ads received 9 million engagements and 90K clicks.

TikTok, it’s just different

When ByteDance took over TikTok in 2017, it turned TikTok into a video-sharing social network powerhouse – far beyond the lip syncing and dancing platform it was in its early years (and the stereotype it has of still being today).

Now, users can choose from a wide selection of sounds and song snippets, effects and filters to create a variety of videos that are anywhere from 15 seconds to 3 minute long and feature things like stitches, challenges, duet videos and way more.







#duet with @bassbonnell so beautiful. #dinglehopper #littlemermaid

♬ original sound – bassbonnell


One of the most unique things about TikTok is its algorithm and feed curation. On Instagram, you’re fed content based on those you follow and engage with (your friend, your college roommate, that influencer you love, etc.). 

But TikTok took a new approach to its feed – in fact, there are two separate feeds on TikTok: the “Following” feed and the “For You” feed.

The “Following” feed is curated with content created by the users you follow, much like you would see on Instagram.

The “For You” feed, which is what you see when you first open the app, is curated by TikTok based on what it thinks you’d like to see, regardless of whether you follow the content creator or not. Brilliant.

The For You feed ensures that really anyone can go viral at any time because anyone can see your video, even if they don’t follow you. Creators don’t have to build up millions or even thousands of followers before their content can be seen by the masses. In fact, there are many creators with less than 1K followers who go viral overnight with one video.

Kind of like this.



♬ original sound – JD

If you click through to @slxmjxmm’s profile, you’ll see the video has 2.3 million views and 420,000 likes. You’ll also notice this was the first video @slkmjxmm ever posted. It didn’t take them weeks (or even a following) for their content to go viral.

Obviously there are a ton of factors that go into the algorithm, like captions, consistency, video completion, trending sounds, hashtags and more. But if there’s anything to take away from this, it’s that maybe for the first time, the size of your follower count doesn’t necessarily correlate to the number of people who see and engage with your content in a really great way, especially for brands.

But (there’s always a but), as more content creators join TikTok, the more videos that are created, which means it’s becoming increasingly hard to get your video on users’ For You feed. Building a community of engaged followers is still important on TikTok, just like other social media platforms, as is having really strong content that viewers want to watch.

Gen Z, they’re just different, too

So the next question is, why is Gen Z so drawn to TikTok?

To put it simply, while Millennials seem to prefer consuming content on social media, Gen Zers prefer to create content. But they don’t just create any content – they value an authenticity and rawness that might feel a little familiar to Gen Xers.

It’s not just bucket hats and combat boots that are making a comeback — it’s the attitude, too. The smell of teen spirit is being revived by the generation. I love this quote from Wired.

“Immerse yourself in TikTok and you’ll see a raucous return of the old ’90s themes: self-savagery, acid disdain for the rich, anti-commercialism, open mental illness, and every shade of irony. Though the mere word TikTok scares off boomers, with their love of speechifying on Facebook, and millennials, with their commitment to polished brand-of-me’ing on Instagram, the indolent, endless scroll of TikTok smells like teen spirit. That’s seductive to Gen Xers who are rounding the bend to reading glasses and name-forgetting.”

But Generation Z isn’t the new Gen X. Gen Z is blowing us away with their own unique characteristics. Some of these include:

  • Gen Z is one of the most diverse generations
  • Gen Z has high levels of education
  • Gen Zers are digitally native
  • Gen Z has a high social and cultural awareness
  • Gen Z desires to be more expressive

And the last bullet is one of the defining characteristics of Generation Z — this expression of individual truth.

Their need for self-expression pairs perfectly with TikTok’s dynamic and unpolished content (and TikTok’s need for LOTS of content creators). It’s not about creating this ideal-looking life like we often see on Instagram (though you still see that on TikTok, too). TikTok is all about highlighting an individual’s unique identity. Gen Z turned TikTok into a place where raw authenticity and the individuality is celebrated.

And again, this is exactly why brands have to completely re-think their social strategy on TikTok. They have to create content that’s more authentic than ever before, and play to Gen Zers’ unique identities. It’s no longer “one ad or video fits most,” and more about connecting with the individual.

TikTok Content

So, what type of content performs well on TikTok? I’ve kind of broken it down. These obviously aren’t hard and fast rules, but it will give you a better idea of what makes for good TikTok content.

What TikTok is:

  • Trendy
  • Funny
  • Informal
  • Entertaining
  • Witty

Content that works:

  • Sketches
  • Monologues (humorous, educational, etc.)
  • Singing/dancing still have a place on TikTok
  • Challenges/duets/stitches
  • Storytelling
  • How-to videos/DIY
  • Raw moments caught on camera (pointing a phone and filming something that evokes emotion)

What TikTok is not:

  • Highly curated
  • Evergreen
  • Institutional
  • Overly promotional

Content that often doesn’t work: Event promotion, highly-produced videos, photography, informational, human-less.

Again, this type of content often doesn’t perform well. But there are always exceptions, especially as TikTok content rapidly evolves.

CSU Social TikTok Squad

Knowing that TikTok is Gen Z’s go-to social media platform, our team has been looking at ways we could potentially incorporate CSU’s brand on the app. But, the hard part has been figuring out how to do it. TikTok users value raw, highly-engaging content usually with someone in front of the camera driving the storyline. Obviously none of us on #CSUSocial are going to be on camera. But we can’t rely on content based on b-roll or ever-changing main characters.

We thought about what’s worked well for us when trying to engage with Gen Z on social, and we looked at A Ram’s Life, our student-run vlog on YouTube. If you aren’t familiar with A Ram’s Life, we have three students who regularly vlog about their experiences as students at CSU — the good, the bad, even the monotonous parts of their lives. Their vlogs are authentic, not overly produced and most importantly, they work.

We’re planning to launch a Colorado State University TikTok this fall under the same framework as A Ram’s Life, and are hiring a TikTok squad made up of three students who will help us develop, create and star in TikTok videos.

All of this means we’re watching a lot of TikTok. Here are some brands who are doing it right.


More than 9 out of 10 teens polled said career success and free time are very important. Do you agree? #washingtonpostpoll

♬ original sound – We are a newspaper.


brb changing my birthday @janiyaapryor #chipotle #birthday #bff #fyp

♬ original sound – Chipotle





Questions with the Mountaineer #questionsigetasked #wvu #morgantown #westvirginia #morgantown #hailWV

♬ original sound – WVU