3 Institutions leading a masterclass on TikTok for higher education

Recruitment programs, college brochures and campus tours are just the beginning of appealing to prospective students. As younger generations flock to their favorite social platforms to learn more about their dream schools, using TikTok for higher education is a must.

There are higher ed institutions prospering on the platform—attracting the attention of students and alumni alike. Our Social Media Benchmarks Report for Higher Education shows 68% of high school students use social channels to research schools. Our report also reveals 80% of alumni organizations agree that social media has the most impact on engagement. And 41% of school officials can directly attribute increased enrollment to social strategy.

We spoke to several institutions including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Bowling Green State University and Ohio University to discuss how they navigate challenges and their tips for building a presence on TikTok. In this article, we’ll also show examples from these colleges and universities leading the way on TikTok for higher education.

3 institutions leading a masterclass on TikTok for higher education

1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

MIT has mastered the TikTok niche. Whether it’s showcasing a robot solving a Rubik’s cube in .38 seconds,

Or giving a behind-the-scenes look at student life, the prestigious institution does an excellent job of balancing different types of content to appeal to various audiences.

2. Bowling Green State University

Bowling Green State University (BGSU) was the first university on the “clock app” in Ohio and has been a leader in higher education TikTok ever since. They are one of the most followed institutions in the state.

Along with original content, BGSU highlights the university’s unique offerings, such as the Carillon Market, which features Amazon’s Just Walk Out technology. The market is one of BGSU’s dining options and the technology used in the store enables students to shop for items by scanning a QR code or tapping a debit or credit card upon entry. Students can simply tap, walk in, grab their food and walk out without using a traditional point-of-service system:

“TikTok is a great platform for finding new audiences. We have had so many students from across the country that say they found our university through TikTok and that’s why they chose to enroll in BGSU,” says Brianna Blackburn, Manager of Social Media Strategy, Bowling Green State University.

3. Ohio University

Ohio University (OU) is one of the leading institutions in the nation for engagement on social. OU knows how to connect with their audience while also connecting the university to TikTok trends. For example, in the video below, they share their rendition of the “We’re XYZ,” trend:

@officialohiouniversity

What can we say…we’re Bobcats! 😸 #OhioUniversity

♬ original sound – Ohio University 😸

They also partnered with their university communications and marketing departments to produce a Halloween themed series featuring OU’s mascot, Rufus the Bobcat:

The challenges to creating a higher ed TikTok strategy

In 2023, several states and university systems banned or restricted TikTok on their campuses, often by blocking access from campus wifi. Our benchmarks report highlights four other common challenges for higher ed organizations on social, including: multiple audience segments, departmental silos, competing interests and ineffective tools. Here’s a quick overview of those challenges:

Multiple audience segments: Colleges and universities have multiple audiences–prospective students, current students, alumni, faculty, fans—and they all want different types of content.

Departmental silos: Managing various audiences becomes more challenging when there are different departments and teams with different focuses and goals.

Competing interests: School rivalries go beyond sports. Practitioners have to understand their competitors’ social performance to benchmark and improve their institution’s social strategy.

Ineffective tools: Without the right tools to measure success, gaining a bird’s eye view of performance and impact becomes even more difficult. Despite these common pain points, there are ways social practitioners can navigate these challenges successfully.

How to build a standout TikTok presence in higher ed

Here are eight tips for building a presence on TikTok in higher education:

1. Identify your bread and butter to create engaging content

Jenny Li Fowler, Director of Social Media Strategy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recommends centering on “bread and butter content”. This bread and butter content refers to a set of content or specific topics that everyone in your community expects and values from you, such as campus photos.

“Every university has its culture and things the community rallies around, like a sports team. For us, numbers are our love language—anything that’s nerdy or quirky we also love,” she says.

However, Fowler also encourages higher ed intuitions to embrace spontaneity as well. For example, MIT is often an answer in jeopardy, so that could be an opportunity to play on a specific moment.

“When your culture intersects with the popular culture or zeitgeist, that’s social media gold. But that is a test of how quickly your team can move and capitalize on those moments. You can create some really creative, powerful and authentic content in these moments,” she says.

“Lean into what makes your institution and your culture unique. Don’t try to do the dances or follow all the trends unless it’s a natural fit. Trends are easier to get wrong than right,” she says.

2. Focus on complementary goals and common interests

Fowler runs the flagship channel, so her primary audience is global. Although prospective students and alumni aren’t her main focus, they’re part of her audience. She explains it’s a positive that various departments have specialized goals and specific audiences because it enables teams to complement each other.

“I think that’s even better that we do because we can point to each other. For example, some departments may have similar niches like cognitive sciences or neurological studies. Some [department labs and centers] are focused on artificial intelligence, while others are centered on robotics or humanities. When people come to me for a consultation, I always recommend them to reach out to people in different departments so they can amplify each other’s work, such as for event promotion,” Fowler says.

“It’s always better to work together than trying to single handedly build a community from scratch. If you have different teams it’s nice to be able to work off of each other and share each other’s content,” she says.

“Our admissions department focuses on prospective students so they get to do a lot of really cool, edgy content that might not speak to my whole broader audience. We have more professionals, educators and academics who follow the flagship channels who appreciate more of our bread and butter content: research, science, robotics. The admissions department gets to do more fun, innovative content—and thank goodness because they’re so good at it.”

3. Embrace and empower partnerships with students

Elise Holbrook, Senior Social Media Specialist, Ohio University says the student team is a large part of their success on TikTok. While Holbrook oversees overall strategy and content approval, the student social team produces content for TikTok and Reels. Juliana Colant, is a senior member of OU’s student social media team and works very closely with Holbrook.

“The student team has always been such an important part of our strategy because students know the university and campus life super well. They have more of a pulse on what is interesting to people their age,” Holbrook says, “If you’re going to be creating content for young people, then young people need to be involved.”

In 2023, BGSU started a brand ambassador program. Blackburn meets with ambassadors biweekly to brainstorm ideas for content. They also create TikTok content during these meetings.

BGSU has leveraged a student social media intern team for years, but in 2023, they launched a brand ambassador program for student micro influencers. The students post on their personal social media channels weekly, but also have the opportunity to learn, brainstorm and create TikToks with the BGSU social team in-person twice a month.

“Having an extra layer of connection with students has tremendously helped us stay in touch with what’s happening on campus and hear new ideas and perspectives from a variety of students—we get amazing TikTok and campaigns ideas from them. It’s also a great learning opportunity for students interested in marketing or public relations,” she says.

4. Add your institution’s own spin

Holbrook and Colant recommend identifying ways you can connect popular content to your institution whether it’s a TikTok trend or sound.

“We try to see how we can blend OU into the TikTok space in a way that’s engaging and fun, but also informational for the audience we’re trying to reach,” Colant says.

For example, the team created several videos during the Barbie movie parody trend, like this one below:

But our social practitioners agree that there’s an art to hopping on trends. Blackburn mentions how they participated in the “I’m X, of course of XYZ” trend on TikTok.

Blackburn explains the “I’m X, of course,” trend was successful because they were able to post when it was first becoming popular on TikTok. Instead of making it just about BGSU students, they made the video about all college students, which captured a much broader audience. She advises teams to act fast when hopping on trends and create content that is relatable to a broad audience.

@officialbgsu

We’re college students!! #BGSU #BGFalcons #BowlingGreenStateUniversity #college #Ohio #Midwest #StudentLife

♬ original sound – Official BGSU

“The higher education industry is generalized as being slow to change or slow to marketing tactics. But TikTok is a unique opportunity for us to really be different from that stereotype and become early adopters,” she says.

“It’s really easy to just do a quick lip sync to an audio, but what really makes our account stand out is that we have so much variety in content.”

Along with using TikTok sounds, BGSU posts vlogs and skits. She encourages teams to become early adopters of different techniques as well, such as experimenting with editing styles.

“Have fun with editing like zooming in or adding sound effects. Really mix it up, see how your audience responds, and keep experimenting. Taking thoughtful and strategic risks as a public institution help you stand out from your peers. So that’s been our approach as a social-first focused brand,” Blackburn says.

“It’s more important to us that we create solid, consistent content even if that means posting something that’s different than anything we’ve done before or not exactly ‘perfect’ in our eyes. We always strive for progress over perfection. TikTok growth is about being all in—it’s just a matter of going for it,” she says.

5. Have fun while leaning into your audience’s interests

Holbrook explains there’s a tendency in higher ed to feel like the content has to be serious because teams have a brand to uphold, but she encourages teams to step outside their comfort zone.

“A bigger part of our strategy has been not taking ourselves too seriously. To some degree you want to present yourself as a legitimate academic institution. But people in the [target audience] of college students don’t want to see a brand–whether it’s a college or any brand—be super serious all the time,” Holbrook says.

Fowler encourages social teams in higher education to have fun when building a presence on TikTok.

“Some of the most engaging types of content are those that allow you to tie back to your community or your culture. Those are the most fun,” Fowler says.

For example, MIT created a Barbie box :

“Even just calling your audience Barbies and saying ‘Hey, my nerd Barbies,’ works,” Fowler says.

“I used to joke that one of the most difficult decisions I make a day is which emoji to use. It’s social media. It’s supposed to be fun and sometimes I think we forget that fundamental fact,” Fowler says.

6. Build community through consistency

Colant says there’s two key things to remember with TikTok strategy: consistency and community. Consistency is important because TikTok isn’t a platform where you can just post once a month and then expect to see a great growth or response rate. You need to consistently publish content for your audience, along with viewers who aren’t following you yet, but see your content on their For You Page. She also speaks to how TikTok is often associated with the chase of virality, but building community is more important.

“Getting a million views on every single video would be awesome, but it’s about building a consistent community. We want to connect with potential students, current students and alumni, so think about how you can best connect with the current community while also receiving great engagement.”

7. Become best-in-class by analyzing performance and competitors

Holbrook says showing proof points of both quantitative and qualitative can help show the “why” behind your TikTok strategy. For example, by pulling reports where you can view relevant engagement metrics like reshares, comments and likes, you get a quantitative sense of performance. She also recommends looking to the TikTok comments to see how the content resonates with your audience to gain a qualitative sense of your posts.

Along with reviewing OU’s TikTok performance, the team has a page dedicated to following other colleges, universities and competitor institutions to see how different schools approach content.

“How are they covering their football games? Could we do something similar or different? You can really learn and grow by looking at your competitors,” Colant says.

Beyond competitor institutions, the team pays attention to posts from content creators, influencers and brands.

“That’s a really important thing to consider on [short-form video platforms] like TikTok and Reels that are competing for people’s views. How do you get on the level of those brands that are always getting the trending videos,” Holbrook says.

“I like to look at TikTok strategy as being a student of the platform. We’re always studying the platform and listening. We avoid posting just to post because we listen first and see how the general conversation is going,” Blackburn says.

8. Create partnerships with TikTok education influencers

Fowler says higher ed institutions have a built-in group of micro-influencers because current and incoming students have never known life without social media. Today’s undergraduates aren’t just scholars—they’re content creators and influencers. And of course alumni and fans have social presences as well.

“You have ambassadors who already love you and are your real fans. People get excited when their favorite institution reaches out. Many students have their own YouTube channels with several thousand followers. To me, that’s a micro-influencer. Tap into those people and pitch an opportunity to work together,” she says.

Along with using micro-influencers within their ambassador program, BGSU collaborated with their first influencer, @eliemagic in 2023. He travels to campuses across Ohio to interview students and he also has a series dedicated to Greek life and student athletes. BGSU reached out after he announced he was coming to campus, and they worked to accomplish something he couldn’t do on his own: interview a professor.

“He came in and surprised the class, so that was a cool experience to see the shock on everyone’s faces because he’s very recognizable in Ohio,” she says.

@eliemagic

We love interrupting 9am classes! 🥲 #fyp #viral #explore

♬ original sound – Elie Haoui

Just like TikTok trends, the higher education social media playbook is dynamic, but these tips can help you develop your presence on TikTok.

Higher education TikTok: Foster connection beyond the For You Page

The common piece of advice from all three institutions? Focus on community and connection on your TikTok and other channels to establish rapport with your audience segments. If you want to learn more ways to use TikTok for education, get inspired with our list of 15 ways to use social media for education.

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