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Has Time Run Out on TikTok as a Marketing Tool?

Episode 135

January 24, 2023 29 minutes


EAB’s Nicole Council, Scott Baker, and Jonathan Barnhart discuss the explosive growth of TikTok as a student recruitment tool and why it may, nevertheless, disappear completely from college campuses.

While TikTok has become the dominant social media platform used by Gen Z students, state-run colleges across America are banning access to the platform over a variety of concerns. Our guests share advice for admissions teams on how to adapt quickly as the situation evolves.



0:00:12.3 Speaker 1: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. Today, we explore the movement sweeping across the majority of states to ban TikTok on all computer devices at all state-run institutions, including state-run colleges. Why should schools care? Well, because TikTok has become a nearly indispensable tool for engaging audiences, particularly young people, that are critical to a school’s survival. TikTok is the dominant social media platform for Gen Z right now, so this is no trivial matter. Understandably, folks working in admissions offices are not thrilled at having this tool taken away from them during a time when they’re already challenged to hit enrollment targets. Please note that our guests are not information security experts and do not claim to be, but they do have a valuable perspective to share. So, give these folks a listen and enjoy.


0:01:12.8 Jon Barnhart: Hello, and welcome to Office Hours with EAB. My name is Jon Barnhart and I’m a researcher here at EAB. Today, I’m joined by a couple of my colleagues who are going to help make sense of the TikTok phenomenon. And make no mistake, it is a phenomenon with more than one billion monthly active users, billion with a “B.” So first, let me introduce Nicole Council. Nicole, do you mind telling our listeners a little bit about yourself and your role here at EAB?

0:01:39.0 Nicole Council: Thanks for having us, Jon. I’ve been at EAB for about almost four years now, and currently serve as an associate director on our paid social team. We support our undergraduate partners and our team works in all areas of paid social, so we are in charge of creative development, execution strategy, monitoring optimizations and reporting, all in an effort to assist our partner institutions with meeting their enrollment objectives. And I’m very much looking forward to our chat about TikTok today.

0:02:09.3 JB: Great, thanks for joining, Nicole. And we’re also joined by Scott Baker. Scott, tell us a little bit about yourself and your role here at EAB.

0:02:16.1 Scott Baker: Yeah, thank you also for having us today, also, thank you for letting Nicole go first and handle heavy lifting with role descriptions. I actually serve in the same capacity as she does, as an associate director on our paid social team. Been with EAB for a little over five years. And yeah, also just really appreciate the opportunity to speak with you today.

0:02:35.7 JB: Wonderful, well, thank you both again for joining me. This is a big topic that definitely requires three of us. There should probably be a few more of us on the line, just to make sure we cover all the bases, but let’s get through what we can today. So unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past three years, you’ve almost certainly heard of TikTok, and you may even be active on the platform. I am not personally active on the platform, so if you’re a Provost listening to this podcast, I am not looking up your cooking recipes or watching your dances. But many people out there are. As we mentioned earlier, this is a service that has over a billion total users on the platform. And so, I think it’s a really good topic for us to talk about today.

0:03:13.4 JB: We had originally started kicking around the idea for this podcast back in December, just before the holidays. And at the time, the news we were confronted with on TikTok was mostly that a handful of states, mostly conservative states, had decided to take the action to ban TikTok on state-sponsored or state-owned devices and networks. So if you were a public university in any of these sort of early adopter states, it wasn’t unreasonable to believe that you might come back from the holiday break to find that TikTok had been removed from your state laptop, from your state cell phone, from your iPad. And even if you were a student at one of these schools, you might have found that when you try to log into the University Wi-Fi, you could no longer access TikTok on your device.

0:03:58.3 JB: Now, as of the taping of this podcast, it’s Thursday, January 19th, we’ve gone from a handful of states to a majority of states in the US now have some rule on the books that relate to TikTok and the way that state-owned devices, and in some instances, state-owned networks can use this. And so it really has taken off quite quickly in the last month. I suspect by the time we actually get this podcast posted on the website, we will be at a place where virtually every state in the US has some sort of rule going forward. Now, most of these rules are targeted at TikTok specifically, and the big reason for them is the fears and concerns about the way that TikTok tracks and manages data. TikTok is not a US-owned company, I think that’s pretty well understood at this point, it is a Chinese-owned company and its parent company has run afoul with a couple different state laws, some of which accuse it just of tracking or planting malicious malware on some software networks, all the way up into potentially stealing COVID relief funds from certain states. Now, a lot of those investigations are ongoing, but they’ve been pretty well documented in the news here, and they have forced a lot of states and even our own federal government to take some of the steps that we’re going to talk about today.

0:05:14.2 JB: With that said, TikTok has been a pretty instrumental tool for many colleges and universities across the country to help in student recruitment, to support student engagement, even to go beyond that into staff, faculty engagement, alumni engagement, community and stakeholder engagement. So, it has become a pretty well-integrated tool for many of our partners to use, and these bans certainly present a challenge, let’s say, for many of our partner schools to overcome here. So, Nicole, maybe I can start with you here. Let’s talk about the admission side, how are admissions officers using TikTok at present, and how widespread would you say its use is across our partner colleges and universities?

0:05:56.2 NC: That’s a great question. I think that it varies across our universities and our partner universities, school by school. Some of our schools have been on the platform for years now, and others of them are just now thinking about dipping their toe in the TikTok pool, so to speak. And I kinda wanna take a step back and say that all forms of social media have been used by universities in this capacity for years now, thinking about recruitment efforts, retention efforts and engagement efforts. It’s not to say that email and paper are dead in terms of marketing, but social media is by far the most effective approach at reaching students for recruitment efforts by our admissions offices. We certainly think the shift away from Facebook, specifically with Gen Z, and privacy concerns that they’ve implemented and practices they’ve implemented have limited our ability to directly target 13-17-year-olds, which are the primary audience for most admissions officers. And that’s pushed a lot of our marketing efforts to Snapchat and TikTok, where those audiences are primarily engaged. We still see Gen Z active on Instagram, but TikTok is by far the space where they’re spending the most time.

0:07:11.5 NC: And to give you an idea of TikTok’s popularity, a few quick facts here, that on average, users spend more than an hour and a half per day on the platform, an hour and a half of their time per day. Last year, TikTok app was the second most popular downloaded app on iPhone, and TikTok has impressively high rates of engagement. Students spend two times the amount of time per session on TikTok compared to Instagram, and three times that amount than they do on Pinterest. All of this information is fueling admissions offices, they’re aware and understand that this is a platform that they’re trying to move quickly as humanly possible to exploit in marketing efforts to get students interested in their schools.

0:08:01.2 SB: Yeah, just to take that a step further, Nicole, you mentioned the prospective student point of view, not just a tool though for connecting prospective students, we think about alumni, current students, even staff members who have been using TikTok as a medium for engagement, helping build brand affinity over time. So, some universities can even leverage having a public account where they’re able to post organic user-generated content at a much higher clip, also staying up-to-date on trends, which of course we know is super important within social media. For instance, Auburn University, one of the bigger brand name schools I think we first noticed to announce this ban was just recently mentioned in an article by Rival IQ this fall as one of their top five universities winning at TikTok. What they were doing was particularly related to their athletics department, which is of course big at Auburn, using specific individualized accounts targeted to specific sports, so each team might have their own page, they could post pretty regularly, and they saw very high levels of engagement from those posts. So it could be interesting to see whether or not there are adverse effects related to that as accounts are deactivated or if contents start switching over to any other platforms.

0:09:15.1 JB: Scott, that’s a really good point. So let me jump in there with what might sound like a silly question, but it’s probably one that a lot of folks are dealing with right now. Given TikTok’s popularity with Gen Z and given that right now, mid-January to mid-March is really… As a lot of those students are going to be making decisions about the kind of college they want to attend, is it ridiculous to believe that if a school bans TikTok on campus, some students are going to look at other campuses where TikTok is at least not currently banned, and say, “You know, I might prefer to be over there where I can still be on TikTok as opposed to that school where I can’t be on TikTok.”

0:09:57.1 SB: [chuckle] Right. No, I think I would double down on your word currently. So, a lot to consider. Very fluid situation. I think how we would look at it right now, probably not the ultimate difference maker in a decision one way or another. But we could paint a scenario where you have a student, they’re enrolled, they’re living on campus, maybe they’re considering that this is already not the best fit for them. And now, this ban is coming along on a platform that they spend hours and hours on each day, and this is kind of their last straws, so to speak. Maybe in a scenario like that, I would caution to say, many students, again, currently are able to leverage using potentially their own mobile data, a VPN to access that app. So, if you are a high-volume user or even an influencer, you can still access the app, it just might come at a cost to you where it didn’t before. Another important factor to consider is, again, how quickly more of these states and universities are starting to adhere to this ban, so very likely that student is interested in school B because school A isn’t working out for them, while school B could announce a ban similarly, if they haven’t already.

0:11:03.5 JB: That’s a great point. And I think, again, “currently,” being the optimal word there, we’re going to have to consider this, and I think a lot of students are probably tracking this with bated breath, as they see which of the schools they’ve been accepted to or are considering going to. Nicole, I’m also willing to bet there’s a handful of schools out there, maybe some public schools and states that don’t have legislation yet, or maybe even some private schools who have not adopted their state’s bans yet, where they’re thinking, “Gee, we weren’t all that active in TikTok, but now seeing all the hoopla in the news, maybe I should be.” So, without giving away too much of the EAB secret sauce here, what might you advise a school on, who is just dipping their toe into TikTok for the first time?

0:11:46.8 NC: I would say act fast. With the rate at which bans are rolling out as we’ve observed, I’m pretty confident that any school who still has the capacity to connect with students on TikTok will only have that option for a very short period longer, unless the company is somehow able to assure certain privacy protections, to reverse those bans of course. As of today, there are 27 states with bans imposed and at least four additional states with partial bans, and we know that that’s growing rapidly. So, just something to consider, if you wanna get in there, act quickly. In terms of content, which is, I think, a big question we get from partners, it’s really important to consider creating a balance between leaning into trends and establishing your own individual brand. We’ve seen instances where schools have tried to lean a little too hard into trends and had to quickly back pedal, and sometimes issue apologies for not thinking through their content before publishing it. When I think of this, I’m always reminded of parents trying to connect with their kids and stay hip. What you can’t see is my air quotes around hip there, [chuckle] when they’re not fully invested in the culture that they’re trying to stay hip to.

0:13:01.4 NC: Kids these days know better. And Gen Z are arguably the smartest generation when it comes to marketing tactics, and they especially value high levels of transparency. So I would encourage schools not to try to do something or be something they’re not on the platform, but to leverage what does best by promoting user-generated content from students on their campus or admissions counselors who are most closely connected to those students and their families.

0:13:27.4 JB: That’s a great point, and certainly not one that’s isolated to TikTok. We’ve seen plenty of brands in general, including but not limited to universities, run afoul trying to get on board with social media trends. That’s even something that I can remember from my days being recruited as an undergrad. Social media at that point, a little less developed than it is now. But it brings up a really good point here, Nicole, which is a lot of these schools have been using this tool quite effectively to do some of their own outreach and recruitment specifically for recruiting prospective students. I think this is a particularly challenging moment because some states went as far as to say that their public universities have to shut down their public accounts. Others simply said you just can’t use it on the WiFi. So I’m in one of those states where I can no longer have a university-affiliated TikTok account. What does that mean for me, what happens if I can no longer use that as a recruiting tool? What, if any resources, do we have to use as an alternate for TikTok?

0:14:30.0 NC: So I think I will revert back to saying we’ve been using social media in marketing for universities for years now, so TikTok is not the only platform where we’re reaching students. There are other opportunities and other platforms such as Snapchat. Facebook and Instagram are still viable options. We’ve definitely seen that parents are connected on Facebook, so that’s another place. Content can be repurposed from those platforms. So thinking about TikTok videos, just because you have to delete that account doesn’t mean that you have to delete that content. You can download it and repurpose it to those other platforms, especially Instagram reels. We’ve definitely joked about the fact that, oftentimes, content from TikTok appears on Instagram reels two months later. But we could be more agile in repurposing that content and be connecting with those students in that platform.

0:15:20.2 JB: And Scott, anything you’d add to that?

0:15:23.7 SB: Not a ton to add, but just as we think back to some of the statistics Nicole shared earlier about how prevalent and how popular this app is with our target audience, as we think of students and communities within a campus, would just like to say, it definitely is a big deal, removing that potential connection point between all groups. So certainly important for schools to stay nimble, to explore ways to maintain that engagement. We mentioned the average user stats, over an hour and a half every day. So thinking of those avenues to reach students is definitely that next big challenge. The good news is there’s absolutely other ways to do this, it’s not panic mode by any means necessary, but definitely something that we’d like to monitor and keep in touch with moving forward. Jonathan, I know you are, just like Nicole and I, have been following this very closely, just given how rapidly things are updating and developing. How real would you say the security concerns are, and is there any sort of compromise or middle path that schools should be considering at this time?

0:16:23.9 JB: Yeah, Scott, had you asked me that back in November of last year, of 2022, I would have said, “Yeah, there’s probably some middle ground and probably some compromise.” I think the actions we’ve seen since then really have illustrated that we’re moving towards something where there isn’t a lot of wiggle room here. What is interesting to me still is the variation we see between how strict some of these state rules have been. Let me take us a good ways back here. My team started looking into this back in 2019. And by looking into this, I don’t mean we were looking for an excuse to use TikTok during work hours. We had been tracking for a long time the way that foreign interference broadly was playing out at research universities. There were concerns about intellectual property theft, about data theft, about faculty or students moving research from one place to another when they shouldn’t be, or using devices that they shouldn’t be in certain places. And this has been a real concern for research universities for a long time. TikTok sort of became one of the proxy wars, if you will, in the broader discussion. And today, it really sort of has become the front and center piece of this. The Trump administration actually tried to enact that federal ban on TikTok back in 2020, didn’t quite play out the whole way that it did in 2022 with the bill that passed in Congress there.

0:17:44.2 JB: But we’re now in a position where federal government and federal devices don’t use TikTok unless it’s being used for law enforcement or national security. So we see a lot of the states sort of taking their cues from what Congress said back in 2022 and establishing at least a baseline with regards to TikTok. The one that I think is most interesting to me, or the one as of now that has caught my attention, is the state of Maryland. They went a little bit beyond just TikTok, and they’re not the only one, but they’re the one that caught my attention here. Their ban goes beyond just TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, and actually includes several other known actors in the same space. So they’ve also banned the production companies, Huawei and ZTE, both who make cell phones and telecommunications technology. They’ve banned access to the retail giant, Alibaba, and the payment system, Alipay. They’ve also banned WeChat and another Russian social media and security software platform there. And so the Maryland ban actually goes above and beyond just focusing on TikTok, and goes after many other known both producers and makers of platforms and devices that we have found through our own investigations to have national security implications.

0:18:55.0 JB: So what I think we’re actually progressing toward is a state where many of the bans start to look and feel a little bit more like the Maryland one, where there are certain vendors that we can’t use, where there are certain platforms that we can’t use, because there are very real threats to our cyber security that have the potential to creep into our national security. And so, yeah, again, I thought maybe a year ago, there might be room for compromise, we could start to work this out, maybe this was just value signaling legislation. As of February 2023, it’s hard to imagine that any campus is still using TikTok and many campuses are probably starting to re-evaluate their relationship with some of those vendors from some of those companies that we already mentioned here.

0:19:42.8 NC: Jon, can I ask you a question about your thoughts on, is there action that TikTok can take at this point that could potentially reverse these bans? I know that there’s a lot of conversation around the privacy concerns, but is there any world in which we see this reversing?

0:20:00.3 JB: I think there’s a couple actions that they might consider. It’s funny, any article you’ve read across the last month contains the exact same press statement from the TikTok spokesfolks, which just says, “Hey, we would be more than happy to sit down with any federal or state legislator who wants to talk to us about their concerns. Maybe there’s a middle ground to be had here.” But I actually think what we’re seeing right now is still a lot of mixed signals. We see the federal government and a lot of states going in one direction, and then on the other hand, TikTok still sponsors the half-time show during college football games on Saturdays. And so, if I’m the average user of TikTok out there, I’m really not sure what side I should fall on. Is it sufficient to say that my state say that it’s at risk, but my personal cell phone isn’t? If I was recording this podcast on TikTok right now, would the EAB Wi-Fi network be at risk? We don’t see a lot of companies going in this direction yet. And so I think there are still a lot of open questions about the way that this could play out.

0:20:56.8 JB: I certainly think there are steps TikTok could take. Given their position in the Chinese government, I’m not sure if they will. I don’t know if it’s in their interest, frankly, to make those kinds of adjustments, so we’ll see. I think there might be some wiggle room. There are things that they could do. I think it might be too little too late, given that we’ve been talking about this since 2019 and the concerns have only grown worse from there. To really drive home that last point though, there were folks in the House of Representatives just last week who proposed a bill that would block federal funding to universities, unless they ban the use of TikTok on their devices. I don’t know that this bill has any legs, I don’t know if it’ll really even make it into the broader discussion, but that’s where lawmakers’ heads are at right now, that we should actually put at-risk funding we give to colleges and universities because of the threat that TikTok poses. And again, whether that threat is fully realized or partially perceived, has yet to be totally played out here, but given where that mindset is today, it’s really hard to imagine there’s anything TikTok could do to overcome their challenges here in the US.

0:22:06.8 NC: I think you mentioned something interesting in terms of whether or not that threat plays out or how severe that threat is, and I think that’s one of the issues that I’m observing in my research on this, is that students don’t quite understand the threat and they are saying, “I’m using this to watch videos of my friends doing dances, how am I a national security threat, and why am I being impacted by this ban?” Almost outlash against it. And so I’m kind of curious if there’s a way that we should be communicating that differently to help students better understand the implications of those concerns.

0:22:45.5 JB: You and Scott are both more expert than I am on both the uses of this and how schools… And more broadly, we talk to people about the use of social media. Let me date myself just a little bit and say we had very similar conversations about apps like Foursquare, where you self-identified exactly where you were at any given time. You could track me from the moment I woke up to which classroom I was sitting in, which restaurant off campus I was in, which library room I was definitely studying in during my college years, and we had to have conversations with students and even younger folks about, what does it mean to be telling the whole world where you are at any given point? And so this is sort of the next large step in that. Is the average 17-year-old using TikTok a genuine threat to national security? Probably not, but are they a threat to whatever Wi-Fi network they’re connected to by way of using an app like TikTok or like WeChat? Maybe, and it really depends. And so I think those conversations are ones we’ve been having for a long time about what you post and how you use these platforms. Now, we’re just introducing another variable into that, which is, it’s not just your data or your personal safety that’s at risk. It could be everybody around you who’s using the same data source.

0:23:55.7 JB: And so I think that’s yet another thing we’re going to have to find a way to communicate to everybody who’s using these platforms and these devices, and we’re gonna have to find ways to secure ourselves against them, because even with these bans, there will be loopholes. Students have always found a way around some of our most secure strategies. And so we’re going to have to find ways to protect ourselves against these, whether we have these bans in place or not. Well, guys, we really could talk about this for a couple more hours if we wanted to, but it’s time to get back to the rucksacks here. I’d like to ask each of you to give me your top advice for schools that aren’t sure what to do with TikTok at the present moment in their digital recruiting mix, maybe also share some tips with enrollment teams who suddenly find themselves unable to use TikTok. And what are some of the other ways we can think about reaching out to the TikTok generation, if not through their preferred platform? So maybe, Nicole, I can start with you here.

0:24:57.0 NC: Yeah, I think it’s really gonna be a matter of personal preference in terms of if your school still allows it, whether or not you want to use it based on your interpretation of the threat that we’ve discussed. I think that’s gonna vary from school to school, from admissions office to admissions office. But personally, I think TikTok is the most viable in terms of reaching students. But it’s very much a personal opinion. I don’t wanna say that I’m speaking on behalf of EAB in that [chuckle] preference, but I think it’s where students are spending their time, and that’s usually the best place that you’re gonna reach them. For schools that are faced with the ban, I would definitely say that there are other opportunities to connect with students. We definitely see Snapchat as a viable option in that, and I think there’s ways to generate content for both platforms so that if you’re faced with that switch, you can easily translate it across those platforms. So, be intentional about the content you’re creating for these platforms, knowing that there’s a possibility that you’re gonna need to use it in different areas rather than just on TikTok. I think that’s the most sound advice I can give at the moment. It’s obviously an ever-changing situation, so, more to come, I guess I would say.

0:26:13.5 JB: Definitely more to come. Definitely more to come. Scott, what about you?

0:26:17.1 SB: Yeah, just a couple of things to add. Anything social media-related, so let’s say you are permitted to control the content on your page or your account, whatever the case may be, very important to stay active. If you’re gonna only post every month or so, you probably won’t warrant that engagement level that you’re hoping to see. So if you’re not willing to invest the time to post more frequently, it might not be the most viable option for you in terms of recruiting effort. However, if you are forced, if your hand’s forced to operate in other platforms because of this ban specifically, like we’ve mentioned throughout this podcast, there are certainly ways to pivot. Nicole referenced earlier about repurposing TikTok videos potentially to be shared on Instagram.

0:26:55.2 SB: She also mentioned Snapchat, super viable option for younger audiences. We know that Snapchat connects with 90% of 13 to 24-year-olds, so if we’re thinking about replacing time in TikTok with another platform, Snapchat is super competitive in terms of engagement with that audience, and definitely something that we can leverage moving forward. Also interesting to know, TikTok wasn’t really this big thing five plus years ago. What’s the next app that’s gonna come around that could even be similar to TikTok? So, not only do we have existing resources that we can use for other platforms, there’s always gonna be the next big thing, and staying up-to-date and in tune with those developments will be just as important.

0:27:36.3 JB: Absolutely. The ever-present challenge of tracking which platform is going to put us in the best possible position to get our market out there while also not compromising other things among national security being one of those.

0:27:48.1 SB: [chuckle] That’s right.

0:27:49.6 JB: Guys, thank you so much for joining us today. I suspect we’re gonna be recalled to do this again at some point in the future when we have greater clarity, but so appreciate both of your insights today. Really had a great time speaking with you both.

0:28:02.0 NC: Thanks for having us.

0:28:02.2 SB: Yeah, this has been great. Thanks, Jon.


0:28:10.8 Speaker 1: Thank you for listening. Please join us next week when we unpack the findings from a new survey of senior university leaders to learn about their strategy and goals for increasing graduate enrolments. Until next week, thank you for your time.


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