Does TikTok work for publishers?

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Social video platform TikTok has more than 100 million monthly users across Europe, 100m more in the United States and its Chinese counterpart Douyin has 600 million daily active users. While many publishing brands have shied away from its Gen Z profile, some are building a follower base to bring on younger audiences.

  • TikTok, the youth-focused short-video platform formerly known as, rebranded when it was bought by Chinese tech leader ByteDance in 2018. Over the past two years, TiKTok has grown to become the seventh largest social network globally.
  • Despite TikTok being the most downloaded app in the Apple App store, many leading publishers have stayed away. Strong digital brands absent from the platform include the New York Times and The Financial Times.
  • Others, from Buzzfeed to the BBC, have invested time and effort in developing significant followings on the platform. The Washington Post, early to TiKTok, has attracted over 900,000 followers and more than 36 million likes.
Serious fun
  • More serious news brands may have avoided TiKTok because it is seen as a place for silly short videos of teenagers dancing and singing. But BBC journalist Sophia Smith Galer said that is actually the real power of the network.
  • “Someone may be quick to criticise and say what value are these, it’s a newspaper, they’re supposed to be telling people the news and this is just a silly 15-second TikTok,” Smith Galer said. But, she explained, “It’s about accumulating highly engaged followers who will then be there following you when you bring that newsier content to them.”
  • The Washington Post’s efforts on TiKTok are held up as a model example of publisher engagement on the platform. Led by video journalist Dave Jorgenson, his output includes quick comedy sketches without clear news value, but often followed by an impactful news TikTok.
Return on investment

Jorgensen, known as the Washington Post TiKTok guy, says: “My personal mantra is: to get people interested in politics, sometimes you have to get them to laugh a little bit.” He sees this as a valuable channel for promoting the Post’s brand, especially with younger audiences that may be otherwise unreachable.

This approach has led to direct benefits for the Post. “We’ve pretty clearly driven traffic to newsletter subscriptions, and actual subscriptions to our newspaper, by having these different links… in the bio,” explained Jorgensen.

Linking is limited to profile bios and this limited ability to drive traffic directly to publisher websites is cited by some as a reason for not investing more time and energy in TikTok. Their argument is that for videos to cut through, they require production time and have to be made exclusively for the platform.

A senior source at one major publisher told Press Gazette: “Their argument is that this raises awareness of your brand among younger people. True. But that doesn’t justify the investment currently.”

The bottom line

While the opportunity to reach new, younger readers and convert some to subscribers, direct revenue will be the most powerful incentive for publishing holdouts to invest in TikTok. Sponsored content is the clearest route to monetisation at the moment. A good example is the UK’s Capital Radio TikToks promoting Ebay. 

Like all new social platforms publishers are moving at different speeds depending on priorities and their resources. But if TiKTok keeps growing at its current rate, it may become too big to ignore.

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