Tiktok has grown into a major force on social media – but journalism and publications have, until this year, largely failed to make an impact on the app.
But in 2022 something changed on TikTok and many news outlets have seen their accounts on the app explode in popularity.
Press Gazette found out why and also gathered publisher tips for success on TikTok for the latest in our Platform Profile series.
What is Tiktok?
Tiktok is a social media app that was launched in 2018 by Chinese company Bytedance. Defined by a mixture of short videos often put to some form of viral song or audio, it has shot up in popularity since launch and now boasts more than one billion active daily users (though the most recent figure isn’t public). For comparison, Facebook has 1.9bn daily users, while Twitter has around 229m.
What may be the most important fact though, is that while Tiktok is seeing continued growth in its users and how regularly they use the app, Facebook saw daily active users fall this year, for the first time in its history.
What news sites are the most popular on Tiktok?
Sky head of digital Nick Sutton told Press Gazette that when the broadcaster first met Bytedance executives in 2019 to ask about moving onto the app, they were doubtful that news would ever have a place on Tiktok as it was supposed to be a “joyful” place.
News providers are now flocking to the app, with many of those that arrived early now seeing follower counts upwards of a million, and many seeing six-figure or seven-figure follower growth in 2022.
Even BBC News, which once derided Tiktok as a place for “light news”, joined the app in March, though it has yet to make much of on impact on it.
To calculate the list Press Gazette took the largest UK and US national news publishers. We didn't include accounts that either had a following below 35,000 (unless they were major titles) or that didn't publish what we judged as primarily news content.
Why is journalism becoming more popular on Tiktok?
Many of the outlets that now have seven-figure followings on Tiktok first made their breakthrough after the war in Ukraine began. Sky News, for example, saw 600,000 new followers during the first five days of the Russian invasion and Vice World News saw its followers grow from 100,000 to 1m in the first three weeks of the war.
“The immediate weekend afterwards, we were seeing really rapid growth, something like two followers a second,” says Sutton.
While most UK and US news publishers saw huge boosts in their Tiktok followings during the early weeks of the war, matching similar boosts many saw in digital page views and subscribers, that increased traction on Tiktok has continued as wider interest in the war has fallen.
Many newly popular Tiktok news channels are seeing continued growth and some of their most popular content now has nothing to do with the invasion.
“The war gave a jumpstart to it. It certainly led to us putting more content on Tiktok, and I’m sure that's been the same for other publishers,” says Nick Sutton of Sky, who adds that Sky News has seen its daily follower growth rise from 1,300 to 14,000 in the entire pre-war and post-war period.
The situation is similar at Vice World News, says video producer Nabihah Parkar, who heads up the outlet’s Tiktok output.
While Vice saw a huge amount of growth during the early days of the war, it has gained around 500,000 followers since those early weeks and many of its most viewed videos cover other topics, ranging from the murder of Indian rapper Sidhu Moose Wala to a huge spike in Covid cases in North Korea.
Changes to the format of TikTok may help explain the growth of news outlets on the platform
“It went from 30-second videos to 60-second videos to 90 seconds. You can now do up to 10-minute videos,” says Parkar.
“The ability to create longer videos has definitely helped. We tend to stick to the 60-second mark as engagement on the app is typically on the shorter end of the scale… but the extra time means you can expand on a more complex story.
How to succeed on Tiktok as a news publisher
Sky News posts regularly and most of its Tiktok content is repurposed footage from its TV output, which then is edited and optimised for the platform.
Vice World News, meanwhile, posts a much more diverse array of videos on Tiktok, and tends to see higher average engagement per video than Sky.
“For the Vice World News account I'd say almost every video is bespoke to be a Tiktok video, we don’t put up videos that have gone out on TV or Youtube,” says Parkar. “I think that's really important because. It has to look native, right? Like that's the whole point of Tiktok is that it doesn't look like TV, it doesn't look like other social platforms.”
Generally, she says some of Vice’s most successful videos have been first-person explainers breaking down some of the biggest news issues of the day, and personal accounts of events by victims (a recent series had first-person stories from school shooting survivors, for example). Parkar also tries to make sure all her videos are “chatty and informal” as traditional TV “can sometimes feel like you're being talked at rather than talk to”.
Both agreed on the need for experimentation to succeed on the app. Being given time to try different things and often fail was “arguably the most important part of the process” according to Parkar.
Both Sutton and Parkar also said the value of global first-hand reporting was paramount. Sky News even gets 60% of its audience on Tiktok content from the US, says Sutton.
That original content offers something influencers would struggle to match. But remembering those influencers are the mainstay of the platform is key. As Parkar explains it, the main thing to remember is that instead of competing with each other, news publishers are actually just competing with wider content, and you have to learn how to compete in that wider attention economy to gain traction.
“A lot of audiences are coming across Vice content because it's popping up on their 'For You' page,” says Parkar. “So by fitting in seamlessly with that, that's what will drive more engagement.
“I don't think news outlets are necessarily thinking from the mindset of a content creator rather than just from the usual mindset of a journalist or a news reporter,” she adds. “I consume a lot of content on the platform that is not news related in any way, shape or form.
“So when I'm putting together a script, that's exactly what I'm thinking about. I know what looks authentic to the platform and I can spot trends that are being used by creators and adapt that."
Is it worth news publishers joining Tiktok?
Given current growth rates, Tiktok could become the leading social media app soon, and getting access to those kinds of audiences has an untold benefit in terms of brand recognition.
“I've had personal DMs and messages from people who I haven't spoken to in years who don't necessarily know that I work for Vice, but they've come across my videos or come across Vice World News on Tiktok and then reached out to me,” says Parkar. “So in terms of brand awareness, the platform is extremely important in just having your news outlet’s name be more recognisable for different audiences.”
But there is one downside – currently, there’s no direct way to monetise content on TikTok. On Youtube or Facebook, publishers receive a share of ad revenues on videos, something Tiktok doesn’t currently offer.
However, given the fact TikTok offers mass audience with relatively little investment it is something which is worth a bet for publishers especially given the fact direct monetisation opportunities could be offered in the future from the platform. It already pays some content creators and this could be extended to news in the future.
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