By: Christian Brienen
Most millennials and boomers still label TikTok as an app for memes, lip-syncs and dance videos, but for Gen Z, it’s much more than that. It’s their preferred search engine, a local guide, an endless source of entertainment–and their primary source of news. TikTok, the one-stop-shop for all your content needs. Does this shift mean we need a different PR-approach to reach Gen Z?
Gen Z is the most digitally adept generation of our time and has never lived in a world without the internet. Zoomers spend an average of four hours per day on social media; to be entertained, stay in touch with friends, find information, or stay updated on news and current events. If you still believe you can reach Gen Z through regular news broadcasts, online blogs, or newspapers, think again. Connecting with this generation calls for a non-traditional approach in PR and marketing.
TikTok as a search engine
TikTok is well on its way to becoming the go-to search engine among Gen Z. The app makes it a cinch to find just what you need; from the best local restaurants to the coolest Christmas decoration ideas; from makeup reviews to step-by-step instructions on building a doghouse. You name it, there’s a video about it on TikTok. Users can search for content using keywords, hashtags, or profiles, but they can also explore comments on videos by typing a query in the search bar in the top of the Comments section. TikTok’s powerful algorithm, which personalises content based on user interaction, makes it easy to find information that is aligned with one’s personal interests. The main difference with ‘traditional’ search engines like Google is that the information is shared by real people. This authenticity is the reason younger generations increasingly turn to TikTok in their quest for information. The same goes for the way they search for and evaluate products. The platform provides immediate results on, for instance, the most affordable long lash mascara du jour, complete with reviews by the three major beauty influencers in your network. As the comments confirm the content, purchasing the product is a no-brainer.
Gen Z is well-informed about global events and is one of the most socially engaged, activist generations. Even so, it seems they have little interest in the news–or more specifically: traditional news media. Only 9% watch the news on TV, and less than 5% read newspapers (source: Statista.com). The majority of Gen Z follow current events through social media, relying in particular on the ubiquitous short, informal videos on Instagram and TikTok. While broadcasts in traditional media are mostly unilateral, journalism on TikTok revolves around interaction and dialogue between content creator and followers. In addition, journalists play an important role on TikTok, as their persona contributes to the authenticity and credibility of the story.
In the Netherlands, several traditional media outlets, such as @nosstories, @nu.nl, and @rtlnieuws.nl have made the transition to TikTok. There is also a global trend of emerging TikTok channels that, according to Zoomers, present news from a different perspective in a refreshing new way. News channels like @Ac2ality, @thenewsmovement and @Geopop have quickly achieved substantial reach.
Furthermore, the number of independent TikTok journalists is also on the rise. Quite often, these are journalists who worked for major news outlets in the past and decided to set up their own channel. For example, filmmaker and journalist @johnny.harris exchanged news outlets like Vox and The New York Times for YouTube and TikTok. The immensely popular tech and economics journalist @cleoabram also worked for Vox until she chose to go it alone because she wanted to share a more optimistic outlook on the current events. Some new-media journalists skip traditional newsrooms altogether and start their own ventures from the get-go. One such example is Ameer Al-Khatahtbeh, a 2020 Rutgers University Journalism graduate, who decided to set up @muslim, specifically targeting the Muslim community. No prominent, independent Dutch journalists are active on TikTok just yet, but this is expected to change in the near future. The light-hearted and diverse TikTok-form of journalism sounds inherently positive, but all that glitters is not gold. Traditional newsrooms pride themselves on doing thorough research, following ethical guidelines, and fact-checking their information before publication. The TikTok universe, however, does not always operate with the same standards in mind–and as a result, videos with misinformation abound. Fortunately, there are journalists like @mariekekuypers, who are dedicated to debunking conspiracy theories and other misleading stories on TikTok.
The implications for marketing and PR
First and foremost, TikTok should not solely be seen as a social platform where young people go for their daily entertainment fix. We would be wise to approach it as a serious news medium, and identify trustworthy, independent journalists who use it. But let’s not forget that, for instance, building close relationships with key opinion leaders within Tech TikTok is paramount to ensuring the right reviews being posted at the right moment. Long-winded press releases to large groups of journalists are a thing of the past; this PR-landscape clearly benefits from a tailored and more personal approach.
Last but not least
Gen Z highly values authenticity and is not easily swayed by overly polished content. There is even a term for it: ‘cheugy’, meaning ‘uncool.’ Gen Z expects brands to be authentic and personal. They want brands to take a stance on social issues, to assume responsibility, be transparent and communicate clearly. With Gen Z, companies can no longer get away with greenwashing, pinkwashing, or any other form of superficial pseudo-activism. This generation says: do it right, or don’t do it at all.