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Expert's Roundtable: Social Media and TikTok

With the looming TikTok ban, AthleticDirectorU chats with a number of social media and creative managers on a variety of topics, including lessons learned from TikTok, alternative platforms, adjusting to the constantly changing algorithms and more.


How would a ban on TikTok affect your content strategy heading into the 2020-21 athletic seasons? Have you thought about how to convert TikTok followers to another platform, if necessary? If so, to which other platform(s) would you attempt to convert those followers?


Joe Scarpone (Digital Marketing Coordinator – Arizona) – A ban on TikTok would definitely affect our content strategy. TikTok has become a really important way for us to reach fans and recruits in an engaging, unique way. We started our TikTok in September 2019 and have gained over 160,000 followers since then – this is now our third-most followed account on any platform in our entire department (1. Men’s Basketball Twitter, 2. Arizona Athletics Facebook). We’ve generated over 10 million video views through TikTok with multiple individual posts generating more than 1 million views. Our fanbase trends older and I do not think we have 148,000 fans who fit the TikTok demographic, so I say with confidence that our teams have more fans and a stronger connection to fans as a direct result of our ability to reach people on TikTok who we would never have reached otherwise. I hope that the long term effect of our presence on the platform proves to be invaluable to ticket sales and recruiting.


If TikTok gets banned (and I don’t think it will), I’m of the belief that you should fish where there’s fish: Instead of converting our followers to another platform, my plan would be to see how the social landscape evolves and adapts. We want to be where our fans are. TikTok has over 800 million active users — there’s definitely an appetite for short form video and that appetite won’t go away if TikTok does. We will find a new way to reach that audience.


Shawn Davis (Assistant AD – Digital Media Strategy – Missouri) – While we would be pretty disappointed in TikTok being shut down, it would not greatly impact our overall digital content strategy. Only two of our programs have used the platform to leverage a new audience – football and men’s basketball – and we still pour a heavy amount of resources into content for the big three (Instagram, Twitter and Facebook) for our other varsity sports. Despite the success we’ve seen with those two TikTok accounts, a shutdown wouldn’t have a great impact on our overall department strategy across all 20 sports. However, I do feel that there is an entirely different demographic on TikTok that is important to reach, and should the app get shut down, we would need to reexamine how we reach them. Our last three TikToks from the football account have 589,000 views – incredible for an account with just 12,900 followers. There is not one app out there that can provide that type of exposure, or introduce your brand to a group of stakeholders who may not yet be following your brand. Especially a younger demographic that is of a recruitable age. Imagine Twitter getting shut down during its infancy – that’s what we’re talking about here. I think TikTok has the potential to be the biggest social platform out there, so it would be sad to see it shut down.


Bruce Floyd (Social Media Manager – Florida) – Although we’ve had success on TikTok, if a ban were to be put in place, it wouldn’t significantly affect our strategy, as we use it as a general fan awareness platform for a younger demographic. That said, I would be disappointed, because TikTok allows us to experiment a bit more than the other platforms.


In terms of converting fans, we’ve been diligent about keeping our @FloridaGators username across platforms and would likely build a video that reinforces that information for those who want to discover us on Twitter, Facebook, IG, etc. Based on what I know so far, it seems Instagram Reels will be the most compatible with our TikTok content. We also have a light presence on Byte.


Ryan Craig (Executive Director of Digital Strategy – Duke) – While a ban on TikTok would be unfortunate, as it often provides much needed levity at a time like this, it wouldn’t dramatically change the way we conduct business. Truthfully, the situation surrounding TikTok epitomizes what I consider one of the greatest challenges in working with digital media: the meteoric rise, and then unexpected disappearance, of certain platforms. We try not to base our strategy too much on one platform for that reason. That philosophy probably prevents us from being an early adopter and generating the engagement and publicity that goes along with that tag, but it can also save us from over-committing in an area that is prone to abrupt change. TikTok, and short-form video in general, clearly has a foothold with certain important demographics, so we would certainly look to re-invest into whatever the market gives us. For now, we’re taking a “wait and see” approach. A lot can happen in the next six weeks.


Given the potential of TikTok getting banned, are you presently testing similar platforms (Byte, Triller) or planning to test on similar platforms (IG Reels, YT Shorts)? If so, what are your learnings on those platforms thus far?


Scarpone (Arizona) – There was a lot of hype surrounding Byte when it launched and I made sure to secure our handle within the first five minutes of the launch but I haven’t spent nearly enough time with it to make it part of our strategy. Instagram Reels has a ton of potential regardless of what happens to TikTok just because of Instagram’s history of predicting and adapting to how people consume content with their additions of major features like Instagram Stories, IGTV, filters, AR abilities, and more. Instagram’s ability to take what works on other platforms and turn it into a valuable asset on their own is uncanny. But ultimately I believe TikTok is here to stay. They have a massive advantage in that they’ve already found their niche and built a major following. The reason Facebook and Instagram have stuck around so long is because of their ability to adapt, so as long as TikTok doesn’t become stagnant, they will have a place as a major social media platform.


Davis (Missouri) – Not yet. Should it get banned, we will likely explore IG Reels. Instagram is a priority of ours, and we feel that it would offer the best chance to reach the same demo that TikTok reaches, should TikTok be shut down.


Floyd (Florida) – There’s not a lot of information available on Reels, but it seems that it is limited to 15 second videos, which we will have to keep in mind. The obvious advantage is that we would be able to instantly leverage our current Instagram fan base, instead of building followers from scratch.


Byte has some of the same kinetic energy as Vine (rip) but doesn’t have the advanced feature set as TikTok. The audience is smaller as well. I don’t have a clear sense of whether Byte would get a jolt of users if TikTok were to be banned.


Craig (Duke) – We secured a presence on Byte but have been pretty quiet on there since. I would say IG Reels is the clear leader in the clubhouse as of now. Our creative groups have done a remarkable job of growing the Instagram following of our programs over the last year and it makes the most sense for us to look to leverage that audience first. There also seems to be a natural overlap of demographics between IG and TikTok, which helps when it comes to content creation. One issue we’ll have to work through if we do shift from TikTok to IG Reels, is going from one source (Athletics only) to many (Athletics + all team accounts).


More generally, how do you keep up to date with algorithm/sharing tweaks on all social media platforms and how does your team weave in testing of new content concepts while sticking to your nearterm content strategy roadmap?


Scarpone (Arizona) – Understanding algorithms is one of the most important things in social media because it allows you to capitalize on your content. I keep up by listening to podcasts, following other social media managers on social media, and sharing success stories. Looking at what like-minded teams and schools are doing helps keep you in the know, and so does looking outside of sports for creative inspiration. The more you immerse yourself into the platforms, the more you pick up on the details that are important. Every post is a learning experience. I review the numbers of everything I post and try to think critically about why it was or wasn’t successful by looking at it from all angles: the creative behind the post, the copy of the post, the voice we used, etc. and learning more about how our followers react to certain things and what’s important to them. The better you understand your audience, the more success you will have. Our definition of success differs based on platform and campaign, but the one constant that remains is that we want to provide value to our followers.


Davis (Missouri) – I think consumption is key. On TikTok for example, you need to consume the content on there before you can best learn how to leverage the content to your audience. Jonathan Holden, I call him our resident TikTok strategist here at Mizzou, is a Rockstar on our video staff. He is very good at identifying trends that have the potential to go viral, and he’s masterminded much of our viral TikTok content. I consume content on the app as well, and I also look at what is working and what isn’t. The best part of my job is that I can spend an hour falling down a TikTok rabbit hole before bed each night and at least justify it as work!


Floyd (Florida) – I keep current with all trade publications and newsletters related to social media, including updates to platform and publicly acknowledged changes to feed algorithms. I also have relationships with social media colleagues who work in other industries and we all share notes on these things. It’s still a challenge, because these platforms are often adding features on a daily – and sometimes hourly -basis. I work as an internal consultant in our organization and try to share anything that I feel our team should know and can use to an advantage.


Craig (Duke) – It’s all about communication and collaboration for us. Our entire Digital team acts as a set of eyes and ears for each other. We also rely heavily on the creative groups we’ve established for each program which include representatives from our video, sports information, and marketing departments. We have talented people in a lot of places and just because they might not be a “Digital” person, doesn’t mean they can’t be the catalyst for the next viral concept. Collectively, we try and stay on top of what’s current – platform updates, algorithm changes, benchmarking against peers, popular culture, etc. Our overall strategy typically doesn’t change much, and we tend to be somewhat traditional, which doesn’t always mesh well with social media. We’ll pick our spots carefully and occasionally try something that pushes the envelope.


Prediction Time! True or False: By 2035 there will be at least one Power 5 AD who started his or her administrative career in the social/digital media space? Please provide your rationale.


Scarpone (Arizona) – People are looking at their phones more than their TV’s for the first time in history. I’m looking forward to congratulating the first Power 5 AD from a social/digital background at some point in this decade.


Davis (Missouri) – I genuinely hope so. Obviously as the industry grows, there are a lot of folks who will have started their careers in a social role and will be looking to advance their careers over the next 15 years. I’m sure there are some ambitious people who could get there. I’ve always said good leaders are good leaders, regardless of the field that they come up in. Social media has changed our industry so much over the last 10 years, that who knows where it will be 15 years from now. More than hoping someone in the social space lands an AD job, I am hopeful that the social/communications staffs around the country can continue to prove their worth to college administrators. If anything, the pandemic has showed us the importance of the social staffs as we filled the nearly six-month void with content in order to connect to our fans. Without social media, fans would have heard crickets from their favorite teams. In sales, there is the term Always Be Selling. In social media, we need to Always Be Connecting. As social media continues to grow, it is important for ADs to realize the impact of a positive social media strategy, and invest in creative people who can tell their school’s story.


Floyd (Florida) – True! Social media managers are often silo-busters and are required to know and work among all areas in college athletics – media relations & PR, fundraising, marketing & fan engagement, and ticket sales. This broad based knowledge – along with their intimate connection to the fan base – makes social media management a great first step into higher level athletic administration.


Craig (Duke) – I’ll try to sound objective here, but I make no promises. Not only do I think there will be an AD who started out as a Digital strategy person by 2035, I’d be shocked if there isn’t. Too much of a department’s identity is tied to Digital and Social media these days for those people not to be considered for leadership positions as they continue to mature within an organization. If anything, the pandemic has underscored the importance of these groups. Without camps, competitions, or other live on-campus events, social and digital media have become proven vital to communicating with fans, donors, sponsors, prospects, etc. I’m obviously and completely biased, but I could see a Digital background becoming as significant to someone’s resume in 2035 as something like fundraising is today.