Are TikTok Ads the Next Big Thing in Social Media Advertising for Education?

Date posted: May 5, 2021

Its videos are frequently featured on the most popular talk shows, and regularly shared across social platforms. You may have been roped into doing one of its hashtag challenges with one of your kids, or heard some of its controversies discussed on the news. 

Whether or not you feel you know much about TikTok, it’s a sure bet the platform has already managed to seep its way into your life one way or another—and love it or hate it, your school simply can’t ignore the video sharing app. 

Since its international release in 2017, TikTok has been attracting an increasing number of viewers across the globe through its entertaining short-form mobile video content. It is currently rated as the fastest growing social media app in the world, with some of the latest statistics revealing it to be raking in a staggering 1.1 billion monthly active users worldwide. Just as compelling is how long they spend on the platform—a whopping 52 minutes per day on average. 

The bulk of its audience falls into the tween, teenaged, and young adult bracket (ages 10-29), combining for 62% of its total viewership. The format is also increasingly attracting a wider age bracket to include a growing millennial and even older following. 

Knowing your prospective students are spending so much time on the platform, it might be tempting to jump on TikTok straight away to grab some ad space. Yet stepping back a bit and looking at the scenario with a broader view, it’s important to bear in mind that TikTok Ads are still in a stage of infancy. The advertising platform itself was only launched globally a few years ago, and has continued to be described by some as “unproven.”

Currently, TikTok Ads is still largely underutilized by schools, mainly due to uncertainties on its value when compared to more familiar providers. For the time being, that means fewer of your competitors are using the tool—presenting a unique opportunity for your school to capture your audience with your ads before they do.

So will TikTok be the next big thing in social media advertising for education, and should your school go for it or not? Below, we take a closer look at some of the finer details of the platform to help you make your own mind up.

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A Little Background on the TikTok Phenomenon for Schools

The TikTok that we know today is the result of the Beijing-based media and tech company ByteDance buying out social network Musical.ly in 2017. Musical’ly (also Chinese-owned) had the same viral music video sharing format, and had already been around for two years by the time ByteDance launched a competing app named Douyin in China in 2016. ByteDance released an international version of Douyin in 2017—naming it TikTok—which quickly overtook Musical’ly in popularity. 

Rather than continue to compete with each other, ByteDance snapped up Musical’ly for a reported $1 billion, merging it with TikTok in 2018 to seek world domination. Since that acquisition, ByteDance has also maintained its original app Douyin separately for the Chinese market, which continues to boast over 300 million monthly active users. 

So, What’s All the Fuss About? 

On TikTok’s “for business” page, a slogan reads, “Our mission is to inspire creativity and bring joy”—and the platform appears to do just that for its billion-plus viewers. Its content comes in the form of short music videos, usually no more than 15 seconds in length, made by users of the app. Starting out with a lip-synching approach, with users syncing their mini-videos to popular music, TikTok quickly jumped to an anything goes mixed bag of zany videos that can run the gamut from dance to parkour and other athletic feats to comedic bits—all making use of editing effects, and set to the music of the video creator’s choice. Long before schools had the real prospect of advertising on the platform through its self-serve option, introduced in July of 2020, countless institutions had already recognized the potential for connecting with their prospects through TikTok. 

Example: The UF College of the Arts has created dozens of highly successful TikTok videos of students dancing and goofing around campus, with most receiving more than 10,000 likes. The video below, featuring “Chad and Emma Moonwalking,” was particularly popular, garnering close to 170,000 likes. 

The app’s 15-second clips can be looped together to produce a longer video, maxing out at 60 seconds. That video duration is applicable on the app’s ads as well, although TikTok advises ad duration of between 9 and 15 seconds for optimal impact. As it turns out, a whole lot of punch can be packed into those few short seconds.

Example: The Australian College of Arts (Collarts) used TikTok In-Feed ads to promote a transition to online learning following pandemic restrictions. The college kept it short and sweet with the ad below, finding the highly creative format to be an ideal fit for its music, arts, and design offerings. The ad managed to gain an impressive 2.6 million impressions and 21,000 landing page clicks.

Source: TikTok

As TikTok’s audience scrolls through their “For You” feed, they have the opportunity to engage with these mini-videos—ads included—by “liking” them, commenting on them, or sharing them. TikTok gives its users personal recommendations based on their own viewing tastes, regularly updating them with similar videos and other more generalized trending picks. The platform also created a feature that allows users to record their reaction to a video, and share that with other viewers. 

Apart from the fun-loving nature of the format, viewers appear to be attracted to the talent-based content, that gives the opportunity for literally anyone to become a 15-second sensation. TikTok’s effectiveness also appears to derived from a highly localized content focus, featuring local challenges and contests that are often based on local trends, and therefore more likely to resonate with users. 

Example: Indiana University Bloomington uses an effective TikTok strategy that addresses local issues ranging from vaccination concerns in the region to fun-loving videos taking pokes at the college’s rival Purdue University. The approach receives consistent levels of engagement from students and area users. 

The college has also been clever in giving larger TikTok trends a local twist. 

Example: The “Hoosier Check” video below is from a series of videos the school made inspired by the TikTok “Rich Kid Check” trend, where wealthy kids were displaying their mansions. Indiana University Bloomington capitalized on that trend to show off its own campus and facilities. The idea was a raging success, gaining 100,000 likes and close to a million views within a week.  

This approach leads to more viral content generation—and a rate of engagement that’s reported to be higher per post than that seen on all the other social media platforms.  It’s an ideal format for capturing the attention of your prospective students.

Example: Newcastle University used TikTok Ads to promote a downloadable guide to the school’s application process. The ads were upbeat, featuring the school’s own young students hanging around well-known parts of campus.

Source: TikTok

Over its two-week duration, the ad campaign was an enormous success, gaining 1.1 million impressions, over 12,000 likes, and more than 7,000 landing page clicks. These type of results are enough to get any school’s social media marketing team marveling at the platform’s advertising potential. 

TikTok’s Leaps into Ads Explained for Those Working in Social Media Advertising for Education 

TikTok’s foray into advertising started out with manual sales, where any brand wishing to advertise on the platform had to contact its sales team directly to purchase ad space. This arrangement really only suited larger corporations with inflated budgets, essentially keeping the platform as an inaccessible advertising avenue for schools. 

Then big news arrived in July of 2020, with TikTok announcing it would open up its advertising options through a self-serve ad platform—the variety your school will be familiar with through Facebook and other long-standing ad providers. Since then, anyone working in higher education social media advertising has had the option to use the platform’s Ads Manager to buy and manage ad space at their convenience and leisure. 

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What Kind of Ads Can Your School Create on TikTok?

If you’re a TikTok user already, you may have been exposed to some or all of the platform’s ad types, and may be curious about their potential use for your school. The six types of ad format available on TikTok include: 

  1. Top-View Ads: Top-view ads will appear to the user opening the app as the first in-feed post after three seconds, and last up to 60 seconds.
  2. Brand Takeover: A brand takeover ad appears as soon as the app is opened, taking over the entire screen for three to five seconds. This ad type is highly effective, but its potential for reaching a mass audience comes with a hefty price tag, and is therefore only accessible to big-budget brands and organizations (think Coke, Guess Jeans, governments, etc.). 
  3. Branded Effects: Businesses have the option to use custom-created effects to engage with users in a unique way.
  4. (Branded) Hashtag Challenge: These ad packages involve brands asking users to do something specific, then tagging them with a pre-selected hashtag. 
  5. Sponsored Content: This format involves businesses connecting with current TikTok influencers to create a sponsored video for their followers. They find influencers by searching through the TikTok Creator Marketplace to browse potential partners. 
  6. In-Feed Ads: Lasting up to 60 seconds in length, these types of ads appear in the For You TikTok feed. This is the only ad type available in the self-serve platform, making it the format your school is most likely to use. 

A Closer Look at In-Feed Ads: The Format Your School Is Most Likely to Use

With an In-Feed ad, your school has the opportunity to create a video and integrate it into the user’s “For You” feed. TikTok describes In-Feed ads as “one of the platform’s best formats for achieving short-bursts of cost-effective engagement” and also one of its “most effective awareness building tools.” 

The reason In-Feed ads are so effective is that they appear in a user’s feed just as any organic TikTok video does. Users are often not even aware that the TikTok video they’re watching is an ad, which more or less reflects TikTok’s own motto for advertisers: “Don’t Make Ads, Make TikToks.” 

The format is ideal for keeping the attention of an audience that is becoming increasingly less patient with advertising. As entertainment reporter Adam Epstein of Quartz.com said, “TikTok manages to sneak in a relatively robust advertising experience into the app that doesn’t make young users immediately recoil in disgust.”

Example: The ad below from UK online tutoring school “MyTutor” looks and feels just like any video from an average user, featuring a young student doing a dance to Run DMC’s “It’s Tricky.” Viewers can respond to an ad with a ‘like,’ ‘comment’, ‘share,’ or ‘shoot video with the same music,’ just as they can with any normal TikTok. This particular ad raised decent levels of engagement, with more than 10,000 likes, 86 comments, and 28 shares. 

Source: TikTok

How TikTok’s In-Feed Self-Serve Ads Work

TikTok’s In-Feed ads are based on a self-serve auction platform, represented by TikTok’s Ads Manager. Through Ads Manager, the available ad space is biddable with a minimum expenditure of $50 per campaign and $20 per ad group. They allow your school to set your own budget per campaign or per day. You’ll also have the flexibility to be able to independently manage each of your ad campaigns on the platform. 

The objectives available for TikTok ads are:

  • Reach
  • Traffic
  • App Installs
  • Video Views
  • Conversions

Once a campaign is launched, TikTok’s algorithm will optimize targeting and spend according to the parameters set by the school. In-Feed ads can be highly targeted and retargeted to specific audiences, which becomes particularly useful for schools on a tighter budget, as they can feel confident that their content will reach their intended viewers. 

Example: With a tight budget, Lancaster University in England used TikTok’s In-Feed ads to promote their online open day. The results exceeded the university’s wildest expectations, achieving more than 10 million impressions, 90,000 landing page clicks, and over 9 million engagements. 

Source: TikTok

What was Lancaster University’s recipe for success? It appears to have been the budget flexibility of In-Feed ads that helped them to control spending as they saw fit. Their ads were designed to target various audiences, and had a variety of objectives that included landing page views of the event and boosting brand awareness of the online open day. The university also had the clever foresight to collaborate with its own young students on the ad content to ensure a fresh, relevant perspective from the platform’s main demographic. That decision appears to have been a strategic triumph. 

Targeting Options for Schools on TikTok Ads 

Through its In-Feed ads, TikTok promises schools an easy way to reach the platform’s users without the time-consuming hassle of building an audience organically. It does this through a range of targeting parameters which, while not as well-developed as established platforms like Facebook, are still fairly robust. 

Example: The University of Roehampton in the UK used TikTok’s In-Feed ads to raise awareness of its undergrad programs. The school chose to target an audience of 18-24 year olds.

Source: TikTok

The campaign was a huge hit for the school, gaining more than 853,000 impressions, over 6,000 clicks, and a 0.72% click-through rate. 

Like other social media advertising platforms, TikTok offers demographic, interest, and behavioural targeting (as seen below in a screenshot from TikTok’s Ads Manager).

Source: AdEspresso

With interest targeting, your school is given the option to select an interest that’s most relevant to its own target audience. Behavioural targeting is geared towards audience behaviour on the social network, letting the advertiser aim their ads at audiences based on their viewing behaviours over the last week or two. You are given a list of video categories to choose from that are associated with certain audience behaviours (such as liking, reacting, or sharing) based on the tracked activities of users. The advantage of behavioural targeting is knowing that you’ll be reaching audiences who are currently actively engaged with the platform, and therefore more likely to see and engage with your brand.

Schools may also try TikTok’s lookalike targeting option to seek a fresh audience that closely resembles their existing base. Additionally, TikTok offers a custom audience option that lets you target prospects who have already engaged in some way with your school. You may already be familiar with both of these options if you have run campaigns on Facebook or another social ads platform in the past.

Example: EAE Business School in Barcelona achieved notable success using TikTok’s In-Feed ads to promote its bachelor degree programs during a key enrolment period. EAE used demographic targeting to attract a large fresh audience of young people to its website to discover details on its various program options. The school focused its campaigns on users based in Catalonia and the Balearic Islands.

Source: TikTok

You can see some of the campaign’s impressive results below:

Source: TikTok

A Secret Ingredient for Success: Create TikTok Ads with Student Collaborators

The schools that are achieving success with TikTok ads so far appear to be gaining the results with one common key ingredient: collaborating with their own students to ensure a fresh, relevant perspective from the young users of the platform. 

Example: The University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, used TikTok’s In-Feed ads with the goal of capture the attention of undergrads in time for the 2020 UCAS application deadline. The school was aiming to showcase its campus life, and chose to work with its young students to nail the right feel for the content. The campaign was a massive success, generating 1.47 million impressions and more than 14,000 clicks. The cost-efficiency of the campaign is also notable, achieving a highly affordable £0.09 cost-per-click (approximately $0.12 USD). 

Source: TikTok

The Bottom Line: TikTok Ads Could Be Worthwhile if Your School Has the Budget & Audience 

The scarcity of solid reporting metrics is an issue in these early days of TikTok’s self-serve platform, which consequently continues to keep many new advertisers at bay. On the plus side, that leads to a reasonably unsaturated market for you to tap.

With that in mind, if you do decide to take a leap of faith and create TikTok social media ads for education, start by looking at the little research available to you, and researching your own school’s audience to see if TikTok might be a worthwhile platform to pursue. 

From there, the decision will be based on your own school’s unique budget, and pondering the “gamble” of trying out a new, unproven platform versus funnelling that money into tried and true advertisers you’ve used in the past.

If Facebook is your go-to advertising channel, you may find one compelling claim from TikTok to be alluring. The platform maintains that 40% of the young users on their platform aren’t on Facebook. That’s a huge chunk of your audience you don’t want to miss out on.

If your school is leaning towards giving TikTok Ads a start but is worried about the time and resources needed to create ads, the platform does offer an automated creative optimization tool for small businesses that builds ads for you using your videos, images, and copy. The tool even tests the ad creatives for you. 

You may also want to check out the “Top Ads” feature in TikTok’s ads library.  Just released in March of this year, “Top Ads” gives marketers an indication of TikTok’s top-performing ads, listed under a range of categories and additional search filters such as region, industry, and ad type (as shown below). 

Source: TikTok

While this new resource appears to be incomplete (some categories remain empty), it already has the potential to offer valuable information about the type of ads that are performing. 

Source: TikTok

This resource could serve to do more than simply inspire your school’s marketing team—it may point them precisely in the right direction for achieving success with that very first TikTok ad. 

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