TikTok, the fast-growing video app that boasts over 14.3 million U.S. adult users and more monthly users worldwide than Twitter or Snapchat, is the new frontier in social media exploration. It’s owned by the Chinese company ByteDance, which has made headlines recently over privacy and censorship concerns.
But these concerns haven’t deterred interested users. Ranking second among Generation Z’s favorite social apps, TikTok is unlike any other platform. Users share entertaining or funny videos up to a minute long, which are typically attached to sound, such as a song or the audio of a popular video. An expert panel at Forbes called the platform “a sleeping social media giant.” And yet, not a single 2020 hopeful — either Republican or Democrat — is actively using it.
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro is the only candidate who appears to have an account. But the account hasn't posted since mid-October and only has about 500 followers. Castro himself has only made an appearance in one of the videos posted.
As one of the oldest members of Generation Z, I feel it’s my duty to act as a liaison between it and the generations who came before us. So here goes: Old politicians, you need to get on TikTok.
Facebook or TikTok for reaching young people?
The 2020 Democratic hopefuls are focusing heavily on Facebook advertising, spending a total of $32 million on the medium — more than they’ve collectively spent on television ads. In my experience working in political digital fundraising, I’ve found that the social media strategy of campaigns tends to focus on two things: email collection and fundraising, which are inherently intertwined. Facebook ads are the perfect outlet to achieve these aims. The ads are relatively inexpensive and good for targeting specific demographics.
But young people are deserting Facebook in droves. Indeed, Newsweek declared in February 2018 that, “Facebook is officially for old people.” Edison Research found in March that Facebook has 15 million fewer users than it did in 2017, with the biggest decline among those ages 12-34. Americans ages 13-17 only make up 1.8% of Facebook’s American user base.
On TikTok, however, 60% of the app’s U.S. users are ages 16-24. If you want to reach young people, it’s clear: TikTok could soon be the place to be.
It’s understandable that the Democratic primary competitors are targeting their fundraising pitches to Facebook. TikTok doesn’t allow political ads, and even if it did, the smart choice would be to go where the money is. Older folks, after all, are the ones with the money to spend. But social media isn’t all about getting cash back. It’s about building coalitions and, for lack of a better term, brand loyalty.
Dear Sen. Josh Hawley: Social media is not a source of peril, it's a powerful tool
President Donald Trump's campaign should be paying particular attention to TikTok. Conservatives desperately need to reach young voters. In a poll for Hill TV, Trump's approval rating was at 32% with Generation Z. That's 10 points lower than any other generation polled. There are a lot of conservative youngsters on TikTok, but they have to be engaged with original content.
In all likelihood, it wouldn’t take very long for the candidates to gain traction. Content creators on TikTok repeatedly report quickly going viral, often after trying unsuccessfully to do the same on other platforms. Consider TikTok creator Anna O’Brien, who said, “I had used other social channels and I was feeling really stagnant.” But after joining TikTok, she says she “literally gained a million followers in about the space of, like, six weeks.”
Initial experiments with the platform
Some of the candidates have already made TikTok cameos on other accounts. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock has done a dance challenge video with his daughter. The Washington Post, one of the first news platforms to invest serious resources into TikTok, has made entertaining videos with Julian Castro, Andrew Yang and now former candidate Beto O’Rourke. In case anyone is curious, Castro’s performed the best, with a current count of 3.8 million views. That’s the most viewed TikTok The Washington Post has ever uploaded. Its second most viewed video? One in which The Post TikTok creator eats pumpkin-spice-flavored Spam straight out of the can. Don’t ask.
But a warning to the 2020 field. TikTok is a medium that trafficks in relatability. Generation Z can sniff out inauthentic content from a mile away, and politicians aren’t exactly the best at coming off as “real.” Social media can make a person seem more human, but it can just as easily expose any robotic tendencies. Remember Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s Instagram live, where she waited until the camera was rolling before deciding to grab a beer? And remember Hillary Clinton’s Snapchat where she was “just chillin’ in Cedar Rapids?" We, the young folks, certainly remember.
My advice to these 2020 hopefuls is that if you do join the platform, don’t try to act like a young person. Just embrace the age gap. The Post’s Dave Jorgenson has adopted this strategy, admitting, “I always feel like an adult playing basketball with middle-schoolers.” The candidates should keep in mind that serious content doesn’t often perform well on TikTok, so they should be sure to keep it light.
Election 2020: USA TODAY speaks with presidential candidates
TikTok’s reach in the United States is still limited, and heavy engagement might not be the smartest use of precious campaign funds. But one or two videos a week would be easy for any of the campaigns to manage.
Regardless of how they engage with the app, TikTok is worth these contenders’ attention. The Wall Street Journal put it best: “TikTok’s videos are goofy. Its strategy to dominate social media is serious.”
While you’re here, go check out USA TODAY’s new TikTok account!
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Not a single 2020 candidate is active on TikTok. That's a problem.