Market intelligence for international student recruitment from ICEF
26th May 2021

Why the viral video app TikTok needs to be part of your recruitment strategy this year

Short on time? Here are the highlights:
  • TikTok is now the most downloaded app in the world, ahead of YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat
  • It is wildly popular among high school and college-aged students, and there are definitely ways for schools and universities to leverage the app for recruitment

Every education marketer knows that you have to be on Instagram to connect with high school and college-aged students. But there’s now another platform to seriously consider as well: TikTok. The app has exceeded its initial use case of teenagers lip-syncing and dancing to become a full-fledged entertainment destination centred on short, snappy videos lasting 3–15 seconds or longer clips of up to 60 seconds. Brands everywhere are just starting to figure out how to use the app effectively in their marketing efforts, and institutions, schools, and destination marketers are rushing to join in as well.


Famous filming locations at ##UofT 🎥 via @steven.van

♬ original sound - University of Toronto

The addictive app was created initially in 2016 in China under the name Douyin (which is still going strong with 600 million daily active users). In 2017, Chinese company ByteDance launched the app in markets outside of China and called it TikTok. The user growth has been astounding. As the online marketing hub Oberlo notes,

“Just to give you an idea of how other apps performed in comparison with TikTok’s growth, it took Instagram six years from its launch to gain the same amount of monthly active users that TikTok managed to achieve in under three years. Facebook, widely known as the king of social media, took more than four years.”

Some mind-blowing TikTok 2021 stats include:

  • 689 million users worldwide (not including China), more than Snapchat, Pinterest, and Twitter;
  • Downloaded more than 2 billion times on the Apple App Store and Google Play, making it the top download ahead of YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat;
  • Received more downloads (315 million) in one quarter (Q1 2020) than any other app in history;
  • 62% of users are between the ages of 10 and 29;
  • It’s most popular in South America – particularly Brazil and Mexico;
  • Daily average time on it is 52 minutes, similar to Instagram and Facebook, and 90% open the app multiple times a day.

TikTok is available in 155 countries right now (but not in India, where it is banned for “indecent” content) and in 75 languages.

What works

A study of 317 brands by the stock video service InVideo found that:

  • Many brands don’t yet have a TikTok presence, indicating an important market gap;
  • Posting 3-4 times per week yielded the best results;
  • 90% of top videos had product placement, 80% had music, 30% were humorous, and 25% featured an influencer or celebrity;
  • Creative videos with animations and graphics overlays get lots of views.

For a primer on how to get started on TikTok, check out Social Media Examiner’s beginner’s guide.

Ask for help from students

TikTok users are incredibly savvy and know exactly what a good TikTok video looks like and feels like. Filters, playlists, and “transitions” elevate a normal video to something that they will think is cool – and the best come close to an art form that has the potential to go seriously viral.

To be successful on TikTok, you absolutely must know what the current trends (with hashtags), transitions, and filters are. These change weekly, if not more often. If you’re new to these concepts, Backlightblog has a good post up that shows them in action – but be warned, the trends shown here are likely already out of date!

To find out what’s hot on TikTok, spend time on the platform and use the “Discover” page to see what millions of young people are watching right now. There’s also a lot of sharing of TikTok videos on Instagram, so that’s another place to look.

If all this sounds overwhelming, it’s because staying on top of TikTok trends and then putting them into action likely is overwhelming for most school marketing departments and their already stretched resources and budgets. But there is a solution: enlist the help of your current students who, especially right now, may have lots of time on their hands.

Some students will have particular sway on TikTok

Do you have brand ambassadors or have you identified “influencers” within your international student and alumni populations – people who get all sort of likes and engagements on Instagram or other platforms? These students are also the most likely to be very active on TikTok right now. We have written before about the power of student ambassadors and it’s worth repeating what Unibuddy CEO Diego Fanara has said about peer-to-peer marketing:

“Student-to-student connection has taken over as the most influential and helpful factor when deciding where to apply to university … even more influential than friends and family. This is a huge shift for universities and colleges. Students are the heart and soul of institutions so it’s no surprise that prospective students value the authenticity of their experience above all else.”

Show off your campus or city

As noted earlier, millions of TikTok videos feature product placements. For many international educators, the campus – or city, or region if the campus itself isn’t a main attraction – is as much of a “product” as the programme itself. Higher Education Marketing has a great post showing creative ways that educators are showing off their campuses on TikTok – from day-in-the-life student videos to students participating in viral dance challenges on the beautiful grounds of a university.


🕺🏾💃🏼 = Chad & Emma from the School of Theater + Dance, UF College of the Arts.

♬ Cradles - Sub Urban

There are endless TikTok possibilities for each part of the enrolment funnel, and college acceptance TikToks are a big thing, as you can clearly see below.

TikTok can be emotional, too, with so much passion and creativity driving its popularity. Check out this video if you want your heart strings pulled a little today. From a brand perspective, hundreds of thousands of students became aware of the teaching talent and student community at The College of New Jersey as a result of this one TikTok.


during these tough times it’s important to show extra appreciation! #fyp #foryoupage #zoom #dontletthisflop #college #covid #professor #thankyou

♬ original sound - James Blake

For additional background, please see:

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