There is more to winning over young audiences than making TikTok videos. That does help when done right, but news outlets must also focus on developing the right products and direct relationships with the under-26s.
Gen Z and Gen Alpha audiences are the digital natives who have never known the world without the internet.
Speaking their language
Modern digital companies like Vinted, Klarna, or Tinder all get this and have set their communication strategies accordingly, says Danuta Breguła, a former director of subscription strategy at Gazeta Wyborcza in Poland, and the co-author of the recent report How Publishers Can Grow With Today’s Youth.
Speaking on the Journalism.co.uk podcast, she said these companies have shaped the expectations of young users by tapping directly into their values: relatability, personalisation, authenticity and practical value.
Screenshot: How Publishers Can Grow With Today’s Youth
Within that context, journalism is just another service to many young people - a service that often fails to speak to them and misses out on building early relationships.
"This common belief that they will one day become mature and start acting like previous generations is a little bit naive or arrogant. Young people will get serious in time, but probably with someone else’s brand," says Breguła.
Social media platform TikTok is the most beloved brand by Gen Z, followed by Discord and Snapchat. On average, young people spend 52 minutes a day with the app, roughly 11 minutes per session.
It is easy to see why: TikTok is full of life hacks, advice and memes. BookToks, a subcommunity on TikTok that reviews, discusses, and jokes about books, contains the key ingredients: practical value, entertainment and a sense of community all rolled into one.
Young people also have different expectations compared to past generations. For instance, they often prefer to use an app to resolve issues than calling a helpline and they are far more subscription-picky and less trusting overall.
User experience is king, says Breguła, with many people not prepared to stick with a product that does not function well.
"They are much less likely to come to your site intentionally, so you need to be social-first," she says.
"Their loyalty is conditional, they adopted subscription-hopping, and they learned that from video and audio streaming services. When they don't use your product they will cancel it - but only until next time."
But they are not gone forever. They can be won back if companies demonstrate they have worked on feedback around the user experience and content.
"If consumers - especially young consumers - feel that their good is your priority, they will understand that."
Becoming specialists in trust
Despite being incredibly sceptical news audiences, young people need help to spot harmful information.
Mentioned in Breguła's report is the emergence of journalists like Sophia Smith Galer, who have broken the mould and built their TikTok presence. Smith Galer has amassed more than 500k followers and 15m likes by lifting the curtain on her journalism and showing off her wider talents, hobbies and interests.
But social media platforms like TikTok are home to dangerous content too. Recognising this, Smith Galer developed a creator literacy programme as part of the Information Future Labs' inaugural fellowship at Brown University's School of Public Health in the US last year.
"I don't think young people, when questioned, actually know what they’re consuming, which is surprising given how often they are on these platforms," she says, speaking on the Journalism.co.uk podcast.
(brief aside in case I'm new to you! I'm a journalist and content creator with half a million TikTok followers, and I investigate the platform as well as creating viral content on there)— Sophia Smith Galer FRSA (@sophiasgaler) September 21, 2023
With @IFL_Brown I developed a lesson plan that I'd trial in schools... 2/
She also delivered one-hour sessions in four UK schools to 14-to-18-year-olds, with a pre- and post-session quiz on their levels of digital media literacy.
Before her sessions, the majority of students underestimated the impact of social media platforms on audiences and overestimated how much platforms do to combat harmful content. Most could not identify a way in which content creators could use platforms to promote a positive (66 per cent) or negative social impact (78 per cent).
By showing students how she uses the platform for social good (for her journalism), and how some creators use it for bad (for example, how Andrew Tate followers have trolled her following her reporting), many students started to realise how influential these platforms were. She also got students to come up with their own TikTok video scripts, which they did successfully on anything from meringue recipes to Joe Biden policies.
A few extra ideas about what platforms can do about Andrew Tate because it’s what they have done on other occasions…and I’ve noticed they’ve not been done here. #socialmedia♬ Lo-Fi analog beat - Gloveity
At the end of her session, 85 per cent of students could identify ways in which content creators could promote both positive and negative impact. It shows that solutions to media literacy need to come from active participants in this space, and how far behind newsrooms are.
Not all content creators share the same values about giving audiences truthful information. TikTok is designed to frontload content with sensationalist and shocking hooks, incentivising many users to post unsubstantiated claims and falsehoods.
News organisations must address these problems at the source. TikTok is experiencing a debunking drought in the wake of the Israel-Gaza conflict, Smith Galer claims, so newsrooms need to invest in accessible, vertical video explainers. They need to be specialists in building trust and credibility on platforms where that is in short supply.
"It's the platform where we’re seeing so much of the content unfold, similar to the invasion of Ukraine, we’re seeing content uploaded to TikTok first now rather than being reposted from other arenas.
"Yet, we’re not seeing the same shift in planting engaging, authoritative debunking and challenging content there."
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