The old saying, “There’s no time like the present,” doesn’t quite work when it comes to social media. These digital platforms are constantly evolving, making it challenging to keep up with trends.
Rather than assume you’ve missed the boat, however, Karen Lim, Today’s supervising editor for audience growth, encouraged more of a “better late than never” approach to social media platforms like TikTok.
Speaking during last week’s INMA Asia/Pacific News Media Summit, sponsored by Google News Initiative, Notix, Piano, and Protecmedia, Lim discussed the impressive success the Singapore media company has seen on TikTok over an incredibly short time.
Moving from Facebook to TikTok
Today began as a free commuter newspaper in 2000, shifting to a fully digital publication in 2017. By 2020, they had established themselves as a “Millennial newsroom for Millennials.” At the time, Today was already on social media platforms like Facebook, but they realised their Facebook followers were predominantly outside their target Millennials and Gen Z age ranges.
“We wanted to find a way to reach more of our target age range audiences,” Lim said, “especially in Singapore, since most of the news we cover is local.”
In Singapore, there are more than 2.8 million TikTok users — in a country with a population of about 5.9 million — so TikTok gave Today a way to “reach about half of the whole population.”
They began in 2020 (@todayonline) with lighthearted content because, Lim said, “to be honest, we really didn’t know what to do with TikTok.” They weren’t sure at the outset how to present serious news.
By early 2021, however, they made the pivot to more “hard” news, such as video clips of government officials and press conferences, and immediately saw their engagement and video views increase.
In addition to press conferences, Lim said “crime videos always do well for us,” and they also started featuring user-generated content (UGC) videos that are “newsy” and trending online. Even world news content viewership is relatively high, particularly when it’s covering topics Millennials care deeply about, like climate change and social issues.
“Today was the first Singaporean media outlet to feature news on TikTok,” Lim said, “and we get consistently high viewership of our videos.” They have earned several awards for their work on TikTok, including a second place in Best Use of Social Media (behind the BBC) at INMA’s recent Global Media Awards.
Today experiments a lot with the kinds of videos they post, working to blend coverage of serious news stories with TikTok style, Lim said. The green screen “talking head” feature, for example, is a popular way for TikTok creators to add commentary to UGC videos. Today posted short explainer videos about things like COVID variants, as well as “news narration” of local stories.
“The ‘talking head’ video is nothing new,” Lim acknowledged, “but we noticed other news outlets were using it” so they tried it. This style is “more personable” than simply presenting news videos with a voiceover, and it also “allows the audience to see the face of a real person who works in our newsroom,” she said.
Other video styles Today has experimented with include “listicle” videos based on topics people were already searching for, as well as some fun stuff, like taste tests of new food items.
Follower growth rates have been huge. In 2021 alone, Today saw a massive 662% jump in followers. What’s more, their videos have a consistently high engagement rate of about 4% — up from the 1%-2% engagement that’s typical on most social media platforms.
The ability to reach roughly half of the population of Singapore is one obvious reason Today chose to establish a presence on TikTok, but it’s not the only reason.
“We noticed that youth were using TikTok for more than just frivolous stuff,” Lim said, including reporting or commenting on news events. In many ways, she says, TikTok is becoming what Twitter used to be — the place where people go to report on and learn about news events.
Additionally, they wanted to be a part of the conversation in their target demographic, and that meant TikTok.
In short, Lim said: “Should you be on TikTok? The answer is yes — you should have been on it last year.”
The case for media on TikTok
Today benefited greatly from being early TikTok adopters in the news space in Singapore, and Lim acknowledged it’s going to continue to get increasingly competitive going forward. But, she said, “I think there’s still time” for news outlets to get on board.
PressGazette UK did a study on journalism outlets on TikTok and why some of them have seen their accounts “explode in popularity” in the past year, she said. While it’s interesting to see who’s at the top of the list in terms of followers, Lim said it’s equally interesting to see who’s at the bottom. There are some large news outlets at the bottom of the list — and it’s not because they don’t do quality journalism. It’s because it’s more and more challenging to break into TikTok.
Nevertheless, Lim still encouraged news outlets to get on the platform, for a number of reasons:
There are a lot of UGC videos, which is a “gold mine for video content.”
It’s a place to gain a better understanding of Millennials. It’s a place to find out about trends, learn “TikTok speak,” see what goes viral, and just generally find out “what makes them tick.”
Everyone is on it, or will be soon, and news outlets are seeing huge growth numbers.
TikTok now allows longer videos of up to 10 minutes, though Lim said they still try to keep their videos short.
It’s important to experiment and have fun, Lim said, offering and she tips for success based on what they’ve learned over the past year:
Post regularly. TikTok Singapore advised Today to post five to eight videos every week, which can be challenging with a small newsroom. “We try to do one a day,” she said, though sometimes it’s only one to three per week.
Collaborate with your TikTok office. Working closely with TikTok Singapore has been extremely useful, Lim said. “If we need help with something, or we want growth tips, or want to know why a video isn’t doing as well,” they’re very quick to reply.
Use hashtags. They may seem old-school, Lim said, but hashtags still work really well for video discovery.
Move away from a newsroom mindset to a more content creator mindset. This means a change in tone, Lim said, because “TikTok is more conversational than a traditional journalism voice.” It’s important to be able to present the news in a less formal style than we might be accustomed to, as if “I’m telling you the news over dinner.”
Complete coverage of the two-day summit can be found here.