In 2020, TikTok launched a programme in Germany called #lernenmitTikTok (Learning with TikTok), which focused heavily on educational content. Originally, the initiative was for influencers only. But when it opened up the programme to media companies in February, Rheinische Post was among the companies to apply.
“We saw a different format that could work for us,” said Hannah Monderkamp, head of audience development. The company submitted a pitch to launch an initiative called Humbug, which would address conspiracy theories and fake news. Rheinische Post was one of eight media companies accepted to participate in the pilot programme, although Monderkamp said they were the only regional newspaper chosen.
“The others were mostly TV companies that already had video recording equipment; for us, it was starting from scratch,” she said.
TikTok provided six months of funding and the Rheinische Post team dived into dispelling common myths. Originally, the channel was going to focus on topics like the landing on the moon and chemtrails, but soon found an unexpected wealth of material: “Because of the pandemic, we ended up debunking a lot of information around coronavirus,” Monderkamp said.
One of the biggest hurdles was learning how to drill down important stories into less than one minute of video content.
“In the beginning, that was a great challenge because, coming from an editorial background, you want to bring all the information. Just cutting it down to one minute or less was a challenge.”
But it taught the social media team a new set of skills and Monderkamp said they quickly learned how to zero in on the most important message and build the video around that.
“On TikTok, you can lose people pretty easy, so you have to be on point from the beginning,” Monderkamp explained. And, while it’s important to be entertaining enough to catch viewers’ interest, they also have to keep in mind that they’re journalists with credibility to maintain: “So you can’t be too attention-seeking.”
Finding an audience
When Rheinische Post launched its channel, it had 249 followers. But it soon found that audience growing and today that number exceeded 10,600 followers.
“The thing about TikTok is that you have the chance to go viral right from the beginning,” Monderkamp said. “When users find an interesting video, it gets played to another group. We managed to get hundreds of views on one video.”
The most popular video — which was about how to deal with travel restrictions as countries began opening up — received nearly 1 million views. But the trickiest part for the team, she said, was trying to figure out what worked and what wouldn’t: “You can have a video flop and not know why. Then we had a few that were really viral.”
At the end of the six-month sponsorship, funding from TikTok ended, but Monderkamp said the response had been so strong that the company decided to continue on with the channel.
“We looked at the numbers and decided it was a great project with great numbers, so we decided to continue testing,” she said. “Now we’re doing a broader range of topics and we try to do more regional stories, more about politics … we’re just trying to see what works on TikTok.”
Expanding its options
Because TikTok is no longer a sponsor, Rheinische Post can now publish the videos on other platforms, such as Instagram and its own Web site. There’s also a plan to monetise it by allowing advertisers to book videos on the channel. Monderkamp said company leaders have opened the door — and their minds — to the possibility of other formats.
“This is a really important way for us to stay in touch with social media trends. Everything that’s happening right now, no matter what platform, is originating on TikTok. This helps us stay in touch with different storytelling formats.”
And, while there’s no direct evidence that it can fuel subscription growth, she said this is a good investment in the future: “I think in the long run this will [benefit subscriptions] because we’re reaching younger audiences and making them aware our newspaper exists.”