What publishers like BuzzFeed, Hearst and Vice are learning from being on TikTok

TikTok is attracting a small but growing group of publishers eager to master the short-form video platform and its young and growing audience.

While most are still in an experimentation phase when it comes to using TikTok, they’re learning what works and what doesn’t on an app that doesn’t yet have publisher-friendly resources like discovery tabs or the sharing of ad revenues. For now, few have dedicated resources to the platform, choosing instead to treat it as an experimental channel.

Vice, which just started using TikTok earlier this year, is finding its TikTok followers crave exclusive content. Next month, Vice is planning to launch a Munchies by Vice account on TikTok and Vice Chief Digital Officer Cory Haik said the account will feature exclusive content made specifically for TikTok by Vice’s own social innovation team, which produces content for a variety of platforms.

“We need to go in with a specific offering that feels native to what users of TikTok are producing themselves,”  said Haik. “We can’t do a derivative.”

Those daily short-form videos, she said, “will still feel like Munchies,” but will also “feel very TikTok. It will have a different voice.”

Vice is still figuring out exactly what kinds of videos to post on TikTok for Munchies, but some early ideas include celebrating food bloopers, using recipes many people know but often mess up on, but embracing those failures. Or developing viral skits that look more closely at trending food items or themes. One example is, if throwing cheese on walls is trending on TikTok, Munchies might create a video that looks at which cheeses stick and why.

“It sounds like a big investment but we’re just optimizing teams that already exist,” Haik said.

BuzzFeed, which also started using TikTok earlier this year with four different accounts, isn’t creating exclusive content for TikTok just yet, but said reception to its repurposed video content has been positive. One of BuzzFeed’s most popular posts is from Nifty, demonstrating a baking hack.

One of our motivating factors to be on TikTok and create a Tasty account was that we were finding a lot of copycat Tasty accounts on TikTok,” Tabir Akhter, head of platform strategy at BuzzFeed said. “People want to see food content on TikTok. It’s not only videos from high school bathrooms. It’s more than that. It’s a huge and robust platform of lots of people with lots of different interests, and people are really responding to our huge viral food videos on Tasty.”

She said her team has been very strategic and thoughtful about how they adapt existing video content for TikTok so that “it doesn’t feel like an imposter. If feels very native.” BuzzFeed is also thinking about launching more original TikTok content next year.

Hearst Magazines, which has been using TikTok and its former iteration, Musical.ly, since May 2017, also repackages content from other platforms onto TikTok. It’s found certain types of content to be the most engaging: namely, anything featuring celebrities and “mesmerizing” content, said Sheel Shah, Hearst Magazines’ vp of strategic partnerships and consumer products. One of Seventeen’s most popular TikTok posts, he said, was one that showcased the art of bullet journaling.

Historically, publishers have been reticent to spend time and money on platforms where it’s not clear how they can generate revenues. Currently, there is no mechanism for creators or publishers to directly monetize on TikTok, such as with sharing ad revenue, but all three publishers are hopeful there will be one day.

The short-form nature of TikTok videos, however, makes it relatively cost-effective to produce new content as Vice intends to do, but it also forces creators to get creative, even when they’re adapting existing content.

“What makes TikTok unique is the hyper-speed at which content is created and consumed,” said Akhter. “We do enjoy the really short-form nature of the videos … it forces your creativity in the adaptation process.”

Shah, however, said he wonders if TikTok will eventually allow longer-form video content like Musical.ly did before, since he finds the 15-second video format somewhat limiting.

All three publishers said they view TikTok primarily as a long-term way to engage and grow their respective audiences, similar to how they did with Snapchat a few years before.

“For TikTok, right now it’s more about long-term audience development and one day, maybe, monetization,” Shah said. “We want to figure out what this audience is interested in and how we can extend this understanding onto other platforms where we do have ROI.”

The strategies for the two platforms, however, are different, although both TikTok and Snapchat appeal to younger user bases and feature short-form video content.

“Snapchat, for us, is very curated and magazine-like,” said Akhter. “But on TikTok, there’s a huge potential for binge behavior and to go into a rabbit hole of our content, and we’re eager to serve them with that.”

At Vice, Haik said they’ve gotten their Snapchat strategy “down to a science” and they are not aiming to do original content on that platform, or on Instagram in the same way they’re doing it on TikTok.

One thing all can agree on about TikTok, however, is that its user base skews young. A leaked ad pitch deck fromJune 2019 said the majority of TikTok users (69%) are from Generation Z (ages 16 to 24), while 25% are age 25 and older. Most users are also female (60%). In the U.S., TikTok has more than 30 million monthly active users who spend, on average, 46 minutes on the app, per user, per day. Globally, the number of monthly active users is 800 million, with 500 million based in China.

Snapchat, by comparison, has 210 million daily active users worldwide, and eMarketer estimates it reached 297.7 monthly active users this year.

“We still believe, more so than ever, there’s a huge audience on the platform,” Shah said. “It’s a great opportunity for us to engage and interact with that new generation of consumers. We want to make sure that we’re there. We can get feedback on what this audience likes and doesn’t like, which informs our broader content strategy.”

While all three publishers have participated in trending hashtags on TikTok, none we spoke to have purchased a hashtag challenge or branded lens.

Looking ahead, Vice’s Haik said she wonders if TikTok will enable creators to have direct-sell ads and she thinks it could also be a platform where Vice could place branded content. She, along with Shah and Akhter, also said they wonder if and how TikTok will eventually make it easier for users to discover creators, their media titles included.


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