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Connect with Patrons Using TikTok

by on February 3, 2023

There is no doubt that TikTok has taken publishing and the bookish community by storm. It’s become a pervasive social media/content creation app with a robust impact on how readers find out about, interact with, and enjoy books (and more). Many libraries have hopped on the TikTok train to great success, using the app to connect with patrons, expound about the benefits of using the library, and more. While users are wise to consume the app’s videos with a critical eye when it comes to “facts,” TikTok can be a fantastic and, for many, untapped information resource when it comes to informing library display and program content.

As massive as the platform is, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and shut it down before gleaning anything useful. So where do you start? First, remember your experience with the app is biased. Before you get into mining TikTok content to plan your displays and programs, it is crucial to recognize this. Whatever TikTok is feeding you is not representative of the community you serve. The algorithm is scary good at matching what kinds of videos it offers to its users on a hyper-individual level even as the app creators have made adjustments — much to the frustration of many content creators (this is just one of many examples of perceived changes) — to the algorithm’s design over time. This is all to say: Don’t assume that the content you’re seeing frequently on the app is also appearing on everyone else’s For You page. It may be showing up on many For You pages, but it may not be, despite the flood of similar videos you may be exposed to. One quick tip to mitigate this complication is, if your patrons are watching TikTok in the library without headphones, hold off before enforcing any rules you might have around playing sounds out loud and see if you can glean any details about the kinds of material showing up on your patrons’ feeds.

Once you’ve noted the limitations of your own feed (and maybe made some adjustments to your behavior on and interaction with TikTok to help broaden the content delivered to your screen), you can dig into what trends you are seeing as a result of your use as well as make guesses on what your community might be seeing. TikTok interacts with the world beyond it very much. It’s no surprise when Netflix’s Wednesday debuted, there was suddenly a whole lot of Wednesday-related content from choreographed dances to Wednesday-inspired fashion all over TikTok. These are some of the more obvious options, but what about things that originate on TikTok?

There are a few ways you can keep up with what’s popular on the app. Some of this will still be influenced by external media, but much of it will be “homegrown.” Find app experts like @wavewyld and @discoverly.ai. These users track what’s trending on the app and share with their followers so followers can benefit from making videos around those trends. You can also check out Slaying Social, a website that does similar work. While many users may be following accounts like these in hopes of creating viral videos when a given sound or topic is hot, libraries can use the shared data to inform their displays and programs. For example — the week of this writing (January 22, 2023) , Miley Cyrus’s “Flowers” may inspire a book display around break-ups with signage and props that reference the song. Or, you might put together a self-care program, using the lyrics “I can buy myself flowers” to promote an event where participants create floral scented candles or floral arrangements while listening to songs about relationship splits, “Flowers” included and discussing the themes of self love behind the lyrics. TikTok can be immensely helpful in tracking with pinpoint accuracy hot moments in pop culture that your library can take advantage of if you move quickly enough!

Beyond following self-proclaimed trend trackers on the app, there are other ways to keep up with what’s popular and of potential interest to your patrons. On TikTok’s search page, find a list of suggested searches labeled as “You may like” (there’s that bias again, though — see if friends, coworkers, or others will let you take a peek at their suggested searches for a more rounded idea of hot topics). This is a combination of subjects that are both of high interest right now and likely of interest to you personally based on your app activity.

Once you’ve got an idea of what is trending on TikTok, it’s time to apply it to programming. But where do you start? In addition to examples like tying an event to Miley Cyrus’s “Flowers” above, there is plenty of opportunity. Plan to have a regular “learn a TikTok dance” program, then follow through by picking the latest trending choreography and walk your group through it step by step. In this case, you can even take advantage of features in TikTok, like finding an existing example of the dance of the week and duetting it, then using the speed feature to slow it down. This can be useful both for watching and absorbing the steps of the dance as well as for users who wish to film dances in a slowed-down mode that will still publish at the original speed. (Pro tip: You don’t have to be duetting a video to take advantage of the speed feature! Learn the dance then slow down the sound to go along with it for a slow performance of the dance that plays back at regular speed.) Participants are likely to enjoy the camaraderie of learning choreography together while benefiting from the many upsides of dance.

Plenty of other TikTok content relies on not-so-obvious skills beyond dancing, too. Find out how to do that latest trending transition to show off a new outfit, then teach it! Do a how-to on the current most popular filter because many of them are not intuitive! The key is to stay on top of what’s trending in the moment and act fast. You might get the most out of these programs by promoting a regular TikTok event that promises a learned takeaway but doesn’t specify what the skill is until the week of the event when you know what’s trending right then and you know the technique or what-have-you yourself.

Programs and displays can be even more meta than learning the latest dance or  scene-to-scene transition. Use TikTok as a vehicle to deliver a program on internet safety. Discuss what is generally safe to share online, what is not, and perhaps include discussion around concerns regarding the app as a national security weakness. On the flip side, if you feel your knowledge and abilities are up to it, do a seminar on how to go viral. Learn from the pros already teaching this how to and make some of your own observations to share recommendations with program attendees. Alternatively, put a display together on social media, public relations, and other relevant topics.

Burnt out on figuring it all out yourself? No worries! Hand the mic — or, the phone — to your patrons. If your patrons are showing up to TikTok programs, chances are they know a few things you don’t. See if anyone wants to present their skills to the group. If no one is taking the bait, consider doing a peer workshop instead, where everyone contributes to critiquing each other’s videos much like a writing workshop but with TikTok as an alternative medium.

Here are some other rapid fire ideas: When Noodle the pug was predicting the quality of the upcoming day my library reported to patrons on a white board whether it was declared a Bones Day or No Bones Day. Is there another trending recipe like 2020’s whipped coffee frenzy? Assemble a display of books about (in this case) coffee, its history, and how to make it or a selection of breakfast recipe books — to have with your whipped coffee, of course! Did a user give new life to a great piece of music like user @420doggface208 did in 2020 with Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams” and a bottle of cranberry juice? Consider a display of the Fleetwood Mac-related books you have and don’t forget to promote your music databases! You might also include cranberry-heavy cookbooks or even offer a cranberry-focused recipe program. These examples, of course, rely on previous TikTok trends but should give you an idea of how you can transform future viral moments into opportunities to connect with your patrons.

TikTok is ripe with topics, themes, and springboards if you can move fast enough to apply them while they’re still fresh. Knowing how to mine the app for ideas while hitting on a broad population can be a challenge but not impossible with some practice. Whether you mention a given idea is TikTok-inspired in your promotion or execution is up to you, but either way, your content will have the benefit of staying fresh in a field where relevancy is constantly called into question.

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