Neighborhood school attracts a rising TikTok following

Liz Sawyer, a Cape Fear Community College student ambassador, dances in front of a brick path on the Wilmington, NC campus with a trendy TikTok mashup song playing in the background.

In front of her is a text bubble: “Why did I choose my community college to become a dental hygienist?” Interrupted by an emoji of a tooth. Answers appear in white bubbles on the screen: smaller class sizes, accredited courses, caring faculty and staff.

The 13-second video on the Cape Fear Community College’s TikTok account has over 95,000 views, 6,000 likes and 130 comments. It has been shared 82 times. And that’s not even the college’s most watched post. A video about the stigma of community college was viewed more than a million times in September 2020, two months after the college opened its TikTok account.

“This video went viral,” said Julie Martin, marketing and communications specialist at Cape Fear. “That was the first video in which it was like that, it actually works. That reaches a lot of people. “

Now the account is teeming with videos of students, faculty, and staff dancing as they highlight certain programs or list the benefits of an affordable community college degree.

“We just wanted to show the students the fun side of our campus,” said Martin. “When a counselor is dancing on social media, you don’t see it often. People seem to really like the fun side, the easier side. “

The past academic year felt anything but easy as the COVID-19 pandemic closed campus and postponed courses online. Enrollment in colleges across the country fell as students grappled with the growing challenges of the pandemic and the accompanying economic downturn – lost jobs, sick family members, and the hurdles of adapting to online learning. The enrollments at the community colleges were particularly strong. According to the latest data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, the number of students in the sector fell 11.3 percent in the spring from a year earlier. Meanwhile, the COVID-19 pandemic prevented some of the more traditional methods colleges use to recruit students, such as going to school.

With that in mind, TikTok, known for its emotional facial expressions, funny memes, and upbeat dance clips, seemed worth a try in order to motivate potential students. Cape Fear’s enrollment did not ultimately decline in the fall of 2020. In fact, the number of students in fall semester courses rose a little more than 1 percent year over year, and Sonya Johnson, executive director of marketing and community relations, attributes this in part to the institution’s social media efforts.

“It’s been kind of a perfect year to start this off,” said Johnson. TikTok is a way to “meet students where they are – on their phones”.

As one of the student ambassadors who produced the videos, Sawyer said her goal was to show students what real life is like in Cape Fear. Her videos show her on campus, sometimes in her scrubs. She shares details about the application process and the requirements for her dental hygiene program. She’s dancing with text bubbles about how excited she is to graduate in July.

“Most of my videos were on my personal educational journey,” she said. “I think it really got a lot of ideas into people’s heads that they can really have goals and go to community college and be successful.”

The platform is a good place to reach traditional-age students, especially women, said Jamie Wagner, managing director of Media Prefs, a division of Interact Communications, a marketing firm for two-year colleges. The company surveys students about their social media habits to help community colleges target advertisements to prospective students.

A Media Prefs survey of around 62,000 college students in 37 states this academic year found that TikTok is the fourth most popular social media platform, outperforming Twitter and Snapchat. TikTok was particularly popular with women between the ages of 18 and 20. The site jumped from its fifth favorite platform last spring to its most popular platform this year.

“If a college spends a lot of time advertising on Twitter to reach prospective students and they don’t have a TikTok account, now may be time to start adapting their strategy, especially if they reach some of them want younger demographics, ”said Wagner.

Cape Fear wasn’t the only community college to branch out into TikTok during the pandemic. Others, including Community College in Philadelphia, Calhoun Community College in Alabama, Northern Virginia Community College, and Meridian Community College in Mississippi, posted their first videos in 2020.

“Last summer we knew we were facing the virus in unusual circumstances, so we wanted to take every opportunity to reach out to potential students,” said Wes Torain, director of public relations and digital media at Calhoun Community College. “We know it’s important to focus our marketing on the location of our students. If you’re on TikTok, we’re on TikTok too. “

In Calhoun, enrollment decreased from 9,315 students in autumn 2019 to 8,278 students in autumn 2020. To reach potential students, the college’s PR team and recruiting team meet regularly to create TikTok videos. The group is currently working on a number to highlight 15 different academic disciplines offered at the college.

“We have a maximum of 30 seconds to get our message across,” said Torain. “We’re trying to say, ‘At Calhoun Community College you can get ahead, save money and graduate early. Join Now.’ That’s the message. “

Four-year institutions have been experimenting with marketing on TikTok for some time, but community colleges don’t always have the capacity, said Alisa Berry, a social media specialist at Northern Virginia Community College. Berry opened a TikTok account for her college four months ago. Right now she’s basically a TikTok film crew with a woman, with the help of students and staff ready to star in the videos.

Still, Berry finds the platform to be a useful tool in its infancy – not just for marketing, but also for conveying information to the student body when students attend courses remotely. The college’s profile includes TikTok videos encouraging students to get vaccinated, outlining guidelines for social distancing, and reminding them of scholarship deadlines.

Berry anticipates that the number of community colleges using TikTok will increase.

“I think it’s definitely something that is on the rise,” she said. “Individuals at different universities, within their range and at community colleges will increasingly use them.”

Some institutions have already reached out to Cape Fear for advice on setting up your own TikTok account.

One of the main advantages of the platform for colleges is the personal touch that “peers look at peers,” said Erin Fabian, the college’s digital marketing analyst. When Cape Fear posts a TikTok video, she sees a surge in visits to the college’s website and she believes that student dialogue is in part why the platform is so effective.

“It shut the institution out of communication,” she said. “It was just one kind of student to student, student to student type, and it made students feel more comfortable and excited to see these things. It removed that void, that barrier. “

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