I’ve been on TikTok since before it was a household name. But for years I just used it to scroll… and to occasionally post silly videos of things that amused me.
In late September 2022, I was feeling particularly angry about Wisconsin’s undemocratic maps. I was waiting outside a restaurant for a curbside pickup and I pulled out my phone and did a short explainer about just how rigged Wisconsin’s maps truly were.
The whole video was 20 seconds long.
It blew up.
I mean, it didn’t go viral by some standards. But I had double-digit followers on the platform and had barely ever posted any content. And this post reached around 11k views within a few days (now north of 12k fwiw).
And it didn’t just get a lot of views. It also got a ton of engagement. At the time I’m writing this, it has over 1200 likes and nearly 100 comments.
Which, in and of itself, was mind-blowing. But what really knocked me out was how many of the folks commenting were right here in Wisconsin.
At that time, I kind of assumed that TikTok’s algorithm wasn’t breaking things down like that. It seemed more general — dances and trends were going viral nationally (or even globally!)… not locally.
This video helped me see —quite clearly — that TikTok can, without a doubt, do local.
A few days later, I was livetweeting a debate between Mandela Barnes and Ron “mouthwash cures COVID” Johnson. I tweeted that it was pretty clear that while Mandela Barnes was from Wisconsin, Ron Johnson was from the 1950s.
It did pretty well on Twitter. So I repeated the line on TikTok.
And guess what? It really blew up!
The video was 9 seconds long and it reached over 42k people! It has (at the time of this writing) over 6600 likes and 200 comments.
And it was, again, engaging actual Wisconsin voters.
With that, I was hooked. I’ve been sharing about a video a day on average ever since.
Initially, this was all an organizing effort to try to get out the vote for Mandela Barnes, Governor Tony Evers and Wisconsin Democrats up and down the ballot during the November 2022 Midterm elections.
Mandela got closer to unseating any incumbent Senator nationwide, Tony won re-election and Wisconsin Assembly Democrats held off a supermajority (something that was far from guaranteed – it was actually the subject of that first video, if you want to check it out).
After November, I pivoted to Wisconsin’s April election, with the goal of helping flip the Wisconsin State Supreme Court (which we did!).
Then, it was just on to general organizing and progressive educational content.
Throughout I’ve focused on Wisconsin, but never limited myself to it. I’d say about 60% of my posts are Wisconsin-specific, while the rest are national stories.
Since that first video talking about Wisconsin gerrymandering, I’ve wracked up nearly 5 million views.
And hundreds of thousands of likes.
And tens of thousands of comments.
And also – very interestingly – countless shares (both to other users as well as to other platforms).
So here’s what I’ve learned since I started posting daily to TikTok a year ago
This isn’t novel advice, but it holds up: having a niche matters. If your content is all over the place, the algorithm just isn’t gonna know what to do with you.
I actually have three TikTok accounts (sigh). I don’t post to either of the other two with the same kind of frequency that I post to my primary account, but I’m a guy with a lot of interests. Rather than cramming them all into one account, I spun them out into three.
My second account is for my music. I’m an Americana/folk/bluegrass singer/songwriter – it’s called Flannel and Rust – you can find that account here.
My third is in the digital marketing space. It’s called Free Digital Tools and I share digital marketing tips, tricks, hacks and strategies – you can find that account here.
Engagement Matters… If You Want To Build A Community
Some days it’s practically a full-time job, but I respond or engage with every single comment. The only exception to this is on posts that really blow up, I sometimes just have to give up.
I had one post reach over 500k people. I tried to keep up with the comments, but they were coming in faster than I could respond.
I try to give meaningful responses to real questions and comments. If it’s a simple comment (“boost” or “thank you”), I often respond just with simple statements such as hell yeah, or yes! I also regularly use emojis to respond.
But those responses matter. For the algorithm for sure, but also for the community building component.
TikTok isn’t really a social platform. It’s a video platform with a wonky comments section.
But I’ve had numerous folks reach out (in comments and in my DMs) to let me know they appreciate that I’m responding and engaging with them.
And the more I make these videos and engage with my community, the more folks are starting to tag me into other people’s videos. I’ve also started having requests from folks to do videos on certain topics!
It’s a big world out there — but over the last year, I have managed to build up not viewers, but a community. And that’s not something to ignore!
My content is very partisan. Most folks commenting love that. Some hate it. If someone has a ridiculous comment, I might not respond. But often I do. And unless they’re a serious jerk, I always try to engage with them in a respectful and decent way.
It’s easy to call someone a jerk and move on. I don’t do that. I engage.
I have had people in my comments tell me they are Republicans, but that if I ran for office, they’d vote for me. (Needless to say, I’m as opposite of a Republican as they come!)
I’ve had people say nasty things in my comments, and I’ve responded with decency and seen them get taken aback. One person literally thanked me for not being a jerk back to him, and let me know that while he doesn’t agree with me, he understands that we can all do better.
Not sure what better outcome I could ask for from someone who supports Donald Trump for President. While I want Democrats to win at the ballot box, getting everyone to be a bit more decent sure seems like a small victory to me!
Sound and Lighting Matter (As Well As Content Of Course) — But Not Much Else!
In the title of this post, I said I had almost 5 million views without ever dancing, following trends or using editing software.
That’s not quite true. I did one video using editing software — it was an excerpt from my podcast. I thought the video was great. It bombed.
I’ll likely try again — but honestly, this is not a problem. It’s a gift!
If every video had to be highly produced to succeed, there’s no way in hell I could drop a video a day (often more!).
It would take a week to pull something together.
Lighting matters. Sound matters. Content matters.
But in my experience, that’s about it.
I often use the greenscreen tool to show screenshots behind me in a shot. But more often, I literally just flip my camera around and hold it up in front of my computer to show a website or a tweet, while I talk over it.
The first time I did that, I was almost too embarrassed to hit post.
But it did great and now I do it all the time.
In my experience, folks don’t care how “good” the content looks, they care about how helpful or interesting it is.
That is a gift for you and your brand. There is nothing standing between you and posting “good content” save for the will to get started.
You don’t need to be an Adobe Premiere expert or to know how to create amazing digital graphics — you just need to pull out your phone and start talking.
I’m a storyteller. It’s literally my job title (Digital Storyteller/Strategist). I love to spin out a tale, working patiently toward the lesson, the punchline or the takeaway.
But not on TikTok!
On TikTok, I start with the hook and then I build back to it.
You have moments to get folks to stop scrolling and hang with you for the length of your video. You either nail them with your intro… or you can wave goodbye.
A good intro needs to do two things: it needs to be captivating enough to get them to stop scrolling, and it needs to connect directly to your video.
You can shout “sex” or something stupid, to get their attention. And you will probably get it — but if it doesn’t connect, the audience is going to know and they are not going to treat you kindly.
Follow those two simple rules above, and remember that your intro is your hook. Then find a way to build back to it.
You Never Know What Will Work… So Just Keep On Posting
I’ve done posts that have reached a few hundred people. And posts that have reached hundreds of thousands of people.
What was the difference in them? No freaking idea!
Honestly, my posts that “blow” up are rarely the ones I think will.
I drop a post and watch it hit a few hundred. Sometimes it stops there. Sometimes, it gets up to 1500. Sometimes it keeps climbing into the tens of thousands. And occasionally it just keeps going, reaching hundreds of thousands of people.
I have no idea why one post flies while another one doesn’t. I could stress out about it — but instead, I just keep going.
By posting around once a day, I am confident that some posts will do fine, and others will do great.
Don’t stress about how well today’s posts are doing — just keep on going.
TikTok Analytics Are Just Okay
TikTok analytics are pretty powerful. BUT you can’t look back beyond 60 days.
There are some holes in their analytics in general — but they’re better than Twitter’s (never-working these days) analytics. And much better than LinkedIn’s analytics. I’d say they’re about on par with Instagram.
Except after 60 days… poof. They are gone completely.
So if you care about such things, either hook your account up to a third-party tool that will keep tracking and reporting on that data for you, or export it yourself on a regular basis.
I do both. I have my TikTok account hooked up to my Publer account solely for analytic tracking. But I waited too long to get started there and it’s not a full picture. So along with that, once a month, I export data for the previous month and add it to a spreadsheet where I can see reach, comments, likes and shares.
I do this because I’m a huge analytics nerd. But I’m a huge analytics nerd because I think if you aren’t tracking your analytics, you don’t really have any idea what’s working.
Do with that what you will 🤓
Like I said above, I have no idea why one post works well and the next doesn’t. But I do know, that for the content I want to be shown to folks in Wisconsin, I use every tool in my digital toolkit to ensure that happens.
When my videos are intended for a local audience I use the word Wisconsin in the video, as well as in the accompanying text. I also use a few Wisconsin-specific hashtags. And I tag myself as being in Wisconsin.
I do all of the above about other locations as well (say I’m doing a story about Ohio), save for tagging myself there. It’s possible TikTok won’t mind — but I feel weird essentially lying to my community.
The text accompanying TikTok posts used to be limited to 150 characters (shorter than a tweet!). Then they bumped them up to 2200. You do not need to use them all, but it’s nice to have the option to go a bit longer to really get those keywords in there.
Take advantage of it.
When I’m doing a story about a local area (city/municipality/State Assembly district…), I’ll use hashtags for all the largest communities in the area.
If I was a local nonprofit or business, I’d be tagging myself in my city, as opposed to my state. But for me, I’m talking to a statewide (if not a national) audiences more than to local ones.
Do what makes sense for you.
I’ve already spoken about this above, but it’s so important, I’d be remiss not to reiterate: TikTok can get local! You just have to help it get there.
There Are No Links, But You Can Definitely Still Move and Mobilize People
You can add a link to your bio IF you have at least 1000 followers OR you register as a business.
I registered as a business right off the bat in order to add that link, but they kept taking down my videos. Once I switched off the business setting, my videos got taken down waaaay less often. They clearly hold business accounts to different standards than individual accounts. It was infuriating, because none of my videos were against TikTok’s terms of service, but it is what it is. I switched it off and the problem mostly went away.
That link in your bio is the only link you get on the platform.
And despite having tens of thousands of people visit my profile, I get virtually no traffic to my website from that link.
But TikTok can mobilize people without a doubt.
Early on, I ran a test. Ron Johnson was being ridiculous (what else is new!). He had set up a website asking for public input on something absurd. I did a video encouraging folks to go ahead and let him know what was on their minds. 😏
I built a Bitly link and mentioned it in my video. (If you aren’t familiar with Bitly links, check out episode 20 of my podcast Step Up Your Social — I discuss what they are and when to use them.)
Why did I use a Bitly link? Two reasons:
1) Expecting people to retype the full website would have been ridiculous (remember, you can’t click the link, or even copy and paste it, so folks have to type it out).
2) Bitly links come with built-in analytics.
I knew folks would like and comment on my post. I wanted to see if they would also take action.
Guess what: they did!
This was VERY early into my year of TikTok and dozens of people followed the Bitly link to go talk directly to Ron “never saw a conspiracy theory I wasn’t willing to promote” Johnson.
More recently, I’ve been very active in the fight against the Wisconsin Republican’s bullshit, undemocratic, what-the-hell-are-they-even-thinking impeachment of Justice Janet Protasiewicz. Wisconsin Democrats built out a website called defendjustice.com and have asked folks to go there, get contact info for their elected officials and reach out against impeachment.
I did a few videos and scores of people reported in the comments that they had done just that.
One of the videos alone was also shared 550 times!
And it’s not just digital engagement.
I’ve posted about special elections and had people report in the comments that they didn’t know there was an election but that it was their district and they were going to vote because I had alerted them to it.
I’ve never had a tweet directly lead someone to go vote (not that I know about anyway). But I’ve had dozens of people TELL ME they voted directly because of my content. Who knows how many more people were indirectly affected by it? The shares on some of my videos are wild!
TikTok doesn’t let you send traffic like Facebook or Twitter — but it can sure as hell mobilize people if used well.
There’s a Massive Opportunity In Going Live
I haven’t used TikTok Live much, but there is a massive opportunity should you choose to build out a live strategy.
(Quick caveat: you need 1000 followers in order to go live. So if you can’t figure out how to go live, that’s probably why. Keep posting — you’ll get there!)
I generally do short news roundup-type posts. They don’t lend themselves easily to live content.
At some point, I hope to partner up with other creators and do live conversations — but while it’s just me, it’s been hard to find an easy way to make live make sense.
That said, I went live once this past year and I was legit blown away by the experience.
Remember when the House of Representatives REALLY didn’t want Kevin McCarthy to be Speaker of the House, and they just kept voting and voting on who should be in charge?
I went live for a round of voting — it actually wound up being the final round (!!!) but I had no way to know it would be at the time.
It was late. I was watching C-SPAN by myself on the couch (because — hello, I’m a huge nerd if that’s not already clear!). I wanted to watch one more round before bed, my wife was already upstairs sleeping and I was just messing around. I pulled out my phone, hit live and just held my phone up to the TV and started talking.
Within minutes, I had 1500 people watching me talk. It was jarring.
But very quickly, the vast majority of them bounced. And I was left with about 25 people. Folks came and went, but a core group stuck with me the whole time. And I was live for over an hour!
Like I said above, this isn’t about an audience, it’s about a community. I’d much rather have 25 people hang with me for an hour than 1000 people tune in for 30 seconds.
It was an interesting conversation — they could only type in the comments, I could type or speak. Mostly I narrated what was happening and answered their questions.
The folks that stuck with me, LOVED IT. Like, way more than my wife or IRL friends would have 🤣
There were a few Republicans in the chat who were asking me questions and pushing back. But it was cordial and interesting. One young guy in Washington State told me his gummies (plural!) had kicked in and that he had a crush on me. It was unlike anything else I’ve ever done on social to date.
I never even once showed my face. My camera stayed on C-SPAN the whole time and I just spoke to the folks who were watching with me.
If this was my primary business platform, I’d be going live at least once or twice a week.
I’m not saying you have to — but if you can find a way to make it work for you, and you have at least 1000 followers, I highly recommend giving it a shot. Worst case scenario — it doesn’t go great. Best case scenario — your audience falls for you… hard. ❤️
TikTok Customer Service Sucks… Just Like Every Other Major Social Media Platform
While I was writing this blog post, I took a break to check my notifications and I saw something weird. “Josh Klemons” was responding to dozens of comments with videos trying to get people to follow him to Telegram.
This was obviously not me.
Someone had taken my name, photo and handle (with an added _ ) and was trying to get people to follow him to Telegram in order to sell them crypto (I know because I followed him and got his garbage pitch).
On the one hand — it’s flattering. Weird to think I have enough engagement or clout for someone to bother going through the trouble. I guess. 🙃
But of course, I was horrified. Someone was trying to use my name and photo to run a scam.
I immediately reported the account to TikTok.
Impersonating someone like that is against their terms of service. It’s spelled out clearly.
But they found no violation. They let me know that if I want, I can take up the issue with law enforcement. There is no appeal process.
I went to their customer service Twitter account and asked for help. I got an auto-response telling me to report it on TikTok. I immediately responded that I’d done so and it hadn’t helped. No response despite many messages trying to re-engage them.
I did a video letting folks know what was happening. Sure enough, he was DMing a bunch of my followers trying to scam them. A bunch of them reported the account. Still nothing!
It makes no sense to let this kind of corrupt BS continue — but that is exactly what TikTok is opting to do.
A few weeks ago, I posted a story about Nazis marching in Wisconsin. I was obviously horrified at the fact. TikTok let the video run for a bit and then took it down as being against ToS. I actually think that’s a good thing — they should be overly cautious about Nazi-related content.
But I appealed, hoping they would see that my content was anti-Nazi, not pro.
Didn’t matter. Not only did the video stay banned, they warned me that I had received a strike on my account and that further strikes could cost me access to parts of the platform.
How many more strikes? What might I lose access to? How could I prevent such strikes?
None of those questions have answers anywhere to be found.
It’s quite disappointing that a platform as important as TikTok has opted for such a hands-off moderation approach.
Need help from TikTok customer support? You might as well reach out to Meta to ask for it — you’re equally unlikely to find it there or anywhere else.
I say this not to dissuade, but to ensure you know what you are getting into as a content creator on TikTok.
To Post Or Not To Post
I’m not saying you should be posting on TikTok. I am saying that there is a tremendous opportunity to grow a community on the platform.
If you have ever thought to yourself, I can’t post on TikTok because I don’t want to do silly dances and keep up with trends — let this post serve as an inspiration to the fact that, while those work (well!) for some, I’ve had nearly 5 million impressions and over a third of a million likes in less than a year without ever once dancing or using trends.
Truth be told, I did try one trend one time. It bombed. I deleted it and never looked back.
There are people doing amazing things on TikTok with complicated editing, brilliant comedy, amazing… everything! And I’m so glad those folks exist.
But there is room to grow on TikTok to just pull out your phone and talk — in a helpful way — to your audience.
Don’t believe me?
Come join my community on TikTok and see for yourself.
In the words of one great community member:
I didn’t set out to serve as a source of local news. But once I realized I was helping people keep up with topics I cared about, I felt lucky to get to keep it going!
Want to talk TikTok, or digital marketing of any kind?
When I’m not posting to TikTok, I’m helping progressive brands, campaigns and organizations find, hone and tell their stories online.