TikTok for Tour Operators: A One-Month Experiment

Back in March Trip Hacks DC tours ground to a halt; views on the Trip Hacks DC YouTube channel crashed; and Trip Hacks DC podcast downloads plummeted. Around that time folks in the tourism industry thought we’d have to take a 3 week pause… then a 2 month break.

We know how that turned out.

Trip Hacks DC Podcast downloads peaked in February and declined 84% by December.

By the end of the year it was clear that pushing the same buttons and expecting pre-Covid results wasn’t going to work. It was time to make some changes. It was time to try some new things. One of those things was TikTok.

TikTok is social media’s new kid on the block. Not many tour operators are using it, and some that are, like me, are just trying to figure it out. This makes TikTok a challenge but also an intriguing opportunity.

My Experiment

I am obsessed with best practices. So the first thing I did was Google search for TikTok best practices. The next thing I did was seek out the people on TikTok who teach you how to TikTok. I followed them right away. Unlike YouTube, which has well-established gurus who host huge conferences and work for high-profile clients, TikTok is so young it seems like even the gurus are still learning as they go.

TikTok is social media’s new kid on the block.

TikTok is a short video app. Videos fall into two broad categories: trending/copycat content and original content. Beyond that there are videos in nearly every niche imaginable. You make trending content by copying an existing video concept and putting your own twist on it. Trending content usually revolves around a specific piece of music or audio. For example, a popular trending video in 2020 involved people hopping to the beat of the Black Eyed Peas song “Where is the Love” with with a funny caption about how they are “on my way” somewhere. Original content, on the other hand, is basically what it sounds like — videos in your own style.

I tried creating both types of videos to see if one worked better than the other. For me, the answer was clearly yes. But I’ll get to the results of the experiment in a moment.

The first thing I did was search for TikTok best practices.

To measure success in the experiment I used the standard TikTok analytics (video views, likes, profile views, and followers). Views and likes alone are mostly vanity metrics. I really wanted to know if TikTok views could generate actual conversions. Since it was the winter off-season and Washington DC tourism was slow, expecting to convert tour bookings was a stretch.

Instead I set the more realistic goal to see if I could convert TikTok viewers into Trip Hacks DC YouTube subscribers. I did this by putting a link to the YouTube channel under my TikTok bio and a call to action in the text. One big challenge with social media platforms is that it’s incredibly hard to get people to leave their favorite app and follow you somewhere else. I wanted to see if TikTok was any different.

Results from the Experiment

Here are top-line statistics from the Trip Hacks DC account during the the 31 days in December:

  • 738,551 video views
  • 3,511 new followers
  • 6,572 profile views

Taking a step back for a second, these numbers are incredible. The fact that, starting from zero, my silly little videos wound up in front of nearly three-quarters of a million sets of eyeballs in 31 days is wild. I didn’t do anything to get these views, other than post videos. I didn’t ask people to follow me over from other social media. I didn’t use any tricks or shortcuts. I just posted.

Views and likes were not equally distributed. The best performing video, by a wide margin, was an original video I made with a tip to stand near the Washington Monument for great city views (320K views). Other high performing videos were about Florida House (149K views) and a lesser-known FDR monument (66K views). Most videos generated views in the 1,000 to 5,000 range. The least popular video had 937 views.

Interestingly, none of my trend videos gained much traction at all. The best performing videos were all voiceovers. Not a single video with my face in it got more than 3,000 views.

As far as gaining momentum, it wasn’t until I posted about a dozen videos that they started getting pushed out by the TikTok algorithm. This isn’t surprising as it’s completely unrealistic to expect results on a brand new account right off-the-bat. In fact I expected to have to grind for even longer before seeing any kind of bump.

Number of profile views is perhaps the most valuable TikTok metric because when people visit your profile it means they’re interested in seeing more of what you have to offer. This is where they would see my call to action, and ideally, do it (in my case, heading over to the YouTube channel and subscribing).

Unfortunately this simply didn’t happen. The number of new YouTube subscribers on the Trip Hacks DC channel during December was actually lower than in November. Maybe I could have had a clearer call to action, or maybe YouTube subscriptions was the wrong goal. But it was the goal I set, and it was a bust.

What’s my takeaway?

It took me nearly 2 years to generate the same number of YouTube views that I achieved on TikTok in one month.

For comparison, it took me nearly 2 years (21 months and 24 days to be exact) to generate the same number of YouTube views that I achieved on TikTok in my first month. Those early YouTube views converted to the majority of private tour bookings back then. I know because people who took a private tour told me that the YouTube videos were their motivator. Prior to Covid I calculated that for every so many YouTube views I could expect to convert 1 private tour booking. YouTube views had real measurable value.

TikTok feels like an early version of YouTube.

In many ways, TikTok reminds me of a very early version of YouTube. When you ask some people about YouTube they will still say it’s a collection of “cat videos” and viral clips. YouTube isn’t that any more and hasn’t been in a long time. But TikTok kind of is… if you replace cat videos with dancing videos. It’s entirely possible that TikTok will mature in a similar way, and the primary value for the early adopters will be that they got their foot in the door and grew followings before the platform became saturated. Only time will tell.

How many tour operators would have loved the opportunity to grow their account on Facebook or Instagram ten years ago?

So should tour operators sign up for TikTok and start making videos? It depends. It’s a gamble. It’s a lot of work with no guarantees.

I’m sure that some tour operators will look at TikTok’s relatively young user demographics and write it off because those aren’t their target tour customers. That’s understandable. The average TikTok user doesn’t have the same buying power as the average Facebook user. It may be true today, but how many would have also loved the opportunity to grow an account on Facebook or Instagram ten years ago when the same could have been said about the demographics of those platforms at the time?

For me, when I look at the social media landscape right now, TikTok is the platform with the most potential and the one where I have some momentum. So I think I’m going to stick with it, at least for a little while longer.

TikTok Musings

One thing that’s fascinating about TikTok is that while major social media players are tripping over themselves to copy each others’ features, TikTok is still fairly unique for what it is. While other platforms have some mechanism to discover new content, the default is to serve you the content from people you chose to follow. Thus, people focus heavily on growing their number of followers.

You can grow a TikTok account quickly without the need to engage in questionable growth strategies.

TikTok is the opposite. The default is the “For You” page, which puts videos in front of you from a mix of people who you do and don’t follow. That’s important because it means that you can grow a TikTok account quickly without the need to engage in questionable growth strategies. I cringe every time I hear about automation bots, growth pods, follow-unfollow, or outright buying fake followers as a means to grow a social media account.

The million dollar question is how the TikTok algorithm actually works.

The million dollar question is, how does TikTok pick which videos to put onto peoples’ For You page? TikTok uses an algorithm, and over the summer they released some details about how it works. But knowing the theory behind it doesn’t mean every video will be a success. From my perspective, it feels like luck plays a huge factor, which is quite unsatisfying because while there are a lot of things you can control in the production of your content, luck is always out of your control.

Merriam-Webster’s definition of “viral” doesn’t specify how many views you need to call something a viral video. I made one video that did more than 10x the average number of video views, plus another that did 10x the median number of views. I’d say that’s about as close to viral as Trip Hacks DC content has ever gotten. The thing is, I don’t think these were my two best TikTok videos. But they were the two that the algorithm decided it would show to the most people.

TikTok has the most obnoxious commenters of any social media platform that I’ve used. TikTok’s user base is still relatively young, and to be blunt, a bit immature. If you have thick skin and can ignore the noise, you’ll be OK. There are no shortage of people looking for any opportunity to call you an idiot, tell you how annoying your voice is, or any one of many petty insults. I was on the receiving end of that plenty of times.

TikTok’s video editor inside has a steep learning curve. But there are some incredibly talented creators using it.

The video editor inside the app has a pretty steep learning curve. I’ve been recording and editing videos for years, and even I struggled with the editor at first. Eventually I figured it out, but I can see why folks who don’t have video experience would find it almost impossibly intimidating. As a side note, there are some incredibly talented teenagers making videos with this app. It will be fascinating to see where they are in a few years.

Rob is the founder of Trip Hacks DC.

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