‘Just TikTok It’: How Gen Z Are Replacing Traditional Search Engines With Social Media

Illustration of a young women using a mobile device

By Daniel Andrews, CEO, The Tree

Media consumption is constantly evolving. Led by generational habits, the ways Gen Z consume content is different from that of the generation before and will likely be different from that of the generation that follows. As proven by a recent Ofcom report, where news channels were once limited to radio, television and print, it’s now no longer the case, with social media allowing us 24-hour access to information and breaking news.

It’s no surprise that TikTok is the fastest growing news source in the UK. Since June 2020, TikTok has outranked YouTube in terms of the time young people (aged 4-18) have spent using the platforms. This transition is part of a wider cultural shift revolutionising the way we consume information. People are moving away from just ‘Googling it’ to just ‘TikToking it’ instead – further influencing how news is presented to the public.

How Is Traditional Media Adapting to Change?

Hugely successful TV formats such as E News and MTV Celeb roundups keep highlights and stories short, punchy, and to the point. In our industry, agencies use social listening and audience insight to inform which influencers and creators are resonating the best with key audiences. It’s likely that more traditional outlets like Sky and BBC News will begin to employ these impactful tactics, as well as introducing trending and influential voices to diversify their sources of information. This will help ensure they are engaging audiences in the right way.

However, we must proceed with caution. Platforms have a responsibility to safeguard true investigative journalism and the depth it can offer to stories that aren’t just on the current popular agenda. Moreover, Meta, TikTok, or whatever the next gen of social looks like will utilise algorithms that, research shows, can be and often are discriminatory. We need to understand and strike a balance for opening up opportunities to share news, whilst educating people on the difference between opinion and real information.

Why Social Channels Are so Appealing to Gen Z

Platforms like TikTok provide relevant and up-to-date information on any given topic, which is part of TikTok’s appeal as a non-curated space where results are ever-changing and updated. The search options on social media are more accessible and pragmatic, increasing the appeal to Gen Z who want access to timely information.

Social channels prioritise significance and relevance in search function algorithms to ensure that information remains up to date. This function has also been supported by TikTok’s initiative #LearnOnTikTok. With over 282.8 billion views, the popularity of TikTok’s educational content fits into a trend towards micro-learning which is proven to be 17% more efficient than traditional, longer-duration courses and distills topics into digestible, small chunks.

This makes TikTok the perfect delivery vehicle for micro-learning as it utilises Gen Z’s favourite format: video, and on their preferred device: their phones. This shows that social platforms are evolving to cater to the needs and priorities of Gen Z, something traditional platforms must follow to remain relevant to younger audiences. The parallels between TikTok as a news and education platform come from its dynamic search function that focuses on providing content that is of most relevance to each person individually.

Brands must be flexible whilst staying in tune with consumer behaviour and consumption trends in order to make sure their content is prioritised when information is searched for. Put simply, the more engagement a piece of content gets, the more likely it is to be rewarded by the algorithm.

Over the last 10 years, we have grown from a digital wasteland where data and cookies drove programmatic and performance-based advertising to laser in on audiences and overcome algorithms, or bombard users with branded content across all corners of the internet. Now, more creative and brand enhancing content is key. We need to invest in more inspiring ideas, collaborations and use content pragmatically to help work with the algorithms to support audiences and give them something informative and entertaining. Brands need to bring the consumer closer to them with conversation, debate, and creativity rather than using traditional media tactics which are becoming increasingly outdated.

What Does This Mean for Traditional Search Engines?

Does the exponential growth of social media’s search capabilities spell the end for traditional search engines? Not as such. The multi-screen experience is still a massive part of our digital culture, and users are accessing multiple platforms daily. TikTok has positioned itself in the education and information space, but people who are truly passionate about a subject will still want to read deeper and look for additional supplementary information that you can’t get through short vertical formats.

If the search engines want to survive, they need to align with social search functions that work in tandem with traditional search engines. For example, if you type into Google ‘inspiration’, platforms such as Pinterest appear frequently. Search and social have traditionally gone, and will continue to go, hand in hand and the value exchange must be recognised by brands and news platforms looking to connect with audiences at many different stages of the funnel.

The Future

It’s hard to predict what will happen with the future of news, but I can guarantee it’s going to be a fascinating journey. Linear and traditional media have a chance to use channels such as TikTok and others to enrich a story and create interactivity by using the platform in more dynamic ways. Whilst the platforms themselves have the chance to broker much more thought provoking and substantial content, partnerships with traditional outlets can ensure that audiences are kept well informed with the answers they are hungry for.