How Germany’s public broadcaster uses TikTok to engage with younger audiences around the world
This interview was first published by Italian journalist Francesco Zaffarano in his biweekly Substack newsletter, Mapping journalism on social platforms. The original is available at this link. Sign up for the newsletter here.
Berlin Fresh is the first TikTok channel started by German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) and mixes news, lifestyle, culture, and more to explain what it means to be a young citizen in Berlin.
It’s a surprising account, in the range of its content and its informal tone, for a national public service broadcaster founded in post-war Germany. It’s also popular, as Berlin Fresh’s 362,000 followers and 14.5 million likes on the platform show. Following its success, other accounts run by DW are proliferating on the platform, including DW News Lagos for Nigerian and West African news, DW Stories with a focus on explainers and DW Berlin Tel Aviv, which offers Berlin Fresh’s content with Hebrew subtitles. DW also partnered with the BBC, VOA and France 24 for +90, a series of social media accounts, including on TikTok, aimed at a young Turkish audience.
I spoke with Johanna Rüdiger, Head of Social Media Strategy at Deutsche Welle, who also has her own very popular professional TikTok account (151,000 followers and 2.5M likes) which she uses to platform her reporting.
Q. Can you describe your role at DW?
A. I am the head of social media strategy at DW’s main department of culture and documentaries. Deutsche Welle is Germany’s international broadcaster, and we provide journalistic content to people worldwide in 32 languages.
It’s my job to make sure our department's 25 social media accounts cross-platform reach as many people as possible – and the target audience we need to reach. I also monitor digital trends to ensure our department is an early adopter of whatever new platform or storytelling trend pops up.
I also stay connected with a Gen-Z audience through my personal TikTok channel: I have built a news brand under my name on TikTok – providing migrant communities in Germany with English-language news updates that feel relevant and tangible to their day-to-day life.
Q. Tell me about DW Berlin Fresh. When did you start it?
A. Berlin Fresh was Deutsche Welle's first TikTok account. We launched it two years and a half ago. Not many media outlets were on the platform then. Today media companies are asking how, and not if, they should engage with users on TikTok.
Deutsche Welle currently has nine different accounts on the platform. We want to reach our Gen Z audience, so we have to meet them where they are – and that’s TikTok.
Q. How would you describe your TikTok account to someone who has never seen it?
A. Our account is called Berlin Fresh because we want to offer a fresh look at European culture and lifestyle from the heart of Europe and one of its most vibrant cities, Berlin. We want to show that Germany is a liberal democracy rooted in European culture, promoting understanding and exchanging ideas among different cultures and peoples. We also want to spark debates between young people and give them a platform to exchange ideas and experiences. We want to reach very young users – 16 to 24-year-olds.
@dw_berlinfresh Berlin really does have something for everyone. ?? #berlin #germany #tarot #tarotreading #naturalwine #astrology #winetok ♬ King of my Heart x Maroon mashup - DJ Rog ?
Q. How would you describe your mix of content? Do you have recurrent formats/shows?
A. We have some formats and serial content. For instance, “Brant breaks German rules” – Brant is Australian and one of our creators, and he does videos in a typical TikTok language: transporting information via short skits and explainers. He explains German cultural conventions and quirks. We just have a certain way of storytelling – personal, authentic, and very much on an eye level with our audience – rather than specific formats. I think formats are important for journalists, but users don’t think about content in terms of formats – they want great storytelling that’s relevant to their daily life.
@dw_berlinfresh You MAY have lived in Germany if you have a story like this. ?? #berlin #germany #cultureshock #germanculture #neighbors ♬ original sound - Amanda
Q. What do you find challenging about building a community on TikTok?
A. TikTok’s algorithm is content-based, not status-based, meaning everyone can go viral. And this is incredibly powerful. But the downside is that, even when you have a big account, you have no guarantee that your content will be seen in your community because people watch videos mostly from their “For you” page, not their “Following” feed.
Q. How many people work on your TikTok account? And what is your standard workflow?
A. We have one channel manager who works full-time on the account, plus a handful of creators who work part-time. Anybody on the TikTok team or our DW Culture and Documentaries social media team can contribute. At the beginning of each week, we hold an editorial meeting to discuss the ideas for the week and how we can execute and film them.
We have a strong process of reviewing and editing scripts. And, like with everything a DW journalist posts or uploads, nothing goes out without another journalist checking it.
Q. What do you look for in a good script?
A. I want us to break down a topic and tell our young viewers why this story is relevant to their everyday life and what they can learn from this video. We dedicate a lot of attention to the first sentence we use to kick off the video. We work very hard on that first sentence because we want to grab people’s attention in the first two seconds of each video and tell them right away what the value of the video is.
Q. Which metrics do you monitor to measure success?
A. As I mentioned, TikTok’s algorithm primarily focuses on views. Unlike on other platforms, the TikTok algorithm doesn’t care how many followers you have. You sometimes see big accounts with millions of followers, and they get only 10k views per video – meaning each video has to prove itself and bring value to the user. I focus on views and engagement, so comments and likes. But you have to look at everything. For example, are we reaching our target audience?
Our main goal is to reach young people outside Germany. Recently, TikTok started giving us the audience age group for every video, which is fantastic – we can see if we are engaging with the right age group with every content we produce.
Q. What kind of problems have you faced while working on TikTok?
A. For us, geotagging has always been problematic. You know, when you upload a video on TikTok, that will be mainly watched in the country where you published it. You can reach a wider audience if it goes viral, but you must first perform well in your region. Since we want our videos to be watched outside Germany, geotagging is fundamental. That’s why we started publishing all our videos using a VPN and an American SIM card to reach our target audience. However, TikTok just introduced a new feature where you can tag your location - we will have to see how that plays out.
Q. Did TikTok support you in finding this solution?
A. Not on this one, but TikTok has been helpful in other ways. For example, this summer, we published a series of educational explainer videos about concentration camps and the Holocaust. Since TikTok has been under fire in the past for not monitoring content on this topic closely, the platform now tends to double-check every content that falls under this hashtag. This means any video using keywords like ‘Holocaust’ and ‘concentration camps’ might undergo the moderation process, which can take days – which in turn, makes it hard to get any reach, even after a video is released from the process. So I spoke with our contact at TikTok and explained the whole series and why it shouldn’t be picked up by moderation.
I would suggest this to anyone who could face a similar problem. It was helpful to learn more about TikTok’s efforts on this topic – they just started the Shoah Education and Commemoration Initiative and Creating Holocaust Awareness among German and Israeli Youth on TikTok programs, which were interesting to hear.
Q. What is the TikTok-specific project you are most proud of?
A. The educational concentration camp explainer series I just mentioned. As Germany’s international broadcaster, Holocaust remembrance is very important to us. Our department has covered this topic in longer explainer formats, but we had never done any short-form video content on it. Yet we knew our Gen Z audience was very interested in this topic but knew little about it. So we partnered with the first concentration camp memorial on TikTok, Neuengamme, for a seven-part explainer series.
@dw_berlinfresh Watch the full documentary “The maestro and the cellist of Auschwitz” on YouTube: ‘DW Documentary’. #holocaust #holocaustsurvivor #neverforget #germany #historytok #auschwitz ♬ Piano Melancholy (Classical Piano Music) - Depleka
The response from our users was very positive. One of the videos became our most-watched TikTok ever - and went viral as an Instagram/Facebook Reel and a YouTube Short, so it worked on all social platforms. Not only did we prove that yes, you can do serious topics in short-form videos, but also that you can reach young people this way - as most of our viewers on these videos were under 24 years old.
Q. Do you use any particular tools for your work on TikTok?
A. We don’t shoot or edit in the app. We repurpose our videos on other platforms, so we need clean footage. The editing is done with professional editing software like Premiere Pro.
Q. Can you share one thing you have learned while working on TikTok?
A. People on TikTok are hungry for information. I love that so much. We always hear about Gen-Z not being interested in the news, but young people really want to know how the news affects their lives. News avoidance is not a thing on TikTok, at least if you break down the news, explain it well, and tell your viewers exactly what it means for their daily life.
And good news for us journalists: Yes, you can good viral with all the skills you learned and used on more traditional platforms like TV or even print journalism: well-researched facts, good storytelling, breaking down relevant topics for your target audience, good visual and sound quality, etc.
Q. One thing you would like to change on TikTok?
A. It would be great if TikTok made it easier to include links in the comments so we can link back to articles on dw.com. Our users really appreciate it if we share our sources and provide them with more in-depth information on a certain topic.
Q. What would you do differently if you started your account today?
A. Initially, I thought keeping up with trending audios and challenges would be more important than it is for us today. Yes, it’s nice to make those videos occasionally because people know you understand and speak the platform's language. And it will get you views, but that’s not the stuff that will make you grow your community. Original content will. Trends are not as relevant as I initially thought. Journalistic storytelling is.
Q. Tell me three accounts we should check out on TikTok.
A. You should follow all our amazing DW TikTok accounts [note from the author: they are listed here]. But there are so many good journalism accounts it’s really hard to pick just three:
- I really like Uptin Saiidi’s account, a former CNBC journalist, because even though he travels the world and reports on lots of different topics, he has found a way to create his niche by making his storytelling very personal while still reporting very objectively. He spoke about his secret to success at our DW Global Media Forum last year.
- For LGBTQ+ news, I like Openly by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
- And for people who speak German, check out the account of 23-year-old journalist Marie Lina Smyrek. She offers a satirical analysis of everyday topics – a weekly news roundup that’s both very funny and informative. Her account is part of the Funk German video-on-demand service operated by public broadcasters ARD and ZDF.
Italian journalist Francesco Zaffarano has recently launched a biweekly Substack newsletter, Mapping journalism on social platforms, featuring interviews with people leading news innovation on social media. We lightly edited this interview for brevity and clarity. The original is available at this link. Sign up for the newsletter here.