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#ForYouPage: How the Cradle of Aviation Found a New Authentic Voice on TikTok

November 23, 2020 3:52 PM | Megan Eves (Administrator)

TikTok. It’s a word that you’ve probably heard at least a few times over the last nine months. It’s not describing the sound a clock makes but a popular short video app. It’s full of dancing, lip synching, and now museums who are experimenting with the app to reach new audiences; museums like the Cradle of Aviation on Long Island. The Museum has a strong social media presence with 15,000 Facebook followers, 2,500 followers on Instagram, 3,500 followers on Twitter, and 302 subscribers on YouTube. They created their TikTok in January and in March they saw a dramatic increase in followers and engagement on the platform. At the time of this article, the Cradle of Aviation Museum has 51,200 followers and 566,700 likes with 154 videos. 

What is TikTok?

Museum Next’s Jim Richardson describes it best. “The content is mainly around dancing, singing and lip synching to music, movies or sound bytes. Users create short looped videos, then have the option of adding music and Snapchat style stickers or filters. While hashtags make the content searchable.” The app has over a billion downloads, making it a more influential  social media app than Instagram. 

TikTok has been around for a few years, but app downloads increased in the fall 2019 making it the free number one free iOS app in the United States. It is especially popular with Gen Z and Millennial audiences. In a blog article by Cuseum in April 2020, it mentions that TikTok can help engage museums “Gen Z and Millennial constituents, who are increasingly abandoning more traditional social media platforms like Facebook.” TikTok has more than 800 million users worldwide and 25 million in the United States.

Who’s on TikTok?

“The assumption was that it’s all middle school kids on TikTok, but that turned out to be incorrect,” said Cradle of Aviation Creative Manager Rod Leonhard. Leonhard downloaded the app for himself back in fall 2019 to explore the hype and to see what creators were doing with the app before starting the museum’s account. “I became obsessed with the app exploring all of its features and basically tried everything to see what would stick. It’s a lot of fun and there are a lot of very talented content creators on this platform. It’s very addictive.” When the platform began to grow in March, Leonhard noticed something interesting about their demographics. “The demographics are very similar to our Instagram audience. We found the adults on the platform with our content.” The Cradle of Aviation didn’t identify an audience to target before creating content, but the museum has found their audience. Since the pandemic, platform users have grown beyond the Genz audience. “The hashtag #over30 has 9.4 billion views, #over40 has 3.2 billion views, and #over50 has 800 million views,” said Leonhard. TikTok provides analytics like other social media platforms including data on specific hashtags.


“We include #cradleofaviation in all of our posts and that hashtag has 6.8 million views, 5.5 million of those views are thanks to #educatortom posts,” said Leonhard.

The most popular Cradle of Aviation TikTok has 2 million views. It features “Educator Tom” or Tom Barry, the museum’s Assistant Director of Education. “He brings edutainment online,” said Leonhard. “Short videos on the history of ingenuity and innovation in aerospace.” In their most popular video, Tom demonstrates an early aviation ‘rotary’ engine. “The Mazda automobile rotary engine folks went nuts claiming it was a radial engine,” said Leonhard. The video has over 400 comments, most debating about whether or not it’s a rotary engine. “Who knew there were so many motor heads on TikTok? But asking questions can get good engagement.” The museum continued the conversation in the comment section asking viewers questions like, “why doesn’t the gun shoot the propeller off?” or “why were toys during WW2 made mostly out of wood?” The video is 12 seconds long and has been watched for 6,797 hours, liked more than 70,000 times, and shared more than 300 times. 

“As a platform, it’s more democratic with its algorithm than other platforms,” said Leonhard. “You put a piece of content out there and if people engage with it, it gets shown to increasingly larger groups of people. We can put the same content on other platforms and it goes nowhere without a paid boost.” 

Finding an Authentic Voice

“We had a bunch of ideas for the platform when I started the account back in January but as always, things go sideways. Things you think are going to perform great, viral content go nowhere. It seems like TikTok is notorious that the bloopers or outtakes do much better than the perfect take,” said Leonhard. Leonhard and Barry along with Curator Peter Truesdell spent a couple of hours just before the museum closed for NY on Pause back in March and shot 50 videos. “We really thought we were only going to be out for two weeks back in March so we wanted to shoot a bunch of stuff.” TikTok videos are short. “We learned not to bury the lead but to quickly get people’s attention. Tom is the CEO of ‘come here’ and waving people in.” Most videos are Tom waving the viewers in close to take a closer look at a specific artifact or to highlight a story.  “During the first two months of the pandemic we gained around 40,000 followers. Tom’s natural and authentic enthusiasm is contagious and a perfect fit for TikTok. We’ve received a lot of touching comments about how we really helped people stay connected during this difficult time.” After the museum shared those 50 videos, Tom set up a green screen in his dining room at home and recorded videos. Leonhard then added in the appropriate backgrounds. 

The museum also utilized their docents to share their knowledge on certain stories and spaces throughout the museum. “There’s not much planning. Tom just walks up to them, asks questions and they’re off,” said Leonhard. Keeping a simple premise has proven to be the most engaging videos on the platform for the Cradle of Aviation Museum. 

What’s Next?

“I’d like to see the Educator Tom persona to keep growing and to do live remotes from other New York State museums,” said Leonhard. “We have a nice following and I think it would be mutually beneficial if we made some road trips to go live from other museums and talk with curators and docents about their artifacts and happenings. People love that stuff.” 

For Leonhard and the Cradle of Aviation Museum, TikTok has become their best engagement rate platform compared to their other social media channels. “It’s a great place to tell stories and to be experimental and capture a generally younger demographic and audience and introduce them to the Museum.”

Learn more and explore the Cradle of Aviation on TikTok: 

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