COLUMBUS, Ohio — TikTok is a place where seemingly anyone can come up with a viral video. But it’s not always easy to build a following and sustain it.
But five Columbus creators have nailed their niches.
Alexis Nikole Nelson, perhaps better known as the Black Forager, is one of the top local creators on TikTok, according to reps for the app.
She takes people into nature, showing them the plants and berries that are safe to eat and how to eat them. Her videos have become so popular, she was even featured on CBS Mornings.
“I just shared the things that I was passionate about, and I was so surprised when people started following, en masse, and wanted to come along on all of my adventures sprinting through the woods and lifting up logs for mushrooms,” she said. “Now, for reasons unbeknownst to me, between all of my profiles, there’s a very casual 5 million people following along.”
Nelson developed her passion with the influence of her parents. Her mother was into plants, and her father was into cooking.
Her social media content has been so successful, she was able to leave her social media marketing job to focus on her own content full time. She also is now working on a book for Simon Element.
“I hope a little bit of wonder, a little whimsy is what people take away from my content, and just caring a little bit more about the spaces around them because, when you recognize that there is value in those spaces, you take better care of them.
Mik Zazon is an entrepreneur and creative who focuses on women’s mental and physical health. She has a following across social media, including TikTok. She focuses on sharing her story with transparency and honesty.
“I have learning disabilities,” she said. “I went through and abusive relationship, and I went through multiple eating disorders, and I have autoimmune diseases, so a lot of what I share stems from that.”
She says some of the videos that make her most proud are those where she reveals her struggles with acne. That has been part of her revolution. Zazon says she first started creating content for social media in 2017. Back then, she was running a diet page and acting as a weight loss coach, all while photoshopping her body and her face.
It took time for her to reveal her true self to her followers. But they have since embraced her. And she hopes living her truth can help others live theirs.
“If there’s just like one thought in your head, just one sliver of a thought to say, I need help, or reach out to somebody, maybe you ask a friend to go out for lunch once per week, it’s those little things that make a massive difference in your everyday life, and that’s changed my life,” she said.
Gabriel Hemingway has become a bit of an accidental TikToker. He created a popular series of videos he has dubbed “parking wars” simply by noticing a trend out his window while working from home during the pandemic.
He saw that, when the clock struck 7 a.m. and the zone outside turned into a no-parking area, parking enforcement officers would soon show up to start ticketing cars still parked there.
He decided to start recording and offering up commentary.
“Parking Wars, part 2, did a million views in less than a day, and I went from 3,000 followers to 10,000 followers, and I just said, okay, we’ll try again tomorrow, you know, see if people like it, and a week later, 15,000, and a year later it was 100,000. Now we’re at 185, I think,” he said.
Hemingway still works his day job, working for the federal government, but he’s been able to monetize his content and gain brand deals and sponsorships. Now he’s working on a parking wars YouTube series.
He also wants to make clear that he is not rooting for anyone to get tickets, and he’s grateful that most people seem to understand that. He says he’s even met some of the people he’s featured getting tickets, and none of them have held a grudge. He’s still hoping to meet some of the parking enforcement agents in person.
“I’m all for people not getting tickets,” he said. “I want to make that known. I’m not preying on people getting tickets. If they get out there and move them, I’m always happy, excited, ecstatic, no ticket Mondays are my favorite thing, especially no ticket Fridays, too, a great weekend start, right? But, if you get a ticket, I’m watching.”
Many in the community may already known Columbus Police Officer Anthony “AJ” Johnson, better known as the dancing cop. His videos have gained him more than 1 million TikTok followers.
“I wanted people to see what a majority of officers do day in and day out,” he said. “The only difference between those officers and myself is, I’m not afraid to put myself out there.”
Officer Johnson says his goal is to connect with the community but also have fun while doing it. And, if he happens to gather some great content while doing so, that’s just a bonus.
“I’m humbled, I’m extremely blessed to be in this position, so I try not to take it for granted,” he said. “I try to utilize it in the manner in which I think that I should, and I just try to continue doing what I do, and that’s leave this world a better place than what I found it.”
It’s not just individuals who are finding success. The Columbus Metropolitan Library, with Connor Dunwoodie often at the helm, is gaining video views, like and followers by creating content that is at time funny and at time informative. In the past year or so, the library’s TikTok followers have grown from 700 or so to more than 14,000.
“I’ll let you in on a secret, people who work at libraries are some of the funniest people I’ve ever met, so it’s actually really easy for them to just get together and come up with all these ideas together,” Dunwoodie said.
The library has a team of more than one-dozen people focusing on digital and social media content. Dunwoodie said it’s been pretty easy to come up with content because of all of the creative minds.
The library’s TikTok page is full of plenty of fun videos, featuring costumes and puppets and dancing. But it also includes plenty of informative videos as well.
“The library’s such an awesome space, and I think when people see it on TikTok, they’re like, I had no idea this was in my backyard,” he said. “I mean, when I moved here, I didn’t, and being able to highlight that is just so much fun.”
That social media fun has turned into a moneymaking venture for many creators.
Kelli Matthews, senior instructor of public relations at the University of Oregon, says there are some tips and tricks to making that happen.
And TikTok can be one of the easiest spaces to do it.
“I think the reason that it’s taken off is because you’re exposed to people and ideas, and people are so creative, and I’m just always stunned by the level of creativity that creators bring to the table with TikTok,” she said. “It’s just a real human experience that happens in kind of this microcosm of this platform.”
For those wanting to grow their followers, she has a few suggestions. She says users should try out different things, focus on trending hashtags and audio and tag brands for potential sponsorships. Even large brands sometimes like to work with micro and nano influencers, she says.
“I think TikTok has this sort of democratization of access for people, right, where it’s, I have an idea, I want to try this out, I want to experiment, I want to play in the sandbox, and, before you know it, you’ve got thousands of views and partnerships knocking on the door, and you have this opportunity to take your little idea and to make it something that thousands of people see and love and enjoy and interact with,” she said.