HBO Max’s Secret to Viral TikToks: Letting Their Interns Run the Account

Five college students have been building the streamer's social presence since July

hbo max interns
The new streamer hired (from left) Ashley Xu, Gray Fagan, Preeti Singh, Conor Driscoll and Paravi Das to create TikTok videos that felt native to the platform. Courtesy of HBO Max

There’s a TikTok video that went viral in September.

It’s a low-budget recording of a computer screen from a mobile phone, showing what appears to be a virtual classroom with five students in attendance in the middle of an icebreaker exercise. The camera first focuses on a woman sleeping in front of her laptop camera, before zooming out as another student begins her introduction. Instead of offering up a real story, though, the student, to the bewilderment of her classmates, recites the premise the popular 1990s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

It’s funny, bizarre, cringey and utterly incomprehensible if you haven’t spent much time on the video app. But TikTok users loved it, having watched the video 4.6 million times and liked it 1.2 million times.

The video was, in fact, staged, and its five stars weren’t attending a Zoom lecture as classmates. But they are all coworkers. All five of them, who attend school at UCLA, Chapman University and Northwestern University, have worked for HBO Max since this summer to help grow the service’s social presence, and have been churning out strange, surreal and funny videos to promote the WarnerMedia-owned streamer to Gen Z and millennials.

“We always knew TikTok was going to be an important piece of our social strategy: You’ve got a new format, it’s highly creative, and it’s speaking to a younger audience that is incredibly important to our business,” said Katie Soo, HBO Max’s svp and head of growth marketing. “But we were thinking whether it was something we would create content for, or if we should put it back in the hands of creators to find ways to reach that community in a more authentic way. And that decision wasn’t hard at all.”

TikTok is a platform of great interest for streaming services. Streamers are somewhat regular advertisers on the platform, using brand takeover ads that appear when the app is first opened and in-feed sponsored posts to show off new programming; many of them, including Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, also run lively TikTok accounts to promote new shows and show off behind-the-scenes footage.   

It’s easy to see why: Young people—drivers of culture and consumption—are by and large the primary users of the service. In August, one-third of the service’s user base was between 18 and 24 years old, according to data from Comscore, and nearly 60% of TikTok users were between the ages of 18 and 34. (Comscore does not measure the number of users under the age of 18 on the platform.)

HBO Max, whose TikTok presence began in early June with repurposed clips from shows and movies, decided to put the account in the hands of people who probably knew the platform better than they did. The company posted a paid intern job opening and promoted it on TikTok, requesting that applicants send in a video about why they’d be great for the position.

“Hello. We would like to pay you to use TikTok and make TikToks,” the listing read. “We could use somebody like you to put some dents in our social playbook, pull it apart and make it better.”

More than 450 people around the country applied, and about 200 people submitted TikTok videos under the #HBOMaxSummerInternship hashtag. The response was bigger than HBO Max had anticipated, and Soo, who expected to onboard only a few interns, ended up hiring five: Paravi Das, a sophomore theater major at UCLA; Ashley Xu, a Northwestern University freshman studying radio, television and film; Preeti Singh, a senior PR and advertising major at Chapman University; Gray Fagan, a senior film production major at Chapman; and Conor Driscoll, a senior business major and TV minor at Chapman.

@kelseymsutton Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.