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.
Das, who had been building a TikTok presence of her own with singing videos, found out about the job listing through a friend from her a cappella group—“I am known as the resident TikTok girl,” she said—and jumped at the chance. All told, it took her about two hours to pull together a video featuring an original song and submit her full application online. “Those two hours completely changed my life for the last few months,” she said.
Meanwhile, Xu was finishing up her senior year of high school and was spending time on the app practicing her painting and videography, when a friend passed along the job application. Xu painted characters from the animated series Adventure Time and Rick and Morty for her application video, which blends seamlessly into the other high production value TikToks she’d been posting.
By the end of July, the five had filmed their first video introducing themselves to the platform. Defining HBO Max’s TikTok voice and presence requires a lot of strategizing, so the team spends time in the morning on Zoom or WebEx calls coming up with ideas before breaking to film on their phones, Das and Xu explained. They’ll send footage along to whoever is editing, and videos can come together in as little as a few hours before being sent along for final approval.
“We’re constantly in meetings with each other or FaceTiming,” Xu said. “Even when we’re not working, we’re discussing potential videos. And we have such different talents from one another that, when combined, we’ve become such a well-oiled team. Our best videos come from when we’re all working on the same one together.”
One example: In late August, the team wanted to capitalize on a trend on the platform where users put together makeup looks inspired by the HBO teen drama Euphoria. They assembled their own sound and video in response to one comment—“the gag is some girls been posting better looks than the show”—showing off their own less-than-impressive amateur attempts at the trend. The joke took off, and collected 1.1 million likes. (“We all got on a FaceTime call after that and were screaming to each other, ‘We’re going viral!’” Das said.)
It’s a fast-paced job primarily due to the nature of the platform, which encourages lightning-fast trends. That means there’s not time for rounds of approval. Soo said she and the social team offer direction and ideas, but don’t require them to promote one show over another—adding that she has never shot down a video.
“We really trust our intern team to do a lot of selection and think about what kind of shows or series or titles they want to market,” Soo said. “We have a lot of priorities from a business perspective, but the reality is, what we want to do is contribute to the fan conversation.”
The internships were supposed to end around the same time that the Euphoria video took off on the platform, so the team brainstormed a way to ask for an extension. “On what was supposed to be our last day, we came together to make a TikTok-style video listing reasons why we would like to continue our time at HBO Max,” Das said.
It was well-received (“tears were shed,” Soo said), and all five interns have stayed on through the fall. They’re now balancing classwork with a new marketing push around HBO Max’s Halloween programming, and have even received haunted dolls from The Conjuring and Annabelle film franchises to use as props in their videos.