The popularity of the author’s foraging videos on TikTok have helped increase interest in his hunting-guide business, which caters to rank beginners in New York City. Here’s the author is foraging for maitake mushrooms, also known as hen of the woods.
Social media is undeniably powerful. No matter where we stand on any issue, social media is at once entertaining and infuriating. To many people, it’s also addicting, and artificial intelligence (AI) is growing better by the second at predicting what we will click next.
TikTok is a giant in the world of social media, but in the hunting industry, the consensus is that its censorship of firearms and dead animals makes it a platform to be boycotted or at least ignored. After all, the hunting industry sells products and trips by sharing media that depicts aspirational harvests of game, often with firearms. But I’m here to say that the opportunity presented by TikTok is too large to ignore. Further, it puts the little guy on level ground with big names and doesn’t share your content with people who don’t want to see it.
The ability to get in front of a large audience through organic reach on TikTok gives it a huge advantage over Instagram. Many early adopters of TikTok, which is a short-form video platform, have cultivated gigantic audiences and make a crazy amount of money.
Similar to most social-media platforms, TikTok started as a thing only the kids were doing, but it has quickly turned into something that cuts across age groups. For hunters looking to take advantage of TikTok’s incredible popularity, the community guidelines are strict, often hard to decipher, and reinforced by AI and keyword filters that scan the platform for text and spoken-word violations and image-recognition technology that recognizes prohibited images, such as a hunting rifle. The people who can figure out how to work within the guidelines, though, have an enormous opportunity to build their businesses, positively influence the perception of hunting in our culture, and make a lot of cash.
A Fine-Tuned Algorithm
On TikTok, what users see is determined almost entirely by its algorithm, which is ridiculously good at showing the content you will like. The platform is the perfect viral-video machine.
On other social media, posts from established names get the lion’s share of visibility because of their popularity in the real world. But on TikTok, where users create content to build their popularity, Meateater has only 155,000 followers (975,000 on Instagram). The Hunting Public, masters of YouTube with more than 429,000 followers, barely surpasses the 160,000 mark on TikTok.
Me? I’m nobody, but I’ve gone from zero to 635,000 followers in less than five months. My most-watched video has a total play time of more than 63,000 hours. That video was picked up by FoodBible and got nearly a million more views on Facebook, and the momentum is carrying over to my Instagram and client inquiries as well. If that doesn’t convince you that the platform is worth your time, I don’t know what will.
Here’s the biggest thing that separates TikTok from Instagram: On Instagram, users primarily view a feed from the accounts they follow, which can be a collection of friends and family but not really the content they enjoy most. On TikTok, very few people watch the account feed. In fact, 98 percent of the views are on the For You page, which is where TikTok suggests content to the user—it’s the equivalent of IG’s Explore page (the magnifying-glass option on the app.)
What’s more, TikTok’s algorithm does a better job of suggesting content that will keep the user scrolling than does Instagram’s, which suggests content based on what the user has liked but also adds material based on whom they follow and often posts they’ve already seen. TikTok’s For You suggests material based on what the user has liked and watched to the end, and even the user’s settings. And—this is big—TikTok avoids suggesting content the user has already seen. As a result, people spend more time using TikTok than they do with other social media. The app’s impressive ability to keep user attention for long periods of time has forced Instagram, which began as a photo-sharing platform, to create Reels and is why YouTube, which began as a long-form- video platform, created Shorts.
Carefully Crafted Content
How am I growing so much faster than the big names? There are many reasons, but primarily, I’m making content specifically for the platform, and the big names are often only repurposing their existing content to shoehorn onto TikTok.
My primary purpose on TikTok is to promote my guiding business, which caters to hunters and foragers, and it’s my foraging videos that have been the driving force behind my presence on TikTok. The foraging videos are an example of how TikTok works—as more people watched my videos, TikTok showed them to other and larger groups of people, often in exponential volume.
The videos have also increased my exposure among hunters, but best of all, the videos also have attracted people who don’t hunt but are curious about procuring their own meat and other wild foods. The downside is that the videos have drawn the attention of anti-hunters who often view my profile proper, report my hunting-related posts, and leave ugly comments. The video platform, however, allows me to respond to anti-hunting comments in a productive, highly visible way that has the potential to go viral if it touches the right nerve. But once folks are interested in me as a creator and the content I’m producing, TikTok will funnel my posts to them, which gives me a chance so share other aspects of hunting, such as cooking wild game—the part of hunting that has broadest appeal outside of our community.
Hiding Content of Questionable Taste
With kill shots on animals and depictions of successful hunts effectively banned, the most-watched hunting videos usually involve attractive women or comedic bits, but you don’t have to be gorgeous or hilarious to make hunting-related content that people will consume. You just have to keep experimenting until you find something that works.
With hunting videos, the limitations of what is allowed on the platform create two bright sides. First, most hunting content never reaches mainstream audiences. An example of this is the “Whackfuq” trend, which arose from a golf video that began with the voiceover “We’re playing a game of Whack f*** here.” The speaker then says “Whack,” as we hear the ball struck by his buddy, who immediately yells “F***!!,” followed by laughter.
This Whackfuq script has gone viral, and some hunters have incorporated it into the very moment they fire at game animals, sometimes hitting, sometimes missing. To some hunters, it’s popcorn-quality entertainment, but to many people inside and nearly everyone outside our community, it is in very poor taste. And while the Whackfuq trend has remained popular, TikTok’s algorithm keeps Whackfuq hunting videos and other hunting content away from the eyes of the people who already have negative opinions about hunters and field sport.
Second, this platform will let you know what resonates with people and what doesn’t. Good hunting content that survives the censors and effectively speaks to non-hunters can and will spread, sometimes in a dramatically viral fashion. But when a post performs poorly, the app is teaching us what doesn’t work. When a post does very well, you know you’re onto something.
Hopefully, it is becoming clear that TikTok presents the opportunity for our community to reach a mainstream audience with positive messages about hunting. Mass media helps drive culture. Public policy and consumer behavior eventually follow the path of the culture.
TikTok is mass media that is driven by individual creators. Its structure ensures that individual creators dominate. My personal goal is to build a mainstream audience that is able to see hunting the way I see it—as the sustainable harvest of a wonderful natural food resource.
Fisher Neal is the creator of Learn to Hunt NYC, specializing in teaching raw beginners from around the area to hunt and forage on public land. Find him on Instagram and TikTok @huntingactor.
From the Spring 2022 issue of Guidefitter Journal.