Once considered a Gen Z-dominated social media platform, TikTok is taking off with other age groups now, broadening the opportunity for brands to engage with its users.
Last year, the short-form social video app garnered over 1 billion monthly viewers, 36% of whom were between the ages of 35 and 54. During that time, advertisements on the site reached roughly 18% of all internet users over age 18, which equals about 885 million people, or 16% of the entire world.
Some healthcare and biopharmaceutical companies have sought to capitalize on the apps’ success since it launched in the US in 2018. For instance, CVS Health used the platform to promote the availability of COVID-19s at its pharmacies in spring 2021 with a campaign vaccine that encouraged users to share how the jab brought them “One Step Closer” to life after the pandemic. It amassed billions of impressions and led countless patients to post their own stories.
The gastroenterology-focused Salix Pharmaceuticals similarly experimented by partnering with healthcare professionals to educate and reduce stigma around constipation during Constipation Awareness Month.
Overall, however, biopharma companies have shied away from using the platform for fear of the legal and regulatory hurdles that it could create, Katie Ferrigno, director of social strategy at the advertising agency Ogilvy, says.
“A lot of pharma companies, in general, have been very slow to start because legal is like ‘I don’t want to touch that with a 10-foot pole. We don’t have enough data. We don’t want to be bothered with it. We don’t know yet. Let’s wait and see,” Ferrigno says.
And, while Ferrigno admits that creating content for the site “is a very structured process” that requires layers of approvals, spreadsheets and timelines, she says the payoff for companies who decide to use TikTok can be well worth it if they take the time to understand the platform.
More than other social media sites, TikTok prioritizes discoverability and curates content for users on their “For You” page based on personal interests and viewing habits. It recommends videos to users based on how they interact with other content. If a user frequently interacts with videos that use a certain trending sound or effect, the platform may be more likely to recommend other content that reflects those trends.
This personalization opens a world of possibilities for brands seeking to connect with consumers and patients. Here, Ferrigno provides tips for biopharma companies to leverage TikTok’s unique features to reach audiences and build successful campaigns.
This interview has been edited for style, length and clarity.
PharmaVoice: What are some common misconceptions about TikTok? And what should biopharmaceutical companies consider when engaging on the app?
Katie Ferrigno: Everyone thinks of TikTok as a very young platform. And in some it is, but the numbers are ways rising, where we’re seeing 35+ on it now.
It’s interesting because this audience has started to genuinely seek out wellness conversations. A majority of the TikTok community in the US has engaged with health care content on the platform. Because of that, you’re starting to see healthcare practitioners themselves on the platform.
When you think about social platforms on a broader scale, Facebook, Instagram, etc., with the misinformation era that took place, everyone started to question everything. In essence, TikTok became this space of truth, if you will. It’s for the people by the people. It’s real consumers and users talking about these things that no one else is conversing about on other platforms. That’s very important to keep in mind.
I also feel like there’s a very educational undertone on TikTok. I think about STEM Tok trending over the last year, I think about hack videos. People are questioning if they’re doing anything right because they found the right way to do it on TikTok. That is the same principle that applies to people looking for truthful information in an engaging way. That’s the most fun part about it because they’re not expecting that from a pharma brand. If we can bring genuine, honest, funny, good content, that’s going to make an impact.
How can pharma companies relate to users on TikTok? How do they avoid seeming like a brand talking at people on TikTok?
For any campaign, you need to know the platform really well. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the subreddit ‘Fellow Kids,’ but you end up finding a lot of marketing campaigns there because they’re like, ‘Yeah, we know what’s going on.’ But they don’t really know and that’s seen right away by the audience.
First and foremost, like any other platforms, you really need to understand deeply, as a consumer, how the platform works, so that when you’re coming up with ideas, they are inherent to the platform and feel natural, not forced.
This kind of goes back to general social branding. While a lot of the tactical stuff has changed, the fundamentals have not. You’re personifying the brand, you’re giving the brand a voice so it becomes less of this faceless, cold, corporation and you really uncover who is behind this brand. One of our healthcare clients has lovely humans working for them, and it’s only because I was able to interface with their employees directly that I was saw there was a story no one was telling. You need to personify the brand so it doesn’t feel like your brand is just talking at someone — it feels like a person that took the time to understand the conversation.
For another one of our brands, we actually went about it from the influencer perspective because we know that as a brand, the content [we publish] is only going to be seen as brand content. But if we have a creator that actually aligns with what it is that we’re building, and we give them some buy-in to create that story, it’s going to be that much better.
You mentioned ‘STEM Tok.’ How important are the curated and discoverability aspects of TikTok when creating a campaign for the platform?
I think that’s the most lucrative opportunity with TikTok, to be honest. There’s a ‘Tok’ for everyone. It is ‘Plant Tok’ personally for me. Everyone’s got their little corner of the internet and it’s about finding ways to align with that. You’re never going to reach all of those people. So how can you find ways that overlap? We’ve talked about aligning campaigns with food topics and partnering with charities, or with gaming because an influencer in that niche is holding a virtual charity walk. We’ve also talked about targeting people who are interested in film. In any essence of strategy, you are looking at the problem in a different way and in a way that no one else is.
You mentioned timelines. How long should a company budget to create a TikTok campaign?
There’s a lot that happens before it gets to people’s feeds. Even two months is a laughable timeline. You need to be concepting well in advance because you’re thinking about all the rounds of approvals you are going to go through. At least three months, typically, and if someone can get it done sooner, that’s impressive.
Has the COVID-19 pandemic shifted how brands are perceived on these platforms?
Definitely. These brands are on T-shirts now. They’re in the social vernacular in a way that they’ve never been. The way we look at it is, let’s take advantage, not in a negative way, but let’s show our stuff. Let’s highlight the brand in a way that we haven’t before. I think it definitely positioned brands to be interesting. Science is cool again.