TikTok, isn’t that just teenagers dancing? Not really, no. As Pete Orton shows this is an opportunity for the NHS to reach new audiences.
by Pete Orton
You know TikTok… it’s that dodgy Chinese state-owned video app that’s corrupting our children and stealing our data, right? Well for us at Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust it’s our most followed and most watched social media channel.
There are so many myths and misconceptions about TikTok, with many believing the app is somehow worse or more sinister than any of the other social media that we happily use every day. But I simply don’t believe this is true.
Yes, TikTok is used to spread misinformation. Yes, it hosts inappropriate content. And yes, it’s incredibly addictive. But you can’t tell me that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram don’t do all these things and more – and that doesn’t stop us using these as channels for sharing public sector messages and content.
Why some people don’t get TikTok
I think a bigger reason is that many people just don’t fully get it yet, so let me explain.
TikTok is an app for making and sharing videos, displayed as an endless roll of full screen videos in vertical format – therefore taking up all of your attention for that moment, unlike almost all other social media channels.
Users have access to editing tools and filters as well as the ability to add sounds or songs, including an enormous free library of the latest trending or chart music (and some of those old masterpieces too!).
Videos can range from five seconds up to three minutes in length and can either be created within the app or uploaded to the app and amended or timed to something from the comprehensive music library.
Something else different about TikTok is the default homepage view. It’s not necessarily those people that you choose to follow whose videos you are shown, instead you get a personalised “For You” feed.
This feed is created by the true jewel in TikTok’s crown – it’s algorithm. Thanks to the complex and closely-guarded algorithm, the TikTok “For You” feed is the most intuitive and fastest-learning of any social media platform.
Within just a few minutes of joining and choosing to watch, interact with, or scroll past different videos, you start to get served up content that you might be interested in, gradually filtering out the stuff you’re not. The algorithm gets more intuitive the more you consume and engage on the app, allowing you to consistently discover new people and interests.
Accounts with fewer followers are not punished either, content and engagement take primacy over the follower count of the user, in theory giving anyone the equal chance to go viral – given the content is good enough.
But why should we care about TikTok?
Well for starters it’s the fastest growing social media site in the world. And it’s not just another short-term fad, TikTok was the world’s most downloaded app last year.
In the UK alone, it was downloaded 22 million times in 2020 – that’s more than Zoom, Teams or the NHS Covid-19 App – with latest figures showing almost 14 million of those are regular active users (at least monthly). It’s not just young people on there either. Spend a bit of time on the app and you’ll quickly see content aimed at your age group or from likeminded individuals.
In fact, its competitors are so worried about it they’re queueing up to steal the concept. YouTube recently launched YouTube Shorts, Facebook brought Reels to Instagram and is now encouraging users to post short, vertical videos on Facebook itself.
With TikTok recently allowing videos of up to 3 minutes long, (and reportedly even testing video lengths of up to 10 minutes) its dominance and influence of the social media landscape is only increasing.
The time that users spend on the app too is far greater than that of Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. It’s safe to say that TikTok is not going away anytime soon.
So how could you use it?
To be clear, TikTok is not the answer to all our public sector comms problems. I don’t believe it’s the place to consistently run awareness campaigns or achieve some of our behaviour-change goals.
But want to tell a compelling or heart-warming story to potentially millions of people? Then TikTok is the perfect place. People go to TikTok to laugh, to learn, to join in and to escape.
The video quality doesn’t even need to be that high, an old iPhone will do – but it’s all about the content. That’s not to say you don’t need to put a lot of thought and effort into it, but it does mean you don’t necessarily need to use the latest high-end equipment to get good results.
One creator called Khaby.lame has amassed 107 million followers without ever saying a word. His brief skits sarcastically pointing out when people needlessly overcomplicate simple tasks frequently receive tens of millions of views.
To put it into some context, your NHS Chief Exec introducing the latest patient safety initiative isn’t going to go viral, but a video of a real person who has been through a treatment journey and is now back doing what they love just might.
Your latest local bin collection scheme won’t turn into a big hit, but a clip of a bin man building a bond with someone on their round might well do.
The point I’m making is, don’t think of TikTok as a local solution to local issues – your video won’t just be shown to people in your area. Think of it as a platform to tell your story to the world in a compelling and succinct way to show off what your organisation is all about.
How have we used it at Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust?
We decided to first join TikTok as a Trust back in December 2019 – at the time we were the first NHS organisation we could find on there.
We place a lot of value on our social media content, finding it is now often a much more effective way to reach audiences than more traditional media. We also felt that TikTok was well-suited to engage with audiences using the more relaxed, friendly and sociable ‘tone of voice’ we’d carefully been cultivating across our social channels.
As an NHS Trust caring for hundreds of thousands of people every year, and employing thousands of wonderful, compassionate people, we always have a story to tell. If you strip everything else back, the NHS is really just people caring for people. This notion has huge potential on TikTok.
Whenever we have a message to share, we will always try to tell it with a story, and deliver it in an entertaining or emotionally powerful way – making it as relevant as possible to a particular audience. Sometimes that means trying new things or going to where a new audience might be.
So I wanted to use try using TikTok to share some of these positive or touching human stories, and the channel leant itself perfectly to video creation for this, with moving stories able to be set to emotional or trending music.
I’ve seen TikTok perfectly described as a place where you aim “to get the most ‘ooo’s’, ‘ahh’s’ and ‘ha-ha’s’ per second”. Well so many stories from our hospitals are full of these ‘ooo’ and ‘ahh’ moments, so why not show them off – you might just influence a few attitudes of what we’re really all about.
Our early steps
We posted our first videos in January 2020, initially using content that we’d previously shared on our other channels that I re-edited and repurposed for TikTok. I’m sure every public sector organisation will have some of this type of video already – hard-hitting, emotionally relevant and engaging. Look at what’s already performed well on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and think about how it could be repurposed or re-edited for TikTok.
The first few videos we did performed OK for a new channel, but didn’t initially gain loads of traction. But after coming up with more ideas and covering more stories on the channel, we began to get some real cut-through.
Something I noticed once we’d started posting on TikTok, was how high the engagement rate was, this is something that sets it apart from Facebook and Twitter, etc. We were seeing at least 25 per cent of all those who had seen the post, either liking, commenting or sharing the video. On Facebook this is typically more like 5% – 10% and even lower on Twitter.
I assume this is mainly because of TikTok’s attention grabbing display, with the whole screen of the app showing your video with no other posts poking out directly above or below. Therefore, it’s easy to argue that this means the effort you put into producing your content is more worthwhile.
Getting the hang of it
We then began to get a couple of videos hitting 40 to 50,000 views (which was generally better than we were getting on Facebook or Twitter before Covid), before a couple started breaking the 100,000 views mark. There seemed to be a real appetite for this kind of emotional, positive patient story, as a break from a lot of the more light-hearted content on the channel.
TikTok is known as a ‘viral’ video app, whereby if a video performs well in the algorithm it can really take off and be shown to huge audiences. We got our first taste of this virality on a couple of videos of some of our cancer patients ringing the ‘end of treatment bell’. These often perform well on our other platforms but on TikTok they were viewed hundreds of thousands of times and received huge engagement, including feedback from local patients.
These successful videos reinforced how different the TikTok algorithm and way of displaying videos to users is. With Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, posts have a very short ‘afterlife’ (the time when posts are actually shown to users in their timeline), but on TikTok if a post begins to prove successful, it can be shown for weeks or even months after it was first posted.
Last summer, after receiving a phone call from the nursing team on a ward to come along and capture a wedding that was taking place on the ward for an end of life patient, I immediately realised we had an incredibly moving story to tell. The couple involved were really keen to share their special moment “as far and as wide as possible” and thanks to TikTok we did just that.
After cutting up the video (which was solely shot on my iPhone) using the Kinemaster app, and storyboarding the clips, we had a video that was pulling at my heart strings. But being able to time the video to a popular, emotional song really gave it something extra. With a few captions added on TikTok, the video was posted and immediately took off.
You can see the video here.
Within 12 hours of posting it, the video had been watched over 1 million times and just kept growing. The video has been seen over 5 million times on our TikTok channel alone, has had over 1 million ‘likes’, received 18,000 comments and been shared more than 30,000 times.
This video showed the true power of TikTok, as this was something we didn’t send a traditional press release out for, but because of the success of the video we ended up receiving international TV and news coverage.
Various viral sharing accounts on TikTok and Instagram contacted us for permission to share the video on their own channels which we allowed with credit. To date across these different accounts, the video has had over 10 million views on TikTok, over 5 million views on Instagram, and over 2 million views on Facebook, as well as appearing on TV news in USA, Australia and beyond.
I understand that not every public sector body has access to this kind of story on a regular basis, but where and how you tell a story is often more important than the actual story itself.
We really struggled to find the time and headspace during the second wave of Covid in our hospitals to create content for TikTok, but we plan to continue using the channel to make the most of our stories. Another positive of TikTok is, it doesn’t seem to hurt your performance by not posting for long periods of time, providing when you do, it’s good content.
What is next for the Trust and TikTok
We now have nearly 45,000 followers on TikTok which is more than our Facebook and Twitter pages combined, proving it’s possible for an NHS Trust to build a reasonable following on the platform.
Every type of interest, hobby or occupation has a place on TikTok. Whether we use TikTok or not, the NHS (or your local area) is being talked about on there. A lot. There are well over 1 billion videos on the app with the hashtag #NHS. And both #ThankYouNHS and #ClapForOurCarers were some of the most popular topics on the app in the UK during the first national lockdown.
Most importantly for comms professionals, it’s about getting the most out of the time and effort you put into producing content in the first place. If you go to an event or come across a great story, if you can repurpose the same content to make it flourish on a number of channels, that’s the best we can hope for.
We don’t all have to love TikTok or use it in a personal capacity, but as Comms professionals I feel we have a duty to understand it in the same way we do with other social media.
If you want to use TikTok for your organisation, my advice would be to get on the app and spend some time on it to properly understand it for yourself. If you want any inspiration you can find us on TikTok (or any social media) @WorcsAcuteNHS
There are plenty of great public sector accounts on TikTok already. I’d definitely recommend checking out Lancashire Police @lancspolice; Liverpool City Council @lpoolcouncil; and the British Army Guards @the_guards.
And of course, if you truly have the capacity to commit resource to it, just see what the Black Country Living Museum have done, whose characters even have their own fanbases!
Thanks for reading and I hope I’ve encouraged some of you to look again at using TikTok for your organisation.
Pete Orton is Communications and Content Specialist at Worcestershire Acute Hospitals NHS Trust.