Time to turn to TikTok?

Updated: Jul 27

Words by Jade Williams

TikTok took younger generations by storm in 2021, becoming the most downloaded social media platform in the app stores. What can the pharmaceutical industry do to tap into this well of content consumers?


For those who own a smartphone, TikTok should at least sound familiar. The video sharing platform dedicated to short-form content reached 656 million downloads from app stores in 2021, taking the top spot for the third year in a row. While the app is mostly filled with content created by individuals, corporate entities have been turning to the platform to build awareness of both their brands and products. But how extensively has the pharmaceutical industry joined the TikTok crusade, how can it benefit from this rapidly growing form of social media marketing, and, ultimately, is it worth trying out?


Reaching the right audience


Branching out to new marketing platforms can initially be a laborious task, particularly as establishing a company in an area where it has little or no presence rarely provides immediate results. However, taking that initial step into the unknown may be necessary to keep up with the times and exploit a potentially lucrative marketing avenue.


Rafael Talero Calvo, Customer Solutions and Innovation Lead, MSD, notes: “Over the past year, TikTok has become a big player within the social media ecosystem dominated by millennials and Generation Z, and this cannot be ignored for the pharma industry.” The platform has reached astounding heights among younger generations, meaning the app could be the ideal opportunity for breaking through to this previously hard-to-reach demographic. Where long-established social platforms such as Facebook are more suited to targeting older generations, TikTok provides an easy way of targeting those born on this side of the millennium.


We should always be aware of new trends in communication and marketing in order to reach people

Identifying a target audience is key to successful marketing, and understanding which platforms different consumers prefer can also be imperative to success. “In a very competitive social media landscape, the initial advantage can be surpassed by a close competitor,” says Talero Calvo. “Currently, Instagram and Snapchat can be similar to TikTok in the way they are using filters and effects but different in type of audience.” As such, choosing to use TikTok for a sexual health awareness campaign for young people, for example, could be beneficial as this demographic is more present on this platform than other alternatives, which may drive engagement.


Potential pathways


Launching onto TikTok may not be easy, however. Videos created on the platform have a time limit of 10 minutes, with the most popular content lasting just 21-34 seconds. Given that companies have such a short window to grab the audience’s attention and communicate information, content must be engaging enough to stop users scrolling past and instead take notice. Jumping on trends, or creating new ones, can be a sure-fire way to ensure content is seen and enjoyed by as many users as possible.


“We should always be aware of new trends in communication and marketing in order to reach people,” explains Javier Télez Iglesias, Associate Director Corporate Affairs, Spain and Portugal, Teva Pharmaceuticals. “I always say that we have to look at what our patients demand and also at how many healthcare professionals are doing it, and right now TikTok is doing a really good job of disseminating information about health.”


The pharmaceutical industry has historically always been slower to adopt new digital platforms

Gaining inspiration from pharma campaigns already on TikTok can serve as a good starting point for formulating ideas for launch. In 2019, Reckitt advertised its over-the-counter cold and flu brand Mucinex on the platform in the US alongside the hashtag #TooSickToBeSick. This was the first collaboration between TikTok and an OTC brand, and it resulted in over 400 million views in fewer than five days and has now reached over one billion views. Also for the US market, Abbvie created a TikTok account and a series of short videos called ‘The Migraine Relief Tok’ in December 2021 for its prescription-only migraine drug Ubrelvy. The account has amassed over 50 million views.


Securing success

Finding success through TikTok may not come quickly, but such is the case for many social media platforms. Talero Calvo shares a reminder that before venturing into any new form of marketing it is key to ask: “what is the objective we are trying to accomplish?”. Companies should avoid jumping onto a new platform without a clear goal in mind – there should be a solid plan in place. “Look at your overall omnichannel campaign and see why this avenue can meet your business objectives,” he says. While the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses approach may be a helpful accelerator in some cases, it may not always be the best method for meeting individual companies’ needs.


In addition, finding success through social media platforms largely involves going viral – when a piece of content spreads quickly and widely through the platform from person-to-person, gaining unprecedented reach, be it through introducing a trend, hashtag or audio for content creators to view, like, share and use. Tailoring the clear goals of reach, relevance and engagement specifically to individual platforms before creating a campaign will help it gain traction with its users.


The great unknown


Executing campaigns on new platforms is a tricky task, especially considering that the capital invested is not guaranteed to deliver the outcomes desired. For marketers venturing into the social fray, Télez Iglesias advises: “Be brave. We have to lose our fears of this type of platform because that’s what our patients are asking us to do. They are there and they have been asking for reliable health information for a long time. We can give it to them, but we have to enter their channels.”


Success is not guaranteed with TikTok. Trends come and go, and viral videos eventually fade into the background, but there is no denying the platform is teeming with opportunity to reach younger demographics. Télez Iglesias has one final piece of advice for anyone seeking success on TikTok: “First, play personally with the platform. Learn, and then establish a good corporate strategy.” In other words, no matter how unnatural it may feel to start with, become a user first and a marketer second.

This article features in GOLD 21 – read the full issue here.