TikTok, the video-based social networking service, is one of the most popular, yet controversial social media platforms today. In 2020, it was the most downloaded non-gaming app worldwide.  Yet, Societies, Universities and Publishers have been skeptical about including TikTok in their social media strategies.

Is TikTok a waste of time? Something for bored teens? The numbers say otherwise. Let’s look at what makes TikTok such a powerful communication tool.

What is TikTok?

With 60% of the user base belonging to GenZ, TikTok is primarily video-based like YouTube. The maximum length of a video that can be uploaded to the platform is 60 seconds. Videos created by other users, known as tiktoks, appear on a user’s “For You” page according to TikTok’s algorithms. Users have the option of recording themselves alongside an audio clip. Tiktoks can be reposted on other social media platforms, but some like Instagram actively discourage this practice.

TikTok v/s. Other Social Media Apps

Facebook: Long considered the preferred social media platform, Facebook lost out to TikTok in 2021 in terms of time spent per user. Despite the erstwhile social media giant being able to host all kinds of content, including video stories, the platform has declining growth among younger users in the US, its oldest market.

Twitter: Twitter is primarily considered the go-to platform for news and updates as well as discussions and commentaries on public affairs despite having multimedia upload features. This gives Twitter an edge over TikTok, especially in terms of grabbing the attention of journalists, policymakers, and public officials.

Instagram: Both TikTok and Instagram work best on smartphones. Instagram has been around longer than TikTok and allows sharing of images and GIFs in addition to videos (though the time limit on Instagram reels is 30 seconds). Instagram wins over TikTok in terms of being more business-friendly, offering users the option of creating a professional account and also offers a Business Tools feature, which makes content promotion easier.

YouTube: Before the rise of TikTok, YouTube was the undisputed leader of video and video marketing. It still retains a key advantage over TikTok: there is no time limit on YouTube videos. This enables the creation of more in-depth videos as well as more opportunities to build brand awareness or gain audience trust. 

TikTok for Science Communication

Considering TikTok’s younger user base, it’s not surprising that the platform has been used to inform and educate high school and undergraduate students. There are tiktoks explaining chemistry concepts, generating excitement around marine biology, and helping engineers upskill. Universities like the University of Victoria  and Syracuse University have used TikTok for virtual campus tours and online wellness kits. In the US, Black creators have used TikTok to spread awareness of Black history (but TikTok has also been criticized for devaluing Black creators and unfairly censoring material related to the #BlackLivesMatter movement).

TikTok has also been useful in public health education. Individual doctors have created tiktoks explaining topics as diverse as the dangers of vaping and ways to improve gut health. Further, TikTok has had some success in destigmatizing mental health among men. Team Halo, a group of scientists and healthcare professionals working to combat Covid-related misinformation, have successfully used TikTok to combat vaccine misinformation, encourage minority communities to participate in vaccine trials, and reassure the public about vaccine side effects. The US government has followed suit, enlisting TikTok influencers in campaigns to get Gen Zers vaccinated. 

Advantages and Disadvantages of TikTok for Science Communication

Here are some factors to consider when choosing to include TikTok in science communication initiatives.

  1. Engagement: The amount of time users spend on TikTok, particularly in the US, is increasing. For example, the average time per month spent on Tiktok was 442.9 minutes in October 2019, which increased to 858 minutes by March 2020.
  2. Audience reach: Most TikTok users are Gen Z. In the US, around 30% of its users are 10-19 years old. TikTok is available in 75 languages across >150 countries including China (where platforms like Facebook and Twitter are banned).
  3. Content format: TikTok primarily caters to smartphone users; hence, videos in the vertical format perform better than videos shot horizontally. The ideal aspect ratio (i.e., the relation between width and height) is 9:16, as for a standard smartphone screen. The time limit for videos is 60 seconds, though TikTok is experimenting currently with a 3-minute length.
  4. Legal constraints: TikTok is currently banned in India and Pakistan. It has also been intermittently blocked in Indonesia and Bangladesh. While the Trump administration attempted to ban TikTok in the US in June 2020, President Biden revoked this order in June 2021.

Conclusion

Like it or not, TikTok has a large and growing audience in the US market. While it definitely shouldn’t be the sole (or even predominant) social channel for your digital content strategy, don’t overlook it when determining your social media mix or when it comes to social listening. Tiktok could be a useful platform for campaigns targeting younger members and early career researchers.

Marisha Rodrigues

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