SHORT VIDEO: How TikTok works in 2020 and how the public sector could use it [updated with UK user stats]


I‘ve always been slightly dubious of new platforms since Google Wave promised to revolutionise the internet.

Google Wave, Dear Reader, died 10 years ago 12-months after it was launched to great fanfare.

So, to TikTok, the portrait video app with 800 million users. At the start of 2020, there’s no reliable UK data but its safe to guess there’s an upward trajectory.

But there’s also a health warning with TikTok that I’ve blogged about before.

The Information Commissioner is investigating the platform amid fears its to easy for users to send uninvited messages to its younger user base. So, it’s not all good news. TikTok have been trying to tackle this issue with advice to parents as well as adding a version of TikTok for younger users.

That said, how can the public sector use it?

What the hell is TikTok?

Hootsuite summarises TikTok as ‘Real Short Videos.’ That’s a good description.

These are videos that are created specifically for the platform.

The ingredients are portrait video, text, effects and music create quick to burn bright and then fade away. They’re short so you can get through lots of them and 60 seconds at most.

TikTok is a video app that’s best friends with music. You view the videos in portrait mode. Switch on the app and you’re served with videos selected for you. Or you can switch to videos from those you’re following.

Through the discover button, you can search TikTok for videos. It’s hashtags rather than users that really drive TikTok. You’ll find on-topic videos through a list of what the trending hashtags are. Trending on TikTok isn’t the same as trending on Twitter. While Twitter is news, events and what’s happening TikTok is more ways to escape and amuse. So #seeya has attracted 600 million views around the theme of when you say ‘see ya’. Click the hashtag and you can scroll through hundreds of videos of a similar theme.

One thing to like is that its easy to make video on TikTok. There’s a powerful editor that allows you to experiment. Alternatively, you can upload your own portrait videos that have been edited elsewhere.

Adding music is also really easy as there’s millions of licensed tracks.

In summary, TikTok is a video timesuck where wit and humour works and attention quickly moves onto the next thing. If outrage drives Facebook then what drives TikTok is entertainment. Dancing, singing, clothes, humour and fashion all work. It’s here today and gone in an hour let alone by tomorrow.

Who the hell is using TikTok?

With stats hard to come by there’s lots of guesswork. The app says you have to be 13 and over to use TikTok so the audience is younger.

A leaked deck gives 800 million users in late 2019 with 50 per cent under 30 and 26 per cent aged 18 and 24. But until Ofcom catch up and include it in their annual stats review its hard to pin down UK users.

UPDATE: Comscore have issued some really useful numbers here on TikTok. There’s 3.3 million UK users as of December 2019. They’ve also broken down the demographics which is really useful of them. It’s overwhelmingly younger people.


5 ways the public sector can use TikTok

All that said, the platform is large enough to take it seriously.

Firstly, the public sector needs to remember that this isn’t their party and these are not their songs. Nobody is waiting for them to join. The flip side of this is that the platform isn’t filled with trolls who can’t wait to talk about potholes. That in itself is a relief.

Human comms: Staff deliver the message with their own profile

One of the most striking examples of a TikTok video is an NHS GP warning about the dangers of not immunising. This isn’t a black and white six minute public information film. It’s a clued-up GP pointing to text she’s added by the app while dancing in time to a track.

It’s a brilliant video. It can be watched without sound as well as with. It delivers a message in a fun way. It’s also delivered by a real human rather than a faceless logo.

Aside from being good content, the author and regular blogger Dr Nicole Baldwin has added the hashtags such as #vaccinate  to reach a wider audience.

Create a corporate account

Having the corporate voice is fine but I’d probably argue that on TikTok it’s not as effective as having the engaged staff contribute to the channel as themselves. Public sector corporate accounts are few and far between and there’s the odd third sector account.

Create or join in with a challenge

Tiktok has challenges that you can find with a hashtag. They can be asking you to join in a dance or complete a challenge. Like the chair challenge. Film it then post it with the hashtag.

Create an advice video

Because TikTok is so ephemeral a quick how to video is do-able so longs as its a simple thing.

As this video shows, a video to demonstrate the difference between paper straws and straw ones can make a point visually and supported with text really quickly.

While green issues and recycling is one thing this health advice video is excellent. The author is a blogger and psychologist and the advice she gives in 60-second chunks is excellent.

Bearing in mind the younger demographic this kind of advice for younger people is potentially gold.


Create content on other users’ accounts

The number of people who want to follow the council TikTok? Pretty small, to be quite honest. Sixty seconds of raw footage from finance scrutiny isn’t going to fly anyone’s boats.

But there’s things the public sector does that is of interest to the sub-34-year-old demographic. On first view things like recycling and leisure really would lend themselves to TikTok. But rather than the organisation creating content encouraging users to create it feels far within the spirit of the platform.

I once heard a healthwatch group working with young healthwatch members to encourage them to share health messages in their own voice using their own accounts. On the face of it, it makes sense. It’s young people talking to young people. But you will be giving up message control. But, frankly, that’s not such a bad thing.

Create a duet

TikTok has the functionality of letting you create a video in response to a video. The original video runs in half of the screen while your new video is in the other half.

As with anything, its the audience. TikTok is a younger demographic and if you’re not using the platform as users are using it there’s no point using it.

To get you started

TikTok’s list of 100 most popular clips of 2019 is here. Enjoy. The animal ones are especially good.


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