When a severe breathing problem sent Nina Luker to the emergency room in early February 2020, she feared COVID-19, the respiratory illness just beginning its sweep through the country. The news turned out to be much worse: Within weeks, she had been diagnosed with Stage 4 DLBCL (diffuse large B-cell lymphoma).

Luker, 25, already knew more about TikTok than most people. As head of North American partnerships at Shuttlerock, a mobile-first video ad platform, she had experimented to see how it might work for her clients. Pre-cancer, Luker’s first post chronicled a night hanging out with friends in her New York City apartment, her long blonde hair flowing as she danced.

After her diagnosis, though, TikTok turned into a kind of cancer lifeline. Her short videos captured numerous vulnerable moments in her cancer journey — but just as many that showcased her fighting spirit. With TikTok along for the ride, she danced her way through chemotherapy.

Luker even recalls the precise moment she fully grasped the platform’s impact. “It’s the video of my dad shaving all my hair off,” she says. “That moment is often one of the toughest parts for cancer patients, and I managed to smile throughout the whole thing. It was a personal, genuine experience.” As of late March 2021, it had notched more than 2.6 million views.

It convinced Luker, who also shared her story through channels such as CaringBridge, that TikTok is far more than the Hercules of personal platforms. She now believes that it represents a brilliant opportunity for the right healthcare brands.

“It’s a way to step away from the traditional,” she explains. “As long as marketers understand that its true power comes from the content creators and not the brand, it can be an incredible communications tool.”

TikTok had been surging in popularity prior to the pandemic. But as the world found itself with billions of spare hours, the platform truly soared. It became the year’s most downloaded app, with more than 2 billion users welcoming it onto their phones. The company claims to have about 100 million monthly active users in the U.S., with 50 million of them checking in on a daily basis.

As many as a third of TikTok’s users are age 14 or younger, so it’s no surprise that some of the content is just plain silly. Given the anxiety of the times, perhaps that’s why the platform has proven irresistible.

Savvy marketers such as Procter & Gamble recognized that appeal early on. In March 2020, Ohio’s governor called P&G in a panic, asking for help in convincing young people to stay home and socially distance. While P&G’s long-term agency Grey had just one weekend to hatch a plan, it came up with a winner: It tapped Charli D’Amelio, TikTok’s biggest star, for the #DistanceDance. 

The challenge quickly turned into a social-media sensation, garnering 17.7 billion views. In addition to raising funds for COVID-19 relief, #DistanceDance became the top brand program in TikTok history, hitting the right crowd at the right moment.

“P&G is a believer in purpose-driven marketing … doing what’s right and creating positive change in society,” says Owen Dougherty, chief communications officer for WPP’s Grey Group. “Often that means a very light brand footprint to let the message shine through, as it has done in racial, gender and LGBTQ+ equality efforts.”

As the COVID-19 panic intensified, Lysol, owned by Reckitt Benckiser Group, wanted to help people calm their fears. It turned to TikTok “because it was the best medium in a time of extreme anxiety to let people enjoy a little escapism in a creative way,” notes senior marketing manager Nobles Crawford.

With its #Healthyhabit6step, people could use a Lysol filter to match rapper Twista’s lyrics. “Lysol wanted to educate people on how to help stay protected using proven guidance from the CDC, outside of using our product alone,” Crawford adds. “Through song and dance, we knew the guidelines would be engaged with and, most importantly, remembered.”

TikTok’s health-and-wellness credibility has been bolstered by a host of savvy healthcare providers. Some have flocked to TikTok to spread public health messages to younger audiences, others to connect with other providers and still others to blow off steam during a desperately difficult time. 

Against the backdrop of provider burnout, those lip-synching ER docs and clog-dancing ICU nurses make everyone feel good. The best of the lot — frontline physician @drstellac, hilarious OB-GYN @dreverywoman, dancey @nursekala and @thetelepsychiatrist, a bow-tied gent who dances and delivers mental-health tips in English and Spanish — also help people understand that providers are human, too.

At least so far, there’s little indication that TikTok is a flash in the pan. It doesn’t hurt that President Biden has no beef with the platform — as opposed to his predecessor, who alleged that TikTok’s Chinese ownership presented a threat to national security. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the current administration has “indefinitely” shelved plans to address such ownership concerns.

TikTok isn’t for everyone, of course. “Every social media outlet has its own personality,” explains Dr. Tyeese Gaines, a New Jersey-based emergency room physician and media coach for doctors. “At its best, TikTok is entertaining, fun and light.”

That’s why, for many health-related brands, engaging with TikTok’s high-energy content is both a dream come true and essential from a business perspective. “If we’re going to get information through to younger folks, particularly around complicated topics like health and medicine, we have to meet them where they are,” Gaines says. “And if they are on TikTok, then that’s where we have to go.”

Besides, she adds, the platform’s inherent goofiness makes users more open-minded to health messages. “People sometimes tune you out when you’re trying to teach them something about their health, because who wants another lecture about smoking? TikTok makes [learning about health] fun, so if a doctor comes up with a zany way of giving you five facts about an illness, it sticks.”

That stickiness worked for Reckitt Benckiser’s Mucinex, one of the first healthcare brands to seize the TikTok day. Hoping to shake up the over-the-counter category with a nighttime version of its congestion-busting medication, Mucinex used a zombie-themed effort to launch the product in 2019. Debuting around Halloween, the #TooSickToBeSick challenge generated hundreds of millions of views.

The thinking, according to Reckitt Benckiser senior manager, performance media Carolyn Nephew, was that “Mucinex could be the first OTC brand to partner with the platform. And if we did it right, word of mouth, buzz and press would follow … and it did.”

But Nephew believes effective TikTok deployment transcends audience data. Sure, brands need to consider demographic metrics and engagement numbers, but they shouldn’t stop there.

“We look very closely at the behaviors of our target audience: What media they consume, what they value and what interests them most,” she explains. “Even beyond that, when we strategize, we look at the full marketing mix and imagine how any partnership can generate earned media.”

Crawford says Lysol is considering TikTok for future initiatives, even as he acknowledges that the platform captures a relatively small universe of potential buyers. “The platform could serve as an effective channel for more complex messaging campaigns,” he notes. “The intersection of physical engagement, video and social is fertile ground for meaningful and lasting comprehension.”

It’s not as easy as the best users make it look. While millions of people watch TikTok videos, many fewer create them. Thus,  for brand activations to work, they have to inspire enough enthusiasm for co-creators to jump on board.

For some brands, the fit is natural and obvious. Trojan, for example, is working with Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit aimed at providing sex education for young people, on a TikTok condom riddle contest.

Then there’s the dilemma posed by overt marketing. Though nobody knows how much advertising TikTok users will tolerate, the marketing machinery is revving up. WPP recently announced a major deal with TikTok, which the company says will allow its clients to harness the platform’s “culture-shaping impact and reach.”

The agreement gives WPP agencies early access to TikTok advertising products in development, including API integrations and augmented reality formats. TikTok will also facilitate WPP partnerships with its vast creator community.

There are other potential pitfalls. Like all other social media platforms, TikTok can be used to tear products down. For example, Vagisil recently launched OMV!, a “freshener” aimed at teenagers. Docs all over social media have blasted the product as unhealthy and unkind, calling out Vagisil for vulva-shaming. On TikTok, though, those slams take on more personality, increasing the likelihood of them going viral. Dr. Staci Tanouye, an OB-GYN with 1.3 million TikTok followers, characterized the OMV! effort as “a predatory marketing practice targeting minors.”

Another potential obstacle comes in the form of medical marketers who are slow to adopt new platforms, with some only now working their way toward Facebook and Instagram. Given that many social media phenomena have faded away as fast as they rose, it remains challenging to get laggards to buy in right away.

While Gaines loves TikTok’s potential for disseminating public-health messages, she doubts it will help pharma brands more effectively engage with providers. “I’m not sure there are enough doctors on TikTok yet to make it a good choice. My perception is that, overall, doctors are slower to move to new social channels,” she notes. 

In fact, Gaines says she still spends a fair amount of time convincing doctors why they need to be on any social media at all. While she believes in TikTok’s staying power, she notes that “if it doesn’t have the right audience for what you’re trying to do, it just doesn’t make sense.”

Still, proponents — including Luker, now in remission and TikTok-ing away, both personally and for clients — says the platform’s longevity is beside the point. For now, it’s undeniably where the cool kids — and the cool docs — are.