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Lessons Learned as the First Global Humanitarian Partner for TikTok

By Guest Writer on December 26, 2019

tiktok partnership

The IFRC / TikTok story started only 10 months ago when our Red Cross video guy and trend-spotter Damien Naylor suggested we take a look at the shiny new platform that was topping the charts of mobile downloads.

Our team, tainted by the ‘But, do we have the capacity?’ response, were curious to find out more about it, but after downloading the app, thought engaging would be too time consuming.

Fast forward a few months, and it was becoming harder and harder to ignore the fact that TikTok was a powerhouse in the sector. Creators started to join the app. Viral video tweets featured the TikTok logo. It was then that our team decided we needed to reconsider our stance on joining the app.

We started really to think more proactively about how to convert that wave of attention into an opportunity for carrying our humanitarian messages to a younger, engaged audience.

Starting Our TikTok Partnership Journey

In April 2019, we took the plunge. We reached out to TikTok’s team. They, unlike some other social companies, responded fast. They were enthusiastic to get us on board and help in any way they could. We were paired with a representative that was actually an ex-IFRC (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) staffer — so she would understand exactly who we are, how we operate, and at what speed.

A month of talks later, the TikTok team provided us the information and support we needed to get the green light from our management team to have a presence on the platform. On 25 May we created our account, and on 29 May, we posted our first TikTok:

tiktok movie

That was our attempt at driving attention to World Blood Donor Day. It sort of failed miserably. But that’s okay! It was our first try. We had a lot to learn.

We decided to go big and put (a majority of) our eggs in a new basket. Our flagship campaign of the year was launching in just two months and we wanted TikTok to carry it home. TikTok didn’t flinch at the fact that we wanted to launch a global campaign in less than eight weeks.

In July we started to have regular conversations in order to prepare a high-impact campaign, that could increase awareness and foster climate action. We not only held weekly conference calls, but through a Whatsapp group we were providing real-time updates to get things done. On one occasion, in a Zoom call with at least 10 participants, involving different elements of TikTok as well as our team, the result was: #ForClimate

Hundreds of hours of labor and eight weeks later, the campaign launched on 16 September in over 100 countries, and 15 languages. The worldwide activation directly delivered our messages to the phones of hundreds of thousands of users around the world.

After two weeks, with the support of Red Cross and Red Crescent teams around the world, the results were encouraging: more than 250,000 videos were created. And in total, videos of the campaign have received over 300 million views.

Lessons Learned from Our TikTok Partnership?

  1. We saw the opportunity and we took it. Especially in digital comms, we understand the importance of reacting fast to a good opportunity. Digital moves very quickly. What’s in today is out tomorrow. Sometimes being agile and open to new opportunities is the key to success. Also, the support and trust from senior management is critical, particularly in the early stages.
  2. There are high returns for early adopters. Because we were among the first, we actually signed a formal partnership with TikTok that will enable us to work together for two years. That commitment from both parties, in terms of time and resources, will help us keep communicating with the next generation of humanitarians and Red Cross Red Crescent volunteers.
  3. No shortcuts: you have to know your platform. Collectively, our team spent hundreds of hours on TikTok — first understanding the user experience, the distribution, the community building, but also how to find a voice for our organization
  4. Don’t be afraid to fail. Our first few videos were kind of flops. We didn’t understand what content worked, when to post, what hashtags to use… We were in a period of testing. But you can learn from your failure.
  5. Have fun. Our process these days is such that, we come into the office in the morning, review what’s trending and decide if we can relate that trend to our work. Even if we look a bit ridiculous in the process. We’re still not posting enough, but we’re spreading the Red Cross Red Crescent message to a brand new audience in each video and having fun along the way.

Should your organization join TikTok? In one word, yes. If not for any other reason, let it be so we’re not the lonely humanitarian organization making in-office TikToks, trying to share our message with the gen-z and all their cool users.

By Melis Figanmeşe and Dante Licona and originally published as We were the first global humanitarian organisation to partner with TikTok.

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7 Comments to “Lessons Learned as the First Global Humanitarian Partner for TikTok”

  1. Jaclyn C says:

    Thanks for your post! I’m curious how IFRC (or others) have navigated privacy and data concerns in respect to their campaigns on TikTok (or other platforms). Were there any concerns that those who engaged with the campaign on TikTok would be profiled?

  2. James says:

    I would be very concerned about the links of TikTok and its parent company ByteDance to the Chinese CCP. It has strict obligations under Chinese law as a Chinese company. It has censored politically sensitive videos in the past. And there are genuine concerns of data sharing with the Chinese government. Humanitarian and development organisations should be very careful whenever discussing TikTok as a platform.. https://www.vox.com/open-sourced/2019/12/16/21013048/tiktok-china-national-security-investigation

  3. Cavin Mugarura says:

    if am to guess the number 300 million views is unverifiable

  4. Wayan Vota says:

    Here is an interesting development that should give us all pause: U.S. Military Branches Block Access to TikTok App Amid Pentagon Warning

  5. Monica Jerbi says:

    Thanks for publishing this curious post. I am glad members of your community stepped in with comments expressing concerns about the U.S. intelligence community labeling TicTok a Chinese government wholey owned and controlled intelligence collection system for kompromot and psychometric data collection and targeting purposes among others. These concerns are not breaking news and have been around for months per https://www.democrats.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/leader-schumer-senator-cotton-request-assessment-of-national-security-risks-posed-by-china-owned-video-sharing-platform-tiktok-a-potential-counterintelligence-threat-with-over-110-million-downloads-in-us-alone.

    I wish I were surprised by the fact that nobody seems to have tipped IFRC about the risks involved before this venture started or even before this article was published. It is troubling many readers might not read to the end to these comments and rush to follow IFRC’s example.

    This incident is just deja vu for how seriously the issue of Russian use of strategic leaks and hacks combined with social media to influence the U.S. presidential election in 2016, divide and fuel hate, and harm our democracy was taken — despite warnings from the U.S. intelligence community. I pray we won’t be reading puff pieces about ICT4D partnerships with apps associated with the Iranian intelligence service next.

    Obviously that comment is half sarcasm and half serious. Technology can be used for good and for bad and acting even with the best of intentions that your technology can only be used for good by your good people can be very dangerous to all involved with long-lasting harm to individuals and society at large.

    Here is more background reading on TikTok risks:

    –New York Times (Jan. 8, 2020): Major TikTok Security Flaws Found https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/08/technology/tiktok-security-flaws.html

    –Los Angeles Times (Jan. 8, 2020): Shunned by world leaders, TikTok has a growing impersonator problem https://www.latimes.com/business/technology/story/2020-01-08/tiktok-impersonator-problem

    –Military.com (Dec. 30, 2019): Army Follows Pentagon Guidance, Bans Chinese-Owned TikTok App https://www.military.com/daily-news/2019/12/30/army-follows-pentagon-guidance-bans-chinese-owned-tiktok-app.html

    –Vox.com (Dec. 16, 2019): What’s going on with TikTok, China, and the US government? https://www.vox.com/open-sourced/2019/12/16/21013048/tiktok-china-national-security-investigation

    Thanks again for publishing this article.

    • Wayan Vota says:


      Thanks for your detailed comment. I too am concerned about our usage of platforms like TikTok for development activities. I am also concerned about our use of Facebook, Android, etc in development. Facebook is already proven to be a global platform for misinformation – an unrepentant one based on their unwillingness to remove misleading political campaign ads.

      As a community, we need to know what our peers are doing (hence this post) and our reaction to it (hence these comments). I welcome you to expand on these comments in a Guest Post about the threat that TikTok and similar platforms pose to development objectives and increase the level of debate across the entire ICT4D community – the whole goal of ICTworks.

      • Monica Jerbi says:

        Thanks for your thoughtful response back, Wayan. Yes, Facebook unrepentant role in undermining democracy globally, not just in the United States, is disheartening to say the least. I personally worked on a development project back in the day testing harnessing Facebook to promote civic engagement. Who knew where we would find ourselves five years later. I may take you up on your offer of writing a guest post, but I need to think through the right angle. Thanks again for your comment back.