- Jenelle Marie Pierce is the creator of The STI Project and an educator and speaker on STIs and sexual health.
- In January 2020, she decided to begin using TikTok as a platform to promote STI awareness and education, and soon one of her videos sharing her own personal history with herpes racked up over one million views.
- Pierce encourages other non-Gen Z entrepreneurs to not be afraid of using TikTok, and to learn the formatting and follow trends to get their company and message in front of more viewers.
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If someone told you that your most strategic business move this year would be to step back into high school, would you do it?
That's essentially what I did in early 2020 when I launched myself into TikTok. There was a time when I said, "You couldn't pay me enough to walk back into my young adult years." But then at 37 I decided to give it a go, using a platform that's populated primarily by teens and young adults. After one of my videos got over a million views, I've continued using TikTok as a platform to promote awareness and education on STIs.
Admittedly, my high school years were tough. I contracted herpes during that time and spent most of my young adult life processing the shame and trauma that accompanies a stigmatizing diagnosis. That experience, however, was also the primary motivator behind my mid-career pivot in 2012 from a healthcare analyst for a Fortune 500 company to an unknown sexual health educator, STI expert, and content creator.
I saw a need for sex education that wasn't being met by clinical resources or PSAs plastered everywhere.
When I left corporate America to launch The STI Project, I wanted to curate a comprehensive, relevant, empathetic, and pleasure-focused platform and safe space. I wanted to create the resource I so desperately needed when I was diagnosed in high school.
As a solopreneur, I often cycle between extreme motivation, exhaustion, and caffeinated auto-pilot.
There are times when I spend an entire week answering press and media inquiries, and then others where I devote days to curating content for my social media platforms.
Balance has always been a struggle, because work is never far away, with my phone in my hand and my office in a neighboring room, and other than my team of sub-contractors, I'm just one person doing the job of three or four. So, understandably, when I began reading articles about TikTok doctors going viral and listening to entrepreneurs like Gary Vee insist upon TikTok's business potential, I immediately rolled my eyes and felt exhausted.
At first, I wasn't sure I had the time to incorporate yet another social media platform into my to-do list, especially one offering questionable returns. In the eight years I've been The STI Project's executive director, we've gained a modest social media following across platforms such as Instagram, but our bread and butter has always been through Google search results, where we receive over 100,000 visits per month. Second, I wasn't sure if TikTok's young demographic made sense for my niche taboo content around STDs/STIs and sexual health.
However silly my mindset was, I know similar thoughts may be stopping other entrepreneurs from jumping on the TikTok bandwagon.
In just a month since joining TikTok, my most viewed video, 15 seconds of cringe-worthy dancing and text inlays talking about how I no longer allow the fear, shame, and stigma of a herpes diagnosis to define me, captured over one million views. While subsequent videos haven't always performed as highly, it felt amazing to know my message was shared with one million people.
What's even more quantifiable is that I've received a growth in direct traffic from TikTok to my website, and earned paying customers for my online masterclass on unlearning STI stigma and overcoming shame, without any additional advertising or promotion.
TikTok does have its downsides - it's not for the faint of heart.
Adolescents, teenagers, and young adults are some of the most brutal critiques you'll meet, but they're also our cultural change-makers. If you want to expand your business, your influence, your message, and your opportunities, starting with a younger demographic is key. As with all social platforms, TikTok is spreading across different age groups and appealing more and more to professional, middle-aged, and even older demographics.
If you want to strategically launch your business onto TikTok, here's my advice:
- Do you research on what does well and goes viral on the app. Some advice, such as YouTube videos about how to become TikTok famous might seem rudimentary, but most of these videos are published by young people who know the platform best. In the same way your child is able to navigate your iPad with ease and finesse, their TikTok know-how can be applied to all genres and all businesses.
- Decide what message, product, or service you're promoting. TikTok is already populated by fitness professionals, chefs, amateur photographers, activists like myself, mommy bloggers, and everything in between. There's really no limit to what you can promote, as long as you keep an open mind and a fun spirit.
- Play with different formats like dances, short explainers, comedy skits, or lip syncs, and see what fits you and your brand best. Not sure? Try them all. It takes a few minutes to put together a 15 second video, and if it flops, try something else, but don't forget to have fun.
- Watch the trends and play along. Being a "follower" on TikTok has its upsides, because it gets your content seen, but no matter how much you copy another person's idea, it will always be unique to you and your brand, because it's featuring you. Picking trending hashtags, music, and formats will ensure you are relevant, but it doesn't always mean your video will hit viral gold.
- Don't be afraid to look stupid. TikTok is not a platform where you should take yourself, your work, or your brand too seriously, because it's temporary. What was interesting or catchy one week will fall flat the following. Your comments section will be full of critique, no matter how perfectly you replicate the most recent trend, so do what feels best for you, and don't stop creating.
Jenelle Marie Pierce is the creator of The STI Project, the founder of the herpes activists network, HANDS, and an STI and sexual health educator and freelance writer specializing in dismantling STI stigma. She writes about prevention, safer sex, and transmission risk; symptoms and testing; personal narratives, disclosure, and stigma. Follow her on Twitter.