TikTok is becoming more and more popular and is slowly growing to become one of the largest social media apps. In contrast to other platforms, the potential reach of a TikTok video is largely independent of the number of followers. As an example, we generated over three million views with a first post for @super8videos that originally had zero followers. So how does the TikTok algorithm decide what goes viral and what doesn’t? Here are some answers!
Just like Facebook and co., TikTok does not publish precise information on how its algorithm works. However, experts agree on how TikTok evaluates and distributes user content. The experiences we have made over the past few months also offer further insights. The following illustration visualizes the functioning of the algorithm.
Publication and performance evaluation
In a first step, every newly published video is shown to a small group of users. It is a random selection of users of briefly 100-500 people who are being shown the video on their “For You” page. We call this group the “Level 1 audience”. Based on this group, the algorithm evaluates the quality and performance of the video, i.e. how it is perceived by the users. For the evaluation, clearly defined engagement values are measured and different points are assigned:
- Like: 1 point
- Comment: 2 points
- Share: 3 points
- Long completion rate (average watch time): 5 points
- Rewatch: 6 points
Based on these points, a score is calculated that serves as an evaluation for further distribution. If the sum of all these points is above a critical limit, the video is going to be distributed to more users.
Looking at the different evaluation criteria above, you can easily see that the number of likes and comments does not play such a big role. How long people watch a video is most important. In order to perform as well as possible, a video should thus be viewed all to the end. At best, a video is even several times in a row. For this reason, successful TikTokers implement special measures such as countdown gifs or they incorporate so-called “loops”, in which the end of the video connects directly to the beginning. These and other techniques keep viewers engaged for a longer time (see points below).
If the threshold of a certain number of points is reached, the video is forwarded to the next level and presented to the next group of users (level 2 audience). This could be for example another 1000 viewers. Then the whole process starts from the beginning until to the point where a critical limit of points is no longer reached. After this, practically no additional views will be added. This means that when you publish a video, it is played in waves and not linearly as it is the case with other social networks.
In addition to this random allocation, further factors also affect the performance of the video:
Hashtags & followers
Hashtags and followers also play a role on TikTok, even though a smaller one than on other platforms. As already mentioned, it is possible to create a viral video without any existing follower base.
From the fifth video onwards, however, each profile is assigned to a niche. The type of followers (e.g. in which country they are located, which interests they have etc.) and which hashtags are being used are essential for this allocation. Therefore, it is important to define how you want your new account to be positioned and follow a coherent hashtag strategy.
Last but not least, the following factors have to be considered when creating a video for TikTok:
Sounds, editing and format
The actual production of the content should not be neglected, since this also being considered by the algorithm. Generally, all content should be from TikTok for TikTok. Videos that have been edited and manipulated directly in the TikTok app are preferred to content from external platforms. It is therefore recommended to use the built-in editing tools and not to upload video that has been fully edited with external software (like iMovie, Premiere Pro, etc.).
It also matters which sounds and songs you use for your videos. The trending songs from the TikTok collection are generally good for performance. Here again, it is recommended to avoid to include sounds from external sources.
TikTok is a platform for vertical videos (9:16). Videos in 16:9 format (horizontal videos) are not user-friendly and, as it is the case with Instagram Stories, should be avoided if possible.
The brightness of the videos is also often underestimated. Bright videos work better than darker and poorer quality videos. This is why so many TikTokers use so-called “ring lights” and why bright bathroom videos perform so terribly well. Pixelated or blurred videos with bad sound bring no value to the platform and are recognized as such by the algorithm.
Storytelling, storytelling, storytelling
We will go into more detail on how to create viral videos in a separate blog entry. However, one thing can be said in advance: In addition to the tips already mentioned, storytelling plays a central role. It’s by telling a captive and coherent story that viewers continue watching content longer and the performance of a video improves.
Thus, each video should start with a strong entry sequence, which immediately captivates the user when scrolling. Afterwards, it should tell a story and end with a climax only at the very end. The real challenge of it all is to integrate these storytelling elements in short videos of around 15 and 25 seconds without losing the viewers attention. When you really master this, I guarantee that at least some of your videos will go viral.
A good understanding of the underlying algorithm is essential to anybody who wants to be successfully on a new social network. For TikTok this is even more important, as the reach of each video is largely independent of the number of existing followers. Each published video is played out in waves to growing user groups and the most important criteria for performance is watch duration. Here, various factors play a decisive role, such as the ability to tell a rousing story in a short amount of time. We will go into more detail about the individual factors in a next article.
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