TikTok’s Viral Video Growth Machine

TikTok is a viral video machine. It has blown up over the past year and now I see videos from the platform everywhere. I notice them because they are distinct. Videos on other platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, even IGTV) all look the same. TikTok videos on other platforms stand out, and that is a key driver of their success.

TikTok is big. It has over 500 million users worldwide. As of right now, it is one of Facebook’s largest threats. It is the first Chinese social media platform to breakthrough in North America. It is taking over as the platform of choice for Gen Z.

How did it grow so big, so fast? A lot of money, going all-in on a recommendation algorithm, and mobile video limitations. The combination of these factors creates a viral growth loop:

  1. Acquire users from other platforms (requires massive marketing spend to start).
  2. TikTok users create content.
  3. Users view content and tune the algorithm.
  4. Best videos brought to everyone’s attention (viral).
  5. Someone shares (viral) video on other platforms.

Acquire Users from Other Platforms

TikTok spent a lot of money getting started. Now that it is moving, other platforms are going to struggle to keep up (cough Facebook). According to the Wall Street Journal, TikTok spent ~$1B on advertising in 2018. When you are competing with Facebook, money is necessary to get growth going.

Luckily for TikTok, every user they want are on other social media sites. All they need to do is attract them towards their site. Individual TikTok videos work as well on other sites as they do on TikTok. TikTok users created a massive amount of advertising content TikTok can (and has) put money towards to grow its user base.

TikTok had a solid base of users before the official worldwide launch in September 2017. It started as Douyin by ByteDance in September 2016. Within the first year, Douyin had 100 million users (almost all in China). In November 2017, ByteDance acquired Muscial.ly and its 100 million active users (the majority of users were American). These starting stats are quite impressive but don’t fully explain how it grew to the behemoth it is today.

TikTok Users Create Content

Early adopters to TikTok created content. The format isn’t new. Many of TikTok’s early users were from Musical.ly or familiar with Vine (or at least references to Vine). New users quickly understood the format and create content to fit. The bar for creating content and having content seen by other users is low. You don’t need any followers for your video to go viral. For example, a popular meme on the platform is people going viral from doing nothing. TikTok’s algorithm shows your content to a small number of people even if you have no followers.

TikTok provides all the tools a creator needs for creating a TikTok. Users do not need anything other than their phone and the app. Fancy cameras and editing software are not needed. TikTok offers a large amount of options for editing videos in-app. Sounds (key feature), speed, filters, and effects are all accessible from the camera in-app.

Users Tune the Algorithm

TikTok requires a large user base not only to create content but to tune the algorithm. Every user who watches and engages with TikTok videos is making TikTok’s algorithm better at creating viral videos.

The viewers tune the algorithm by viewing, sharing, commenting, liking, and hundreds (?) of other variables. TikTok is good at showing the right content to the right audience. Compared to other platforms, TikTok gives users little choice on what videos they watch. The “For You page” is the default spot when users open the app.

For example, I liked many football-related TikTok and am now seeing similar and related content. It starts with popular content (hundreds of thousands of likes) and begins to show niche content (thousand to tens of thousands of likes). I follow 10 accounts, and still get videos tailored to my tastes.

Similar types of people like the same types of videos. This is an area Vine missed out on. When platforms limit the feed to content created by the accounts they follow viewers explore get less and your recommendation algorithm is less refined. No platform recommends content better than TikTok does.

Best Videos Go Viral

The best videos are shown to a wide audience. TikTok aggressively surfaces the top videos. Viewers don’t have any choice on what videos they see on the “For You” page. The top videos passed through a Darwinian-like selection. Videos that win are entertaining and succeed in whatever variables TikTok chooses to judge that (likes, watch time, views, etc.). These are viral videos. The top videos and creators get millions of views, likes, comments, and followers. They are incentivized to create as many of these algorithm-winning videos as possible.

Videos not only go “true viral” (millions of likes and views), they go “niche viral.” Niche viral videos are specific to a community and get high engagement from that community. These types of videos may have difficulty finding their target audience on other platforms, but once they do, they see above-average engagement from those communities. Niche viral videos are likely shared externally at higher rates. TikTok does a better job at creating and promoting niche viral videos than any other platform.

Viral Videos Shared on Other Platforms

As videos reach broader audiences, they are more likely to be shared on other platforms. TikTok making this sharing easy, but it includes an obvious watermark. If a video goes viral on TikTok, there is a good chance it can go viral elsewhere. There are many Instagram, Youtube, and Twitter accounts dedicated to sharing viral TikTok videos.

It is clear where TikTok videos come from, even on other platforms. No other platform has a distinct advantage like this. All other platforms format their roughly the same. You can post the same video on Twitter, IGTV, Facebook, and Youtube with slight adjustments. TikTok has leaned into the limitations of mobile such as vertical videos, feeds, creation tools in-app, short videos, and short attention spans. Videos created on TikTok are meant for TikTok but work elsewhere. No other platform can say the same.

The TikTok viral videos that get shared on other platforms draw potential new users’ interest and start the process all over again. As I mentioned, sharing is easy for all platforms. Other platforms are happy to take TikTok’s content because it drives engagement for them.

To summarize:

  1. Acquire users from other platforms (requires massive marketing spend to start).
  2. TikTok users create content.
  3. Users view content and tune the algorithm.
  4. Best videos brought to everyone’s attention (viral).
  5. Someone shares (viral) video on other platforms.

TikTok has built a legitimate competitor to platforms thought to be unbeatable. It has created the first platform to cross into the North American mainstream from China. Now that TikTok has succeeded in growing, the question is: can it survive?

Can TikTok survive the influx of adults who will flock to a primarily youth-driven platform? Can TikTok survive marketers and growth hackers rushing to the platform because it is where the “attention” is? Can TikTok survive the criticism of being a Chinese company in North America?

My bet is yes because TikTok embraces limitations. It isn’t trying to be everything. It isn’t trying to be where you spend time with friends, read the news, and network for your job. TikTok is a platform for creating entertaining content. The content created is unique to the platform. If TikTok loses this uniqueness then it will likely lead to the platform’s downfall. I’m optimistic for the moment.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think @IanVanagas.

Interested in reading more about TikTok? I’d highly recommend this practical guide to getting started.

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