We’ve long known that TikTok personalizes results for individual users, but little was known about the TikTok algorithm.
The Chinese social media app recently revealed more about its algorithm in response to calls for transparency.
Read on, and I’ll explain how it works and what marketers need to know before launching a TikTok strategy.
What You’ll Learn:
- Why brands might want to invest in TikTok
- How the TikTok algorithm works
- About TikTok for business
- How to create content to gain exposure
- Understanding the new TikTok analytics
TikTok Reveals How its Algorithm Works: Here’s Why You Should Care
Amid security concerns from US law-makers and calls for more transparency from the growing social giant, TikTok finally released some insight into how its algorithm works.
So, why should brands care?
TikTok also just launched TikTok for Business, its self-serve advertising platform. I’ll cover this in more detail below, but TikTok ads are now accessible to any business with a registered account.
For brands, getting in on the TikTok goldrush now could be an opportunity to build lasting connections in a challenging business environment.
Here’s a quick look at “TikTok by the numbers” if you’re not convinced:
- According to Influencer Marketing Hub, TikTok has the highest follower engagement rates per post than any other social platform.
- TikTok boasts 800M+ active users worldwide, with roughly 2M users based in the US.
- 90% of TikTok’s users access the app daily.
- Per Cloutmeter data, TikTok users average engagement rates just over 52%.
While advertising opportunities have technically been available for over a year, brands were previously required to work with a TikTok rep to secure paid placement on the app.
The new platform organizes TikTok’s advertising features in one central location, along with guides, tools, and best practices for launching campaigns.
TikTok is exploding in popularity, which means there’s a massive opportunity for brands that can break into the platform’s unique creator community.
Brands need to familiarize themselves with platform norms, best practices, and of course, how to optimize posts for a new algorithm.
What “goes viral” on TikTok is going to look a lot different than your top Tweets or your most-viewed Instagram Stories.
So, How Does the TikTok Algorithm Work?
TikTok’s algorithm doesn’t follow the same rules as other social channels. Timeliness, relevance, and other mainstays of “big social” algorithms work differently on TikTok.
Here’s what you need to know about getting featured on TikTok’s For You page before activating your business account.
According to TikTok, the platform’s recommendation engine determines what to display in user feeds through a series of feedback loops. The process breaks down as follows:
- When someone uploads a video to the platform, the “For You” algorithm tests it on a small subset of users who may or may not already follow the creator.
- The algorithm makes this selection based on a few factors, including interests and past behavior.
- If that initial group of users responds favorably, TikTok will keep repeating this process, using the feedback it captures to determine whether to show a video to more audiences. If enough users have a positive response to a video, it can go viral.
- On the flip side, if the initial test group doesn’t like a video, TikTok will show it to fewer users, thus limiting its reach.
1. User Interactions
User interactions represent your engagement metrics. Interactions include likes, comments, shares, as well as the content users post and the accounts they follow.
Optimizing for user interactions is about targeting the right users and matching your video to the interests/preferences of those groups.
In other words, this is a classic case of knowing your audience and creating content for them.
There are a few ways you can target users most likely to respond favorably to your post.
Trends. The platform’s Discover page is a good place to start looking at broad platform trends. Here, you’ll find hashtags, sounds, and categories audiences that have “gone viral” among users.
My recommendation is that you use this as a sort of general research tool. Try to find out what top posts have in common–from captions and hashtags to video content
Targeting. You can install the TikTok pixel (instructions here) to track ad performance and use that data to create custom audiences. If you’re new to TikTok, you’ll need to install the pixel before launching any paid ad campaigns, as the minimum audience size is 1,000 users.
2. Video Information
Video information refers to captions, hashtags, and sounds associated with a video. Optimizing for this category is similar to how you might use SEO to improve content visibility on YouTube or your blog.
Hashtags. According to Vice, hashtags such as #fyp, #foryou, or #foryoupage might increase the chances of appearing in more users’ feeds.
TikTok hasn’t confirmed this, which isn’t surprising, but chances are, you’ll be better off searching for relevant tags. You can search hashtags by navigating to the Discover tab, as mentioned in the last section.
Or, you can search for hashtags that relate to your brand. I recommend checking out the hashtags and keywords that have done well on other channels to see if any interest crosses over.
Additionally, you can also create your own hashtags to promote a campaign.
Here’s an example from Crocs, which used the hashtag, #ThousandDollarCrocs, which has over 3billion views, in a collaborative campaign featuring rapper, Post Malone.
Captions. Captions should be super short, ask TikTok-ers come for the videos, not your long-form blog post. Consider asking a question or teasing something that you’ll reveal in the video.
You might also try using graphics to direct users to the comment section as they’ve done in this example below.
Sounds. TikTok’s sounds are one of the more unique features of the platform. They’re also a useful tool for enhancing discoverability. Users can add “trending sounds” to posts–functioning like an audio hashtag.
3. Device & Account Settings
Settings include things like language preference, device type, and location.
TikTok says they look at these factors to ensure that user feeds are optimized for performance and contribute less to what appears in the feed than the other data points.
According to TikTok’s newsroom post, the platform’s discovery engine aims to avoid some of the most common issues found in other recommendation platforms.
The goal, per TikTok, is to prevent the type “homogenous experience” that happens when algorithms look at relevance signals and personal preferences alone.
With that in mind, here are a few more things that TikTok’s algorithm takes into account.
- Diversify Content Recommendations. Sometimes, TikTok mixes things up to gauge what’s popular and to expose users to something new they might not otherwise find. This could be a real boon for brands, though it may result in negative feedback if user deems it irrelevant.
- Safeguard Viewer Experiences. The algorithm also weeds out things like bad health advice, graphic content, and schemes aimed at artificially boosting traffic.
- Interrupt Repetitive Patterns. While this might be a bummer for users that only want to watch cat videos, TikTok’s recommendation engine is determined to break users out of content ruts.
What’s Changed with TikTok for Business?
As mentioned above, TikTok also just announced the launch of TikTok for Business, its self-serve advertising platform.
According to a Facebook announcement, TikTok for Business provides a centralized platform for accessing tools, setting up ads, and tracking performance analytics.
I put together a guide to TikTok ads a few months back when advertising options were limited to big-name brands with sizable budgets.
In it, I explained the basics of how TikTok’s business platform works–think creating campaigns, setting objectives, and targeting the right audience.
How Can You Create TikTok Content that Gets More Exposure?
This post from Social Media Today makes a great point; TikTok’s guidance for brands can often come off as “vague.” For example, this recent Facebook post advises brands to tap into TikTok’s “distinctly TikTok qualities.”
The newsroom post explains a bit more about these qualities, though they still feel more like landing page language than actionable tips for advertisers.
Still, here’s a quick at the current recommendations for brand creators.
Culture & Discovery
TikTok, at least per their official statement, is designed to create an inclusive culture where any brand or user account can show up in someone’s feed. For brands starting from the zero-follower mark, this means, if they can crack the code, any post has the potential to go viral.
While those companies that benefit from reputational signals on other platforms may feel like they’re starting over, recognition may still earn you some points. After all, many of TikTok’s top accounts belong to stars like Will Smith and The Rock.
Inclusive Participatory Community
TikTok’s culture is all about “joining in” and engaging with the community. For marketers, you might interpret this as a call for “interactive” marketing content that focuses more on creating experiences versus pushing products.
Examples include hashtag challenges, dances, and content that encourages users to share their own response.
Additionally, engaging in the community by liking and commenting on posts can also help you gain exposure by appearing in others’ comments. Seek out accounts within your niche and comment when appropriate.
Scale & Creativity
This one still isn’t super clear, but TikTok says the new business platform gives marketers more tools for telling their stories. I suppose this is a reference to the popularity of the platform, or maybe its potential reach?
Sight, Sound, & Motion
Again, TikTok allows users to add music, sound-effects, reactions, and other enhancements to posts.
Work with an Influencer
Consider partnering with an influencer who understands TikTok.
This platform can be challenging for brands to navigate, even those with substantial social media experience. The right long-term collaborator can help you connect with new fans in a more authentic voice and build trust long-term.
TikTok also advises against making “ads,” and recommends that brands focus on making TikToks that fit seamlessly with the content you’ll find in non-brand user feeds.
TikTok business users also gain access to platform analytics.
It’s worth pointing out that TikTok’s insights aren’t as detailed as what you’ll find on Facebook or Twitter, but they can tell you more about what’s working (or not) with your content. The analytics tool includes three main sections, Overview, Content, and Followers, here’s what you’ll find in each.
The Overview tab looks at top-level performance stats for the past seven days. Here, you’ll find:
- Video views
- Total number of followers
- Profile visits
This tab provides insights into your content performance. Here, you’ll find:
- Video views for the top 9 posts over the past seven days.
- Trending videos–tracks which videos have been trending on the For You page and how many views they’ve accumulated total.
- Individual post analytics–think likes, comments, and shares.
- Traffic sources
- Audience overview–this can be used to help you understand how audiences find your content.
Head over to the Followers tab for audience-specific insights.
Here, you can find out more about what content audiences engaged with over the past seven days. You’ll also get some basic insights into how your TikTok audience breaks down. Metrics include:
- Follower count
- Top territories
- Gender breakdown
- Follower activity
- Videos your followers watched
- Sounds followers listened to
While TikTok’s tips for optimizing branded content can at times be vague, this recent announcement does clarify a few things about how the algorithm determines what content to show users.
A few key takeaways for brands:
- You don’t need thousands of viewers to go viral. However, you do need to understand TikTok’s “community culture” and the kind of content that drives engagement.
- Hashtags can help you optimize content to expand your reach. Use a hashtag generator or try searching for relevant terms to connect with the right users.
- Optimize your captions. TikTok isn’t exactly a text-heavy platform. You’ll want to make sure that you create short, descriptive captions that include hashtags so that users can easily understand what your video is all about.
- Consider working with an influencer who understands the space. Here are some tips for connecting with micro-influencers to help you get started.
There’s no doubt that TikTok’s algorithm plays a vital role in the platform’s massive success.
For brands hoping to stake a claim in this youth-dominated space, they’ll need to learn what to “feed” the recommendation engine to reach the right audience–and potentially go viral.