How To Go Viral on TikTok & Other Hacks
TikTok is often seen as social media's "growth darling", here's what you need to know.
Hello! hi! me again!
I’m currently working on my “State of Social Media” for 2023 but my TikTok section got too big so I decided to share some expertise on that separately here……………….
I have been growing pages on TikTok over the past year. Some of my pages have grown up to 100,000 followers per month, month over month. I have worked with 100+ creators on behalf of brands ranging from fitness, tech, creator economy, real estate and more. TikTok makes it very easy for creators, brands and advertisers to grow large followings on its platform. There’s a cost–more on that in a bit. This piece highlights answers to the most frequent questions I get asked. None of the below can make you intentionally go viral overnight but it will help you think about the simple tools that help.
Before we begin, it’s important to remember that the internet runs on novelty. You’re either seeking the new (as a viewer) or you’re creating the new (as a maker). One of the amazing things about social media in its earliest days was the opportunity that came with discovering new people and new worlds. No amount of technology can replace our human nature to crave novelty and connection. No technology released by a big social media platform so far replaces the feeling we get when we discover something new. Once a platform has been established, the people and our connection to each other are what matter. Remember this the next time you think about shifting your entire content strategy for a social media trend or platform. Now I’m going to add a layer to this–we also like things that are a little bit familiar. Why do people follow trends? Why are there so many Batmans? It’s because when we see what we like, we want more. More, but a little different. The combination of new and familiar is a huge draw.
TikTok, social media’s growth darling?
TikTok is often featured as the growth darling of social media. Even offering ⅓ cheaper CPMs than other large platforms. And the money is following. TikTok is successfully moving advertiser dollars from Instagram and has been doing so for the past year. As more brands, celebrities and creators flock to the platform, my prediction is that TikTok will get more expensive, faster than any other social media platform in history.
TikTok Regulation Threats Have a Chilling Effect for Creators
Lately the press has been carrying stories about steps taken to regulate TikTok. As this graphic shows, these efforts are getting noticed.
There are follow-on impacts. The possibility of regulation has a chilling effect on creators' enthusiasm to invest their time and creativity on the platform. It’s not rational to be on TikTok at the threat of the entire platform being banned more broadly, because it actually might get banned. Do I think TikTok will be banned in the United States? Not for more than a week. (The data TikTok collects, and whether there is Chinese government interference is for another post. The one thing I will say is this: U.S. lawmakers need to enact privacy legislation across the board that protects each of us against the overreach of all tech platforms.) But the narrative of having TikTok banned will have much longer lasting effects on TikTok’s growth. Swap out TikTok for Shopify in the news and ask yourself if it would be enough to make you look for alternative commerce solutions for your business.
One more point here for creators: TikTok represents one of the last dying breads of social media platforms. Where audiences are built, content is incentivized by algorithms. TikTok, like Instagram, does not allow the ability to link out in captions. For this reason, creators are not able to convert contact information or transfer their audiences to other platforms. However, just because you upload a video on TikTok does not mean TikTok owns your video. You own the copyright for the videos posted to social media platforms (this does not include any overlaid music or clips you don’t create yourself). Whether TikTok shuts down tomorrow or not, I always recommend you keep a backup of your raw asset files. You own your content and you never know when and how you’ll want to use it.
Building Trust Through Trending Sounds, Shorter Videos & Less Loyal Audiences
According to a Goldman Sachs report, TikTok is the leading app in terms of popularity, with 5.6 hours per week spent on the platform on average. Music plays an important role on TikTok, where on average, music is central to 3.9 hours of the 5.6 hours per week of videos watched on the platform, according to the IFPI Music Consumer Study 2021.
Let me say this very clearly–sound-based discovery runs TikTok. Unlike other music platforms such as YouTube or Spotify, TikTok’s music royalty payouts do not work on a 30-second streaming basis. Instead, TikTok pays music royalties on "market shares" aka videos made for each specific sound. Because TikTok worries about the royalties, this allows creators to use sound costlessly to attract new audiences.
Pro-tip: Keep videos 30 seconds or less. Preferably 15 seconds or less (with a trending sound).
For TikTok, videos with a trending sound at 15 seconds or less work best. For example, If I post one 15 second video with a trending sound and another without it, the one with the sound will outperform by 500%. Because TikTok pays music royalties on less than the typically required 30 seconds of listening time (a stream), it incentivizes higher volumes of shorter content. TikTok is able to serve more ads in between shorter videos (15 seconds or less) without putting them in mid-roll. Also, TikTok doesn’t share revenue with creators nearly as much as YouTube. So TikTok’s costs for creators is low.
Here’s another important thing–TikTok allows users to click on sounds to discover new videos using the same sound. The sound provides a guard rail and trust layer for users to have a consistent experience when clicking on each sound because everyone is doing the same type of video or format with the same sound, giving the audience the perfect mix of novelty and familiarity. Sounds allow users to crawl across the platform, discovering new content, in a way that they feel they can trust. Here’s how to use this to build your audience:
If you want to go viral on TikTok, make videos with sounds that have ~12,000 videos made. Once you see a sound with an easy, repeatable format and ~12,000 videos, consider making a video with that sound. Just like a song, TikTok provides the format for others to put their stories and messages within each sound. On TikTok, the sound is the meme format. Just as a songwriter who writes a melody or a rapper writes a bar, join the others who fit their stories in the format of trending sound through video on TikTok.
Why 12,000 videos made? You’re betting that the sound will get to 100,000+ videos and your TikTok video was created early enough in the trend to benefit from the early wave. If you’re unsure which sound with ~12,000 videos made to make a TikTok around, choose those with a 1-2 frame “joke/punchline” that is quick and easy to understand.
The safety of following trending sound formats gives creators more options to get discovered. On other social media platforms, your opportunity to go viral rests on your ability to make content around a trending topic and news cycle in real time or being shared by a more popular account. The trending news life cycle is short and can be awfully depressing these days. With TikTok, sounds are timeless and because the FYP doesn’t have dates, TikTok’s supply seems relatively endless to users and advertisers.
TikTok Followers Mean Less for Conversion Than Other Platforms
Is it worth going viral on TikTok? I mean, going viral can be fun sometimes and maybe the reason that you want to create in the first place. But TikTok users are identifying with the sound, not each individual creator. This means TikTok followers have less value than your audience on other platforms. Most users use the FYP tab and not the following tab to discover content. The impact you can make on TikTok is limited. It’s harder to build an audience without taking advantage of trends or following a specific TikTok “format”. Creativity is constrained and audiences are less loyal. This means, creators and brands will have a harder time converting followers off the platform to other websites, apps or social media platforms.
Pro-tip: Tell users what your video is about in the first 3 seconds. Create cover photos with titles for each of your videos so users know what they’re going to get before they’re clicking on one of your videos.
Users should know what your video is about in the first 3 seconds. Your content and thumbnails need to be uniform and easy for TikTok users to see what they’re going to get before clicking on your videos. This is how users who don’t trust each other feel safe enough to click strangers’ videos. Notice the TikTok thumbnails above vs. YouTube channels below. Notice how each has a standard caption, title and cover photo which gives the user a pretty good idea of what they’re about to click on.
Pro-tip: Open your video with a title in the first 2-4 seconds + add images/videos in a slideshow
Add 2-4 seconds of opening titles/text along the lines of “Best ___ for your _____”, “The one ____ you haven’t heard about”, “Styling _____”, “Getting _____ for _____ quick”, “Top 3 _____ for ______”. Then add 5-7 frames of different images or videos of the same thing you are describing in your title.
Nike: Styling the Gortex Pegasus Trail 4
Houseofbrickss: Nike Outlet Tour
Pro-tip: Shoot your videos with white walls, bright backgrounds and white clothing (with hints of red)
Place TikTok’s top videos of 2022 next to each other, and you can see the algorithm’s bias for certain clothing, background and skin color. Black creators and researchers have been sounding the alarm for years while consistently fighting for visibility and credit. I want to be very clear that I am not advocating for white-washing your TikTok threads.
Below, I searched for a few top TikTok creators and sorted the search by most liked videos. You will also notice that each video typically features one person in the frame at a time (and one baby or one animal).
Alternatively, shoot your videos with your face *very* close to the camera.
Pro-tip: Treat your TikTok channel like you would YouTube or a television show. Create a content series with a standardized, repeatable format.
Mr. Beast is a great example of a creator with hyper standardized, repeatable formats. For example, his format in the TikTok linked is:
Offer at least 2 people money to fly somewhere and bring back something for the cameraman (increasing in amount with each person),
The last person shown says yes
Clips of the yes person packing and getting on a flight
2-3 frames of the person in the place they got paid to go
1-2 frames of the person completing the task
The person delivers the task to Mr. Beast who is mostly unimpressed
Here are just some questions you should ask yourself when thinking about your TikTok strategy:
What type of creator are you? Food? Work humor? Motivational? Venture Capital? New mom?
Who is your audience? Amateur chefs? Other burnt out millennials? Gym rats? MBA students? Other new moms?
What is the format? Ask a question (first frame), show the final result (second frame), show your process (third frame)...etc.
What do you do in front of the camera? Interview a new person? Give advice? Share a hack?
What type of in-jokes do you want to create and with who? Duo’s relationship with the Duo Lingo lawyers is a great example of this.
Consistent, repeatable formats will always win. Whether it’s television, podcasts or social media. These are just a few examples of how to take your brand from a square to a cube…
As always, the most guaranteed way to go viral is to consistently post each and every day. But that’s no fun!
To wrap-up, here are the pro-tips discussed above
Use a trending sound. Preferably one with ~12,000 videos made (bet that it will hit 100,000 videos or more made)
Keep videos short. 15 seconds or less.
Users should know what your video is about in the first 3 seconds (via text overlay)
Standardized cover photos that tease your videos.
Post repeatable content formats.
Prompt (2-4 seconds) + image/video slideshow formats.
Light, bright backgrounds (white walls, blue sky), white clothing and pops of red.
Other quick pro-tips
Never edit in the TikTok app.
Always save backups of your raw files.
Never give it all away in your caption. Leave people wanting more.
Always comment a few times on your own video. Don’t let the comments sit at 0.
Post 2x-7x per day to start. 1x every other day minimum.
Creator content performs 1500% better than typical brand content.
Food & animal videos
As Cory Doctorow & Rebecca Giblin point out in their book Chokepoint Capitalism, our current system actively facilitates the shakedown of creators, making it harder and harder for even those who have substantial audiences to make a living. Big Tech, including TikTok, spends fortunes creating consumption habits that aid in their ongoing domination. You stick your audience inside a walled garden and then you say to the creators, “I know you want to reach your audience and we want to help you reach that audience, but to reach that audience, you’re going to have to make some concessions. If you don’t make concessions to us, well, you can try and go out on your own, but I think you’ll find that everybody who wants to watch your entertainment is inside our little walled garden here.” TikTok is no different than Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Twitch and other big tech platforms that can change their exploitative practices and policies at any moment if creators are loud enough to demand change.
And remember: TikTok can change the terms and incentives overnight. Building an audience on TikTok is like building your house on sand. Surrounded by a walled garden that you don’t have the keys to.
I’ll be releasing my mega trends for 2023 soon, so be sure to subscribe!
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Excellent post, Liz! You suggest not using TikTok to edit your videos. What app do you use or suggest for video editing? Thanks.