The TikTok Algorithm: How it Works and How to Leverage It
In the span of just a few years, TikTok has become one of the most valuable platforms for marketers to win new customers and stay top-of-mind with existing ones.
When you combine TikTok’s status as the most downloaded app, the reality that it’s the most popular app amongst Gen Z and Millennial users, and the fact that it’s the most engaging social media app, up to twice as engaging as other popular apps, as measured by time spent in the app – you’d have to be crazy to ignore TikTok if you’re doing any sort of social media marketing.
Obviously, with the popularity and cultural significance of TikTok, any marketer will want to use it to reach those key younger demographics on a platform where users consistently and actively engage with content, even branded content.
As marketers, we know how crucial it is to maximize the value of every dollar spent. With so many brands competing for users’ attention on TikTok, how do you maximize the value of your spending? How do you achieve the maximum return on your TikTok strategy?
The key to succeeding on TikTok as a marketer is simple – once you understand the TikTok algorithm, you can then create and deploy successful content by leveraging the power of the TikTok algorithm to maximize your reach.
What Is An Algorithm?
In its simplest form, an algorithm is a mathematical formula that tells a computer what to do with a certain set of data.
Algorithms can be created to identify the perfect egg based on color and shape, or an algorithm can be designed to create networks based on tastes and preferences as you see in social media and online searches.
When it comes to social media platforms like TikTok, algorithms are used to create demographics, funnel desirable content to those demographics, and continually generate and disseminate trends across the platform.
Perhaps most importantly, social networks design algorithms to keep users on their platforms.
What Is The TikTok’s Algorithm?
TikTok’s algorithm is one of the most highly-praised algorithms on the planet. Competitors like Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat have seen their numbers dwindling over time, struggling to reach increasingly disaffected audiences, while TikTok continues to reach new users with content that users enjoy, interact with, and demand more of.
TikTok owes its competitive advantage to a hyper-effective algorithm that continually analyzes users’ tastes and provides them with new, specific content based on that information, at an incredible pace and with remarkable consistency.
In an article published in December 2021, The New York Times identified the key elements of TikTok’s algorithmic code, thanks to a leaked internal document called “TikTok Algo 101.”
This document gave a full view of the mathematical formulas that keep TikTok humming along as the fastest-growing social media platform on the planet, revealing everything about what’s going on under the hood.
A review of “TikTok Algo 101” revealed that TikTok has two main metrics that dictate its algorithm. The first is retention, or whether a user comes back to the platform or not. The second is time spent, or how much time they spend on their app.
Underneath these two key strategic goals are their tactical approaches for how to get there. They want to achieve maximum retention and time spent on the app for TikTok users by:
- Providing value to users (high-quality content delivered to the right people)
- Keeping users coming back every day (new content delivered consistently)
- Giving value to content creators (facilitates value to users and keeps them coming back)
- Improving the app as a platform (make things easier to use via algorithmic analysis)
This all is just common sense, isn’t it?
You want to keep users scrolling on your platform by consistently delivering them valuable content, keeping TikTok creators happy by encouraging them to continually create content (and thereby making users happy), and finally making the app as easy to use as possible, based on user taste.
So how does this look in practice? How does it actually affect your content and your TikTok strategy?
We know from the TikTok Algo 101 document that the TikTok algorithm works with a robust video weighting system. Whether or not your video succeeds on TikTok is dependent on interaction – and interaction is based upon the following metrics on user activity and video information:
- Likes – the more likes the video receives, the higher the video score.
- Comments – the more comments it receives, the higher the video score.
- Playtime – the longer video is played, the higher the video score.
- Plays – The more plays it has, the higher the video score.
Users’ account settings like language preference, country settings, and device type are also considered by the algorithm but minimally compared to the metrics listed above.
These metrics should be unsurprising for marketers. TikTok is no different from other social media platforms – they always push the videos with the most interaction up to the top.
How To Succeed On TikTok
So that’s the nitty-gritty of how TikTok’s algorithm works.
How can you, as a marketer, utilize this information to hack the algorithm and propel you to success on the app?
TikTok’s algorithm allows for microcultures to grow and subsist – which means you can really laser-focus your approach when it comes to TikTok content.
Drill down into your customer data and look for comparable subcultures on TikTok; the more directly you can speak to your customers, the more they will respond. Hashtags like #cottagecore and #momsoftiktok are great examples of ways to slide into already-defined markets.
Consistency, consistency, consistency
TikTok rewards consistency. As we know from their leaked algorithm document, the app’s goal is to keep both TikTok users and creators on the platform by rewarding them for consistent usage. If you’ve got an organic account for your brand, posting daily will help expand your reach as the algorithm gives you more weight as a creator. TikTok even recommends you post 1-4 times a day!
Since view time is a huge part of the algorithm, creating valuable content is key to winning the TikTok algorithm game. You simply need to be providing your audience with something they find valuable. Lucky for us, on TikTok, “valuable” usually just means something entertaining – but it can be educative, relatable, trending, musical, or just aesthetically pleasing.
Focus on engaging hooks
Your watch time will go down (and therefore, your video score) if viewers don’t watch past the first second, so make sure that your opening is eye-catching and entices the viewer to NEED to see what comes next. We know the power of a strong hook across social media, but for TikTok especially, with its already-bite-size format, a strong and meaty hook is crucial for beating the algorithm. If your followers are not interested within the first few seconds, you’ve lost them.
Part of your TikTok marketing strategy should be devoted specifically to user interactions. This one might seem pretty obvious as it has been true of social media platforms since the very dawn of time – but engaging with other users on the platform will also increase your visibility. You don’t always have to be making the content. Sometimes it’s best to just engage with other users and creators to develop legitimacy in the eyes of the algo.
Not only does this approach give you the opportunity to meet your customers on a (digitally) personal level, but it also increases your profile’s weight in the algorithm. Spend some time each day just interacting with your followers (or even better, followers of followers!), and you’ll receive a bit more love from the algorithm – and see your follower count skyrocket.
The weird thing about TikTok is that, while it’s an aggressively young platform, it still strongly weights for hashtags, long after they’ve become irrelevant on competitors’ platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
And that’s probably because hashtags are more useful and flexible on TikTok. You can use them to whistle to a specific demographic to check out your post or find new partners for your content. Trending hashtags and hashtag challenges are the perfect way to get in front of the right audience. And users explore new content via hashtags on the Discover Tab, making them an ideal venue for you to find new followers to engage with.
The trend Is your friend
More than anything, TikTok is the platform of the trend. TikTok moves faster than any other social media platform in history, with cultural trends appearing out of nowhere and expanding across demographics, saturating the platform with trends you can take part in.
The ease with which trends proliferate on TikTok might be the most powerful tool for marketers. We can quickly create a short video that plays on a current trend, and if it’s entertaining enough, it could easily make it into the For You Page (FYP) of your target audience and go viral from there.
When participating in a hot TikTok trend, it’s crucial that you use trending sounds or trending songs (you can find a list of trending audio on the record page, under sounds), and make sure your caption and hashtag games are on point as well.
It takes A Village
As marketers, we need to be masters of the dark arts from time to time. If TikTok’s video scores are weighted towards interaction, we need to increase interaction. Having a number of accounts ready to boost your video when it goes up could be the key to the success of your videos on TikTok – so gather your team and make sure they’re commenting, liking, and interacting with your posts as soon as they go up!
Create Winning TikTok Strategies with First Media
The TikTok algorithm – for all the technical plaudits it has received – is in actuality not that complicated, and really, TikTok is probably the easiest platform for marketers to find success.
The low cost of entry, the ease of market penetration via trends, and the general addictiveness of the platform means that creating and deploying a successful TikTok strategy is probably easier than Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter combined – but only if you know what you’re doing.
If you need a partner when it comes to finding growth on TikTok, First Media has a long and successful track record of creating and deploying video content of any kind. No matter your vertical or goals, we can work with you to create a winning TikTok strategy in just weeks.