TikTok For Dummies
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Knowing a little about the TikTok algorithm can help you better understand how to go viral on TikTok. An algorithm is a calculation that search engines and social media platforms use to rank content — in the case of TikTok, to rank videos and customize "For You" page results.

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©ChayTee / Adobe Stock

The algorithm is basically the “secret sauce” of how TikTok decides what videos to show each user. If you understand the basics of TikTok’s algorithm, you can understand how to create content that shows up more often on the For You pages of people who don’t follow you. Knowing this secret sauce gives you the ability to gain more followers and views, and hopefully, go viral on TikTok.

A disclaimer: The actual TikTok algorithm — the inner workings of how TikTok surfaces content on the For You page — is a secret. It also changes frequently, and what might work today may not work tomorrow, so test your content often. That said, I and other creators have discovered basic principles that seem to result in more followers and views. The tips I share here are based on what I’ve found to be effective.

By the way, are you wondering: what is considered viral on TikTok? Opinions definitely vary. If you search the question "how many views is viral on TikTok," you'll see a range of answers, but it appears that most people believe a video must garner between 250,000 and 1 million views to be considered viral.

Here are a few principles to remember as you create videos. These could help make your videos more likely to show up on the For You page (the first screen people see when they go to TikTok):

  • Focus on engagement first. Remember, on TikTok, content is king, but engagement is queen and wears the pants. Focus on engagement first. A video that moves its audience to take action — like, comment, duet, or stitch — will see far greater views and new followers than a well-produced video that took hours to create.

    I have almost 15 years’ experience creating content for social media — trust me, this is true! You want your audience to feel something quickly — within the first five seconds of your video, if you can manage it. They hear a voice saying, “I just have to say something!” and then leave a comment, create a stitch, or duet your video. Success! These are the keys for how to blow up on TikTok. This platform, and most social media platforms, favor lots of engagement on videos, especially when users are willing to take the time to have a conversation. This is why even controversial content tends to see more views.

  • Make your content king. In the competition to get viral on TikTok, a well-produced, well-lit video with good sound and good editing has the clear advantage over poorly produced videos — a well-done video definitely gains some level of favor in the TikTok algorithm.
  • Find out what's trending. You probably discovered TikTok because someone close to you — a child, niece, nephew, or friend — shared a funny video. These days, a lot of Internet trends begin on TikTok. Much of TikTok culture centers around one large, connected community, all talking about the same things. The TikTok algorithm highly favors content that remains a part of this “town gossip.”

Want to double your video views? Find a popular TikTok influencer who’s participating in a popular trend, and duet or stitch that person's content with your own twist on the conversation.

Even if the creator doesn’t notice you, TikTok’s algorithm tends to favor videos that duet or stitch the videos of popular creators. When I do this in my videos, such as the one in the figure below, I always see significantly more views, especially when I’m creative with my response.

Screenshot on cell phone showing Jesse Stay on TikTok ©John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Duetting my popular videos on @tiktokfordummies generates more views because that account has more followers.
  • Attention spans are short! Focus your content. As you're thinking about how to make your TikTok go viral, remember that although engagement trumps content and length, TikTok’s For You page algorithm tends to favor content that is short. People on TikTok have short attention spans.In addition, TikTok favors videos where most of the viewers watch the entire video.

    Unless I'm doing something to engage my audience, such as a duet or stitch, I keep my content shorter than 15 seconds. This makes it more likely that my viewers will watch the entire video, giving an added bump to the video's chances of being seen on the For You page of potential followers, and maybe even going viral on TikTok.

    Because TikTok gives a boost to videos that get more viewers to watch to the end, consider splitting a long video into segments. Make sure each segment starts with a new hook to keep the viewer interested. Watch your numbers! TikTok is constantly changing, and what works for me and other accounts on TikTok today might work differently for you later.

  • Time your messages carefully. When you post a video, TikTok looks at the video's content, description, hashtags, sounds, and other details, and determines its ideal audience. First TikTok shares the video with a small, targeted audience. If they respond well, it increases the audience — and continues to do so as long as viewers react favorably.

    However, TikTok’s algorithm needs time to get your video to that full audience. If you post a new video targeting the same audience as the last-published video too quickly, it confuses the algorithm. Your original video will not be able to make it to as many people as it could have. I’ve found no established guidelines on how soon is too soon to post, but pay attention to this issue as you publish videos and see what works best.

  • Consistency is your key to the kingdom. If you haven’t done so already, think about what you want your TikTok account to be about. What goals do you want to accomplish with it? What topics do you want to focus on? Who’s your target audience? Take some time to answer those questions.

    Next, make sure every video you create matches the answers to those questions. If you keep all your content consistent, TikTok knows immediately what audiences to send your content to, and you’re more likely to see higher growth more quickly. Maintaining consistency is keeping a promise to your audience: They come to you looking for specific content, and you deliver it.

Identifying trending content

A great way to gain followers and increase video views on TikTok is by understanding what content is trending. In this section, I discuss finding trends by browsing the discover page and using the search function.

Check the discover page

To access the discover page, shown in the figure below, tap Discover in the main navigation. Scroll through the main discover page to see what’s currently trending, and then tap the Sounds and Hashtags tabs to explore those pages further and get new inspiration.

Screenshot of TikTok's discover page ©TikTok
The discover page

Swipe the top banner to see trending accounts, sounds, themes, and hashtags. These are things TikTok wants you to see, so TikTok will favor your videos on the For You page if you use them in your content.

Tap a topic on the banner to see a screen with that topic, such as the #CarTikTok page shown in Figure 8-3, left, which includes videos, sounds, hashtags, and a list of the top-viewed videos using the topic. Sometimes topic pages are just a landing page TikTok has designed with a partner or an advertiser.

Each topic page will be different, designed to show off the things TikTok wants its users to consider in their videos. Explore these videos, sounds, or hashtags on each topic page and look for common themes or elements, such as a dance, a song, or an activity.

If the topic you’re exploring contains a trending hashtag, consider adding it to your description. Or you could create a video matching what each video is discussing but in your own way. Tap the back icon (<) to return to the discover page.

Scroll down the discover page to see what’s hot. Tap a video or two to see any common themes, and consider integrating those elements into your own videos. Tap a sound or hashtag to see a list of videos using that sound or hashtag.

When you tap a trending sound, you can tap the Use This Sound button (see the left-side image in the figure below) to immediately start recording a video using that sound. If you tap a trending hashtag, tap the record button (see the right-side image in the figure below) and any effects, sounds, and other elements associated with that hashtag automatically load into a new recording screen for you.

Screenshot showing TikTok's Use This Sound and record buttons ©TikTok
You can use trending sounds and hashtags easily in your own videos.

I typically sift through all the elements on the discover page briefly before publishing a video to be sure I’m using the latest and greatest hashtags, sounds, and themes. That way, I'm more likely to see additional views.

The discover page changes constantly. The layout I discuss in this chapter may change by the time you read this. However, the principles of exploring the trending sounds, hashtags, and topics remain the same.

Finding content through search

The discover page sports a search box at the top, which you can use to find content using topics you’re interested in, as well as hashtags, other users, and sounds. To search for something, go to the discover page and follow these steps:
  1. Tap the search field. A list appears showing your recent searches. If this is your first time searching, the list will be empty.
  2. Type what you want to search for and then tap the Search button that appears on your device's keyboard. You can enter a hashtag, name, username, song name, name of an effect, or keyword. A search results page appears, displaying the default Top tab, with results organized by the top videos, hashtags, and users that TikTok determines are the most relevant to your search.
  3. Tap a video to watch it. Check out the Top tab if you’re trying to get inspiration for videos on a particular topic. If you tap the Sounds or Hashtags tab, you see a screen similar to the one in the figure above.
  4. Tap another tab (Users, Videos, Sounds, or Hashtags) to see a new search view, organized for that category. The categories are self-explanatory — no surprises here!
  5. To return to the discover page, tap the back icon (<) in the upper-left corner.
You can find trending videos, memes, sounds, and hashtags on your For You and Following pages. What catches your attention? When I see videos on either page that spark a fun idea, I mark them as favorites, so I can sift through them later. To mark a video as a favorite, long-press the video and tap Add to Favorites.

Grabbing your viewers’ attention

With an understanding of the TikTok algorithm and a knowledge of the type of content that's trending, you’re ready to start creating videos that engage your audience! If your goal is to make a viral TikTok video, here are a few ideas (some from a few of my favorite popular TikTokers) that are sure to get your audience talking:

Stay positive

TikTok user Aaron Hanania, shown in the figure below, built an audience of tens of thousands by maintaining a message of positivity for his audience. In a message to me, he wrote:

Positivity has allowed me to grow on TikTok because it’s unique to me. There are very few other influencers who not only spread positivity, but truly engage and get to know their audience. When someone joins my TikTok Live, I recognize their names; I remember things they share. And I think that’s important.

Screenshot showing Aaron Hanania on TikTok ©Aaron Hanania

Keep your content clean

Certain types of content will get your content deleted or your account banned. Depictions of nudity, sexual content (even implied), firearms, and other forbidden topics outlined in TikTok’s community guidelines are not allowed.

Know your audience. Although TikTok is full of risqué content, I’ve found that content that skirts the community guidelines (containing swear words and drug references) or is generally PG-13 (or above) tends to get fewer viewers. Exceptions to this rule exist, and you’ll have a better response if your audience expects this type of content. However, I recommend playing it safe when you can.

Although you can invoke emotion, as I discuss next, or incite controversy, you may reach a larger audience by avoiding offense in the first place. As always, test to see what works best. No judgement here — I’m all about the data and what shows results!

Some creators edit out curse words in descriptions, captions, and the text on their videos but still curse in the videos. If this is your desired type of content and your audience will respond well, consider this approach. TikTok's algorithm tends to give greater weight to onscreen text than audio.

Invoke emotion

Emotion — whether it's positive or negative, and whether you are showing humor, anger, sadness, or something else — makes people want to respond. When people feel something during a video, they want to do something with that feeling. Your goal in each video should be to invoke emotion in your audience.

That’s why positivity is so important: It creates an emotion, in this case something positive or happy in the mind of the viewer. And that emotion makes them to want to do something with that feeling, such as share your video. However, controversy can also invoke emotion. TikTok users are highly opinionated, and everyone wants to share theirs!

Quick Read Summary

To go viral on TikTok, understanding the platform's algorithm is crucial. The TikTok algorithm determines what content appears on users' "For You" pages. While the exact workings of the algorithm are secret and change frequently, these principles have proven effective:
  • Focus on engagement: Engagement is key. Videos that prompt actions like likes, comments, duets, or stitches tend to get more views and followers. Create content that grabs viewers' attention within the first few seconds.

  • Quality matters: Well-produced, well-lit, and well-edited videos have an advantage. Good production quality can improve your standing in the algorithm.

  • Follow trends: TikTok trends are ever-evolving. Participate in popular trends, duet or stitch videos with popular creators, or add your own twist to trending topics. This can boost your visibility.

  • Short and sweet: Keep your content short, typically under 15 seconds. Short videos are favored, and TikTok rewards videos that retain viewers until the end.

  • Timing matters: Be mindful of how quickly you post new videos targeting the same audience. Rapid posting can confuse the algorithm.

  • Consistency is key: Make sure your content aligns with your account's theme and audience. Consistency helps TikTok understand who to show your content to.

  • Use the Discover page on TikTok: On the Discover page, you can explore trending sounds, hashtags, and themes; consider incorporating them into your videos. Keep in mind that the Discover page is constantly changing.

  • Use the search function: You can search to find trending content. Look for hashtags, users, sounds, or keywords, and explore the top results.

  • Invoke emotion: When creating content, aim to grab viewers' attention by invoking emotions, whether positive or negative. Positivity can build a loyal audience, while controversy can also spark engagement.

Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all formula for going viral on TikTok, as the algorithm is ever-changing. Experiment with different strategies, stay updated on trends, and focus on creating engaging content to increase your chances of TikTok success.

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