The Complete Beginner’s Guide to TikTok
Becoming famous on the internet has historically been like getting struck by lightning. As someone without an existing large following, and no money or connections, you can’t mastermind fame, you can’t force it. Going viral just happens. Sometimes. Maybe.
It’s a right time right place kind of thing.
TikTok, the machine learning social video platform from China, is changing that completely. TikTok has found a way to give you an infinite number of chances at getting hit by viral lightning, and it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before.
While writing this article, I spent a month on TikTok. I created an anonymous account, I told nobody in my social circle, and I started creating content. In the last 28 days, my TikTok videos were viewed by over 2,300,000 people and received over 280,000 likes. I achieved this growth mostly by posting videos of post-it notes, bananas, and playing cards.
If I can do this, you can do this.
What is TikTok? How does TikTok work? How do you get views, likes, and followers on TikTok? How are brands using TikTok? What’s next for TikTok? How can you become a TikTok expert?
Let me explain.
“If Instagram Stories and Vine had a baby and then infused it with music, that’s TikTok.”
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What is TikTok?
TikTok is the culmination of all social content platforms leading up to today — its mobile first, short form videos, with a heavy emphasis on music, comedy, dancing, intimacy, and trends. You can follow people, you can browse popular videos, and you can explore hashtags.
“TikTok isn’t just for kids. It may seem so now… but “cool kids” are trendsetters as we all know… and then others follow. At minimum, for any brand that wants to hang out/understand/target the “cool kids” and their followers… they should be on TikTok.”
“Ok, Matt…this sounds like Instagram, YouTube, Vine… it sounds like everything. What’s special about TikTok? Why are you telling me about it?”
I know, I know, on the surface TikTok sounds exactly like the different content apps you’re already familiar with, but TikTok is so much different. Let me try to explain.
“People are so much funnier and more creative on TikTok than any other platform. TikTok for the memes, Snapchat for the shitty photos, Instagram for the highly curated scrapbook of your life, Twitter for the witty jokes.”
There are two reasons that TikTok is incredibly unique: The type of content you post and how posted content is distributed.
“You don’t need to play the guessing algorithm game like other platforms, TikTok basically just hands it to you, while keeping it fun and entertaining. I love how easy they make it to find trends and get discovered by participating in them.”
1. The Type of Content on TikTok
On TikTok everything revolves around “sounds”. Sounds are little clips of audio, usually between 15 and 60 seconds long, which can range from music to tv shows to clips of conversations, that are overlaid on top of your TikTok video. When you record on TikTok you can first choose the sound you want to use and then as you hold down the record button the app will play the sound so you can lip synch, dance, or further choreograph your video to the words and beat of the sound. When you stop holding down the record button, the sound and the recording pauses, allowing you to record different shots but continuously make sure they sync to the sound.
The reason a sound will start to go viral is because someone on TikTok will shoot a video out of it that has a repeatable format so that other people on TikTok can create their own versions.
“One of the things that is so disruptive about TikTok’s experience is how they pull people in to participate themselves with hashtags, memes, and duets.”
For example, if we go look at one of the sounds from the screen shot above, here are all the most popular videos people have made using the sound:
“When I was a product manager at Facebook and Instagram, building a true content-first social network was the holy grail. We never figured it out. Yet somehow TikTok has cracked the nut and leapfrogged everyone else.”
Examples of TikTok video formats:
- Filming yourself doing a specific dance to the song.
- Using the song clip to shoot a short video of you telling a joke. Everyone’s joke follows the same format but the jokes are all specific to the video creator.
- Using the song clip to shoot a short video of you telling TikTok something about yourself, for example what reasons you think people have for not wanting to date you. Not everyone’s reasons are the same but the format of each video is the same.
“TikTok shines light on the values and behaviors of this emerging, powerful generation of genzers. They have grown up with digital tools at their fingertips, making them more creative than millennials. They value originality, creative expression, and recognize that difference is to be celebrated. They’re more in touch with the many shades of their identity and are unafraid to share it.”
What ends up happening is that 99% of the most popular videos on TikTok are always people doing the exact same thing as everyone else, and then over time the types of videos change as the TikTok trends change. You would think that this would be really boring, but its actually absolutely fascinating and captivating.
“TikTok is an extremely powerful product because it seamlessly combines fun, short-form video and an endemic contest element — all overlayed with sophisticated artificial intelligence — to endlessly entertain its customers. As attention spans continue to compress, lightweight experiences like TikTok will only grow. I never thought YouTube could look old but TikTok has changed my opinion.”
Up until now everyone on social media has strived to create unique content, so your newsfeed may have different content coming from different people you follow, but on TikTok everyone is making the same content so instead of the content being changed by the person, the person is being changed by the content. It’s almost like living in a world where you get to see what everyone would look like if they all posted the same thing every time. Like.. imagine if you could take your favorite TV show and then watch it multiple times but every time there is a different cast, and the cast could be anyone you wanted, but you only watch the ones that you already like. It’s like that except for short snappy 15–60 seconds videos.
It’s weird. It’s super weird. But it’s also strangely addictive.
“Brands that want to reach a young demo should think about a funny challenge that incorporates their product, even offering a nice prize, and should get a few influencers on the platform to help get it going. TikTok has a huge copy cat culture, you just need to give them something easy to do and replicate.”
Why is it so addictive? That brings us to point #2, how content is distributed on TikTok.
“Most people don’t realize that TikTok at its core is about fun and truly random things. Unlike other social platforms, where the primary function is to share with friends and family, TikTok is about sharing with anyone–and doing it in a way that’s more casual and less filtered as it is on social platforms. It’s where you go and end up filming something in your PJs and that’s ok.”
2. How Content is Distributed on TikTok
Imagine if you created a new account on a social network, you had zero followers, and you posted a piece of content, and then you went viral. That would be ridiculous right?
Right, it would be ridiculous. But, that’s how TikTok works.
On TikTok you don’t need followers to go viral. You don’t need existing clout, or distribution, or anything. On TikTok you can record a 15 second video, upload it into the TikTok void, and you will start getting views, likes, comments, and followers.
How much engagement will you get you ask? Exactly as much as you deserve.
What sets TikTok apart from anything else you have ever experienced, is that TikTok uses AI to determine precisely just how good your video is, and it ranks you on a scale of ten views to tens of millions of views.
This means that right now you can download TikTok on your phone, upload a video, not tell anyone about it, and within an 1–24 hours you will know just how good that video is, and if you’re lucky you may even become “TikTok famous”.
Here are the stats for my most viewed video — in a 24 hour period it was viewed by over hundreds of thousands of people, mostly from the US (and in the first week it was viewed by over 1.2 million). In one week people spent 3.39 years of time watching this video.
How does this work? TikTok uses machine learning to evaluate the quality of every video uploaded. Although the specifics of the algorithm are not shared publicly, it very likely follows something like this:
- When you upload a TikTok video TikTok shows the video to a handful of TikTok users. Your video will be shown in between strings of popular videos, so the user does not get bored (For example they will see popular video, popular video, popular video, your video, and then back to popular videos).
- TikTok measures the percentage of your video this initial group watches, as well as how many likes, comments, shares, and downloads, the video receives. One thing I have noticed from my own personal experience, is a video will continue to grow if it has a 1/10 conversion from a view to a like (1 like for every 10 views). With my videos, content that gets less than 1/10 like to view ratio will stop growing, ~1/10 will grow slowly, and then if you can maintain better than 1/10 it will grow a lot.
- The higher percentage of video completion your video gets, and the higher velocity of likes, comments, shares, and downloads, the more people your video will be shown to in the same manner it was before. It is likely that every time your distribution grows the velocity metrics your video needs to achieve to keep growing increase — meaning that it is much easier to go from being shown from 10 people to 100 people as it is to go from being shown from 50,000 people to 100,000 people. It definitely feels like your video will get “waves” of views, almost like you are passing certain levels and then graduating to a large audience.
- With over a billion people on TikTok, the number of people your video can be shown to is massive. (Bonus fact: More people downloaded TikTok in 2018 than Instagram)
If you don’t already have a TikTok account, maybe now is the time for you to check it out.
“But Matt, I don’t know how to create content for TikTok!”
Not a problem! I will walk you through the top tips for creating content on TikTok right now.
“People and brands that can ‘speak the same language’ as TikTok’s users by participating in these trends authentically, will be far more welcome than those that don’t.”
12 Tips For Getting Views, Likes, and Followers on TikTok
There are a lot of different ways to grow an audience on TikTok, some may work for you, and some may not, so be sure to spend some time deciding which you think fit your skillset best.
“TikTok is quickly becoming the great equalizer, where anyone, regardless of age, can check out the platform and watch videos or even try their hand at making one. Brands should definitely take the move fast approach and think about TikTok, and either set up an account to test and iterate or even just to consume content on the platform. Brands should think about TikTok that it’s not an easily gamified platform — it’s way more authentic than any other social platform, and mistakes, as well as less polished videos are the type of content that users want to watch.”
These tips are for individuals and brands who are looking to dedicate time to growing on TikTok.
“The best way to grow an audience is to find a balance between staying up to date with the current trends while creating things that people haven’t seen before that make them connect with you as a person. You can grow slowly by following the trends, but if you can be the one to set a trend, that’s the way to instant success. Of course, starting a trend isn’t something that can be easily forced. Which is why, in my opinion, authenticity is always the most important.”
Tips for going viral on TikTok:
- Use good lighting, a tripod, and make sure your video quality is clear.
- Shoot your video to be perfectly in synch with the sound you choose (AKA make sure lip synchs, transitions, and movements are all happening to the beat and words).
- Post new TikTok videos 1–2 times a day.
- Create original content. Be inspired by what others are doing but don’t copy them exactly, put your own spin on it.
- Look through the For You page to see what dances, jokes, and sounds are trending. Save sounds and like videos that you may want to use or reference later.
- Find a trending dance and practice doing it yourself. Practice until it is as perfect as you can get it, and film yourself doing it to the sound associated with that dance.
- Find a trending sound that people creating joke videos for. Create a joke of your own and shoot a video. Keep in mind that even if they don’t look like it, the best TikTok videos are planned out before shooting.
- Create a video that has an elaborate build up, but before the video climaxes tell people to follow you to find what happens next. For example if you were to shoot a video creating the largest water balloon ever, then holding it above an unsuspecting person’s head as if you were about to drop it, and then telling your audience to follow to see what happens next.
- Do duets with popular videos. Duets is a feature on TikTok that allows you to take a TikTok video that you find and then film yourself split screen with that TikTok video. Your new video you are filming appears on the left half of the screen and the original appears on the right. For example imagine the original TikTok video has a person giving a high five to the side of their screen, and now imagine that you did a duet with this video, putting your video next to theirs, and you gave a high five to the side of your screen making it look like you are giving each other a high five. You have now created a new piece of content by creating a duet.
- Use hashtags relevant to your content. Search on TikTok for hashtags you think are relevant to the type of content you are creating. TikTok displays the number of videos and total views each hashtag has, making it easy to spot large and growing audiences to distribute your content.
- Advanced: If you are really advanced, you can shoot a video with your own audience and then get others to use your audio as a sound. Every video that is shot with original audio becomes available on TikTok as a sound. This is the most difficult strategy to master, especially if you aren’t a musician, but it can be the most viral if you do it right. Your audio doesn’t just have to be music, it can be noises of any kind.
- Last, but not least, have fun. TikTok is not a place for people to make fun of each other, its not a place to talk politics, it is a place to be yourself and have fun. Embrace it!
Like every other content platform, TikTok is an evolving ecosystem where the tactics and strategies are evolving all the time. Take these tips with a grain of salt, and watch TikTok content yourself to get ideas and inspiration. (To get even more tips, checkout theforyoupage.com)
“TikTok is designed for participation. Its most popular videos are often driven by trends that quickly and organically evolve with the community. Features like duets further encourage remixes and collaboration.”
In the first few weeks of my time on TikTok, my videos would only gets hundreds of views, and then sometimes thousands. Towards the end of my first month I had evolved my video styles to the point where I started consistently getting tens of thousands of views per video and even a few that got hundreds of thousands of views. I believe if I keep posting I could consistently get hundreds of thousands of views if not millions.
“Promotion on TikTok is about building a participatory social phenomenon, not just audience impressions and sales conversions.”
If your video isn’t getting more than 100 views in the first hour, it’s probably not going to grow any more. Experiment with different formats and don’t give up because things aren’t working. You got this!
“TikTok throws you right into the action. There’s no choice or scrolling, it’s a lot more like Tinder. It is also like Reddit and Pinterest, except instead of boards and subreddits content is grouped by audio/song. Pretty powerful.”
“Matt, thank you for these tips! But I’m wondering, what are brands doing on TikTok?”
Great question! Here’s what I’ve seen so far.
“TikTok is the new Instagram. It’s different than Vine or Snap in its stickiness. The brands that are adopting TikTok and building their audience NOW are the ones who are going to be hailed as genius two years from now.”
How Brands Are Using TikTok
With over a billion people, you would think that brands would be all over TikTok.
But they’re not. Not yet at least… and I think this is a huge opportunity.
“When Instagram celebrated their one-year anniversary in October 2011, they boasted over 10 million users. In comparison, TikTok was pushing 800 million by year one and is continuing to climb. Not only should brands be creating their own original content, but there are millions of influencers salivating for sponsored posts. As such, brands should be aggressively looking for ways to support and sponsor user generated content. The barriers to entry are low and the engagement rates are faster, cheaper, and higher than ever before.”
“Since I’ve been on TikTok (Feb 2019), we’ve seen a dramatic mainstreaming of the app. Many more celebrities and brands have made their first TikToks, and businesses have become eager to figure out how to capitalize on the TikTok audience. Ads have morphed from being about obscure random social apps, to being able Apple (Apple advertised its new 3 camera phone).”
I spent some time looking up random brands that I thought might be posting content, and here’s what I found: A content ghost town.
This isn’t going to last though. At this very moment there is likely a brand reading this article deciding to start creating TikTok videos. Brands are going to be all over TikTok and it is going to happen fast. I can sense the rise of TikTok gold rush, and first mover advantage is going to be real.
“TikTok has a unique audience reach that’s virtually untapped by brands. We have a transparent relationship with the TikTok team and they support the MANSCAPED brand tremendously. TikTok Ads drive positive brand equity, unique website visitors, and direct response sales conversions.”
If you are a brand and you’re not on TikTok yet, I encourage you to create an account and experiment with the suggestions in this article. You might not nail it the first time, but I know a bunch of you are ridiculously creative and you’re going to catch on quick.
“Ecommerce companies need to think about TikTok right now as a top of the funnel strategy and introduce a younger generation to the brand. For some younger-leaning companies, they can start to think about it as a middle funnel approach, where users might know who they are but might relate to them more or develop brand loyalty if they see a fun video or challenge they can participate in.”
There are three main ways your brand can engage on TikTok:
- Pay TikTok for advertising. TikTok will show your ad when people load the app and when scrolling through the endless feed.
- Create video content that is original, uses sounds, and follows trends.
- Pay TikTok influencers to create content that includes your product or tags your brand TikTok account.
“When I talk to friends and clients who have six-figure followings on Instagram or other social media platforms, and I ask them how they got there, the #1 answer is ‘by getting in early.’ Don’t dismiss TikTok as ‘just for kids’, because in five years, TikTok will have grown up, and its early adopters will have six or seven-figure followings. I registered for my account last week. It’s early days, but brands should use TikTok as a way to present their personality with behind the scenes content and humor. Don’t try to sell, focus on engagement.”
— Kurt Elster, Host of The Unofficial Shopify Podcast (over one million downloads)
“Brands should explore building a TikTok account — not saying it’s for everyone, but you will have first mover advantage since not many brands are on TikTok yet. You just need to understand the vibe and culture of TikTok really well if you want to produce content on there, since TikTok is unlike any other platform.”
Everyone is now a content creator. Everyone can go viral on TikTok — it’s a level playing ground (vs algorithms on other social networks).
“Instead of thinking of influencers as an attention, awareness, and acquisition play … frame it as a collaboration. Certainly, there may need to be left and right limits to their creative freedom. But by unleashing TikTok’s creators to actually create and paying them as creators, the work becomes invested with their brand and spirit. Sharing for them becomes a natural extension of that. Moreover, that content can then be leveraged by you across not only social media but in and through other touchpoints with your audience.”
TikTok is working on an improved advertising platform as well as a way for users to shop without leaving the app.
My recommendation? Do what you can now to grow your audience before every brand is on the platform trying to vie for eyeballs.
What‘s Next for TikTok
TikTok isn’t about friends, or social circles, at least not in any way that we’re used to. TikTok is about content. The TikTok AI is trained by the billion people watching, liking, sharing, and commenting, and then the AI trains the creators on how to create content that the viewers will engage with.
“It took me awhile on TikTok before I fully understood the extent to which the AI was shaping my experience. Here was my epiphany moment: I told the CEO of the company I work at (Figma) that I wanted to pitch a story about how TikTok was normalizing the trans experience, because I’d become fascinated by all the trans people I’d seen harnessing the meme formats to share trans jokes or trans stories or things like that. (I used to be a tech reporter.) And Figma’s CEO said, ‘What trans videos? I haven’t seen any of those.’ He told me he was seeing a lot of ‘ball in cup videos,’ and I had no idea what he was talking about. He opened up the app, and sure enough there were all these videos of people chucking balls into cups from amazing angles or to the beat of music or things like that. As far as I knew I had never seen a single ball in cup video in my time on TikTok. And that was a wake up call for me about just how MUCH content is on TikTok, and how the app’s AI is endlessly personalizing and feeding you things it thinks you’ll like. So each TikTok experience is a micro universe unto itself. But you wouldn’t guess or know that just from using it.”
TikTok is a pure system that seems to work really well. Because of this, I believe it’s nowhere near done growing.
“TikTok is setting trend across music, fashion, and slang. This year Lil Nas X ‘Old Town Road’ broke the Billboard top 100 record of being the #1 song for 17 weeks straight, breaking a record that was set over 22 years ago. This virtually unknown artist (he was quite literally living out of his parents house 12 months ago), leveraged TikTok to create a meme out of the song to make it a viral, record setting hit.”
In the future I think the following things are likely to happen on TikTok:
- Every brand will have a TikTok strategy.
- TikTok will be used by people of all ages.
- TikTok will become a hub for ecommerce transactions.
If we look at Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok (owned by the same $75 billion+ company ByteDance), we can glimpse what a potential future of TikTok looks like. On Douyin, videos are commonly tagged with products that viewers can purchase by tapping the shopping cart tag on the video.
This will then take the viewer to that brand’s product page where the purchase button then takes you to the Alibaba owned shopping app taobao where the purchase is then completed (Thank you to Wilhelmina Yan for sending these screen shots to me and walking me through the Chinese version of TikTok).
“Douyin gives people the opportunity to become overnight sensations. It has created an entirely new marketing channel for small businesses by giving them continuous waves of new influencers who can who can direct targeted clientele to their businesses and product online. If TikTok follows the business model of Douyin the next step would be for the app to collaborate with websites like Amazon and Yelp to provide multi-purpose interface for its users.”
— Mina Yan, Managing Editor of beijingkids
With the rise of deep fakes for video and audio (where AI can make any face look like its doing and saying anything the computer wants it to) I also expect that more and more content in the future will not only be curated by AI but will be created with the use of AI. We’ve only begun to scratch the surface of this type of content where apps use AI to show you what you would look like old or as a different gender, in the future this could be a part of every piece of content you consume. I could see TikTok playing a big role in bringing AI created content tools to the world.
If you’re not sure what I mean when I say deep fakes and AI created content will completely change the face of content, watch this video. This is going to blow your mind. This is just a glimpse into the future.
“I was invested in the platform when it was musical.ly, and it is incredible to see how it has evolved and is seeing new traction. As more creators come on to the platform, I’m eager to see how can we create sustainability for the entire ecosystem where we can be creative and authentic to the space and we can earn sustainable revenue.”
I’m excited to continue playing around with TikTok and seeing how big I can grow my account. Posting the videos is fun, and getting the real-time indications of whether the video is resonating with TikTok’s audience or not is addicting.
Follow along as I grow my account, and learn from other TikTok creators and brands on the platform.
If you are interested in learning more about TikTok, whether you are a creator looking to monetize, or a brand looking to grow an audience, I invite you to subscribe to my newsletter.
I send regular updates with behind the scenes information and advice from top TikTok creators, brands growing on the platform, and my own experiences as a TikTok creator.
As social networks evolve, and more people in the world are connected online, channels like TikTok are enabling humans and brands to go viral faster than ever.
I am completely fascinated by the impact on culture, business, and humanity, that TikTok is having and will continue to have. I think we are only at the beginning of what this platform will become and I am excited to be on this journey with you.
If you’re not on TikTok yet, I challenge you to see what happens when you download it and start scrolling it’s “for you” page. I bet you won’t be able to put your phone down.