The TikTok algorithm is mysterious, powerful, and frustrating. It finds and promotes quality content with superhuman accuracy. TikTok philosophers have long tried to decode its brain and share “hacks” to guarantee views, making it seem like everyone has a different theory about how the algorithm chooses who to make famous.

At Kapwing, in our three months using TikTok as a business, we’ve seen and tested lots of these theories. Our account has grown to have over 10,000 followers and 150,000 video likes. We got almost 10% of those views in the first week. In this article, I’ll explain the top five influential algorithm theories and how they’ve applied to us across the 50+ videos we’ve made.

A quick disclaimer: there’s no standalone hack for going viral. The only way to build an audience on TikTok is with legitimately funny, relatable, impressive, and/or informative content. No amount of tricks will help if your videos don’t resonate with people. However, understanding the quality of  different algorithm theories can help good content run further.

Here are the main theories and our takeaways for each:


1. Artificial intelligence watches videos and decides your fate

Most social media platforms try to catch graphic or copyrighted content with an automated filter. People have hypothesized that TikTok’s filter may do more than catch copyrighted content – it may determine which videos go viral.

A real-life representation. 

As the theory goes, the AI has learned over time that humans like “attractive” and “familiar” things, so it boosts videos with “attractive” and “familiar” people but holds back videos that could be “undesirable.” The latter piece is a serious concern to both aspiring creators and free speech. TikTok has been exposed for asking its human moderators to discriminate in the past… could it have worked these preferences into machine vision?

From our observations, automated vision doesn't play a huge role anymore (at least in the United States). Yes, some of our best-performing videos have featured our female coworkers, Tesla Cybertruck footage, and a montage of celebrities. But they’ve also objectively been among the best videos we’ve made. My For You page now shows me a diverse collection of creators in all sorts of places, which suggests that the filter is now probably more of a quality catch that boosts you to the ~600 view mark. Getting past that is more about user engagement.

Some of my videos have been removed by humans after blowing up... but they got past the machine!

What’s our advice for passing the quality check? Compare your video resolution and original sound volume to popular videos. This is especially important for Android users. For a while, I used my Samsung to record and edit in TikTok, and the videos would come out super grainy. Turns out TikTok, Snapchat, and other apps don’t optimize their in-app camera for every Android device (the main reason why people think Android cameras are so bad). These videos would rarely get shown to more than 200 people. Now I always record using my native camera app, edit using Kapwing’s Studio, and make sure our video is relatively loud, and we always reach at least 600 views.

The takeaway: The machine-vision theory seems overblown. Your video may still get removed by human moderators for unknown reasons after it gains traction, but TikTok seems to be improving that issue as well. Overall – try to remember that most people enjoy simplicity. Content for a diverse audience needs to be instantly riveting and easily understood. And TikTok is still ruled by Gen Z, so they’ll gravitate towards videos made by people their age.

2. Rewatches, shares and comments are king

Every viral video starts its life with trials batches of TikTok users. If the current batch of users engages with your video enough, it’ll get shown to a larger batch next time, and so on. What do you need to get to that next level? There’s some speculation, but everyone seems to agree with @kingkhieu on metrics:

Video rewatches and shares are the holy grail. Comments help your score, and are a good indication that a video is engaging. Likes don’t really matter – but a 1:5 like-to-watch ratio almost never fails. 

So naturally, about half of the videos you’ll see on “For You” use some trick to get that rewatch. Here are a few things you can try:

  • Do something physically intense and unexpected in the video
  • Create a “how did they do that?” moment using creative editing
  • Use quick cuts between shots or write a chunk of text that disappears quickly
  • Use a sound that’s associated with a punchline/twist
  • Try and make a seamless, satisfying loop

Interestingly, 8 of our 10 most popular videos didn’t use TikTok sounds… and we paid minimal attention to hashtags. Yes, trending sounds give viewers a sense of instant recognition. The right hashtags can help your videos get noticed by a focused audience. But your content needs to stand out from the millions of others being made. Every time we’ve tried to incorporate our product with a trend it’s gone poorly, so there’s more to it.

When a video “flops,” you’ve definitely thought about deleting and reposting it. There are pros and cons to trying a repost. The pros: you can improve creatively on the video, and can try with a different batch of first reviewers. The cons: it could get even fewer views, and you could miss out on a “delayed explosion,” a phenomenon I'll analyze later. We generally repost if a video has at least 10% likes and there’s an obvious way to make it better; otherwise, just leave it or delete permanently.

The takeaway: This one’s real. Optimize your videos to be rewatched, focus on quality content  over trend-following, and repost if a video shows promise.

3. Consistent content attracts followers

TikTok's For You page shows you an amazing breadth of curated content. But successful TikTokers stick to one primary theme, format, or motif; they don’t publish lots of different types of content. People will follow you only if they believe that your next video will be just as good as the one they discovered you through, and consistent formats communicate your style or brand.

Every account I’ve ended up following makes their own style of video. Some of my favorites are @zachking, @qpark, and @logicalfinance. @koriee_m grew to use the same song in nearly every video, and it’s hilarious. “Crunk Ain’t Dead” has been used in over 25,000 videos; adopting it has clearly paid off for him.

A sound search for "Crunk Ain't Dead" by Duke Deuce shows @koriee_m owning the sound.

It's really hard to find a popular account anywhere on TikTok that hasn't specialized in something. If you're looking for ideas, we’ve noticed that many popular creators have adopted one of these themes:

  • Responding to a content pipeline that’s constantly being refreshed (trending songs, news, memes, social media interactions, etc.)
  • Reposting content made for other social platforms
  • Building off of previous videos, creating a narrative to follow along with
  • For businesses: involving their product in a creative way

Can it be too late to pivot your account? Maybe. Some advice warns that your first videos determine your account's performance forever (so if they're duds, you should delete the account and try again). Well, our first videos weren't great, and we’ve moved up from ~300 to ~800 average first-round views – with our most popular videos being posted recently. Nothing crazy, but enough to say that first-round reach on each video seems to be more of a function of your follower count.

The takeaway: Having consistent content matter probably doesn’t “game the algorithm.” However, it does give humans much more of a reason to follow you. So what’s the difference?

4. TikTok pumps new views to lure you back

This theory, described well by user @jeanjacketsb, suggests that TikTok can use video views to keep casual creators excited and posting consistently. Imagine this...

You've had some success on the app and are posting regularly. As you get frustrated with videos not performing well, you start posting less frequently. Then, suddenly, one morning you log on to thousands of new notifications. An infamous (and seemingly random) "delayed explosion." So, you get excited and start posting again... and the cycle continues.

The possible truth behind "delayed explosions."

One level deeper: this would explain why super-average dance videos constantly show up on For You. It’s a win-win-win for TikTok. A popular dance video floods the mediocre creator with likes, lowers the perceived barrier to fame for new users, and gets outsiders talking about the platform.

This theory caught my attention because the exact phenomenon she described happened to us, whether by coincidence or not. We made our first viral video in November and then posted almost daily through December without success. While we took a TikTok hiatus for the holidays, a pen-spinning video gained over 50,000 views in the span of a few days. Another video showcasing celebrities using Kapwing got about 25,000. They only had a couple thousand in their first weeks, so TikTok had magically “resurrected” the videos.

To test this theory, we tried “ghosting” the app again in January to no avail. We didn't see any correlation between video engagement and our TikTok screen time. TikTok will probably lure you back once or twice, but, once you get big enough, success depends on your content. Small-time creators often note this happening while popular creators swear that consistent posting is best.

The takeaway: As a new creator, you might be able to suddenly stop posting after your first big video to help it get more views, but it’s not a sustainable growth strategy. Just like other platforms, frequent posting seems to be tried and true for big accounts.

5. The algorithm suppresses unverified brands or businesses

There are three types of businesses that do well on TikTok: established brands that recycle content from other platforms (NBA, Calvin Klein), established brands that put effort into native content (Washington Post, Chipotle), and smaller brands that showcase a fun visual and/or physical product (Procreate, Redbubble). Most of them are verified and some of them run ads.

Our "tier list" celebrating the quality of brands on TikTok as of February 2020. Watch the full analysis on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JcJVv_r_SLM

Being a tech startup with many different use cases, we don’t really fit into any of these categories. However, we knew that Kapwing is a perfect product for medium-tier TikTok creators. We just had to:

1. Post good content: Make videos that people watched, and
2. Attribute wins: Prove that some of those people started using our website.

Both proved pretty difficult!

For goal #1, we wondered: does TikTok throttle business’ videos, like other social platforms do? It's easy for them to identify businesses and teams – if you have multiple accounts on a device, are logged in on multiple devices, or have analytics on, those are dead giveaways. So chances are you’ll eventually cave and pay for exposure if you need to, right?

This one's been hard for us to confirm, but we do know that TikTok has made it tough to define the business impact of your account. Their analytics page is pretty basic and they didn't have "link in bio" until recently. We know that 20,000 people visited our profile in January, but we couldn’t tell how many of those people were actually interested in our product (instead of just browsing). That has potentially changed now that website-linking is universal, but it'll take another big video to know for sure.

Link in bio should make TikTok a more viable platform for serious brands and creators. 

The takeaway: We don’t have hard evidence of being suppressed as a business. The clicks we get to our website are more valuable to us than views or likes, so we’ll determine success based on the results of our next videos. I’ve personally never been enticed to leave TikTok to visit a website or download an app… but maybe the relevance of Kapwing and an accessible link will do it for some.


Conclusion

There’s no doubt that some of these algorithm theories have helped creators grow on TikTok, but most TikTok “secrets” are really just guidelines for making interesting and shareable content. It’s not a coincidence that effective tips for “gaming the algorithm” generally just help you make better creative decisions.

Looking back, I wish we had spent more time focusing on the gritty details of making a great video instead of looking into algorithm hacks. Storyboarding, getting the right take, enlisting good “actors”, tightening the edits: all of this would have made our creation process more efficient and the end product more real.

If you’re just getting started on TikTok, I’d recommend saving the algorithm hacks until you’re consistently getting thousands of views. In the five months I’ve personally been using the app, the volume of quality content has grown exponentially. The barrier to entry is growing every day. Making one good TikTok, and finding a way to keep making better TikToks, is a challenge in and of itself.

Ask yourself after an inevitable flopped post: was that because I didn’t use the right hashtags, or because it’s a sore thumb in people’s feeds? What can you do to feel more genuinely like part of the app’s culture? We’ve got a lot of this to do ourselves, but I bet you’ll start seeing better results. 🙂