1 Oct 2021

TikTok's game-changing algorithm

Mick McConnell says TikTok's algorithm offers potential for brands to leverage their qualities and drive innovation.

Mick McConnell, North America CEO.

TikTok has captured attention like few other competitors, surpassing two billion downloads to become the most downloaded app of 2020. While 75% of downloaded apps are used once and then forgotten, 90% of TikTok users access the app daily. In the US, TikTok users spend more than 850 minutes per month on the app

So what is the primary reason behind this astronomic growth? One might think it is naturally the content. From ping pong tricks to dance tutorials, history trivia to smiling otters - there are no empty shelves in its vast video library. Or one might think it could be TikTok's ability to spark viral trends - often through popular dances and memes. Elaborate 'in-jokes' that bounce around the world in a never-ending iteration of one-up-manship, with each creator adding their own twist.

Both are defining factors in TikTok's success. But they are not the reason for it. The most powerful influence operates less overtly. It is the unseen essence that pulls these assets together. The secret sauce which supercharges the brand is its algorithm. 

A chainsaw in a garden maze

Humans are complex creatures. We exist on a broad spectrum of interests and preferences, influenced by a myriad of people and things. 

Figuring out who we are and what we like is a tough enough task for most. It's like wandering through a giant garden maze; you can follow a certain path and decide to turn left or right - and never know the other potential routes running parallel. 

TikTok's algorithm - internally named 'For You' - offers users a chainsaw in this maze. Unlike any other social media or entertainment app, TikTok cross-pollinates worlds and ideas, blending them seamlessly into a user's timeline. It allows users to explore themselves, as much as the content it offers. 

Unlike Facebook, LinkedIn or Instagram, it doesn't lump users into mass communities based on surface-level engagement. TikTok holds a mirror up to the user, and twists and turns the angle to reveal new perspectives - a real "self-actualization engine". It engenders openness - striking the different balance between the curiosity for the unfamiliar & the safety of the familiar. 

TikTok takes a holistic view on a broad Venn diagram of user interests and bridges the gaps between categories. There is a great article by Jess Joho where she explains how the TikTok algorithm recognised she was probably bisexual before she did

The algorithm is the real MVP in TikTok's success. And there is massive potential for brands to leverage qualities and drive innovation across industries. 

Embracing a curious code

TikTok's algorithm empowers and encourages discovery. This is a highly unique capability. And one which brands and businesses should embrace. 

In the music industry, the influence of TikTok is clear. Much of the music in the charts can trace the origins of its success to TikTok. A viral clip is the best marketing boost a track can get - just ask Boney M. Users trust the algorithm to provide this. 80% of those on TikTok say that it is the #1 place for music discovery - more than other digital platforms, streaming services and friends. Over half (56%) say that discovery happens naturally in the 'For You' feed. 

In the games industry, upstart studios and brands are able to compete with infinitely bigger competitors via TikTok - as the algorithm introduces new games to users who would've never traditionally found them. Splitgate is a strong example of this. The game has to compete with the likes of Call of Duty, Fortnite and Halo in the FPS genre - historic titles with huge marketing budgets. But this small project cut through by naturally emerging on the feeds of gamers on TikTok. In July, the game saw a 1000% monthly growth. It grew from 200 concurrent players to over 200,000 in a matter of weeks. When it was released on console at the end of the month, it surpassed 600,000 downloads. 

You can see similar opportunities in the fashion and beauty space. Brands here have the chance to get ahead of the trends - rather than simply following them. Instead of chasing what is popular on social media, these brands can leverage the algorithm to know what people like before they like it. Tiffany recently solicited the prolific pair of Beyonce and Jay-Z to promote a new product range and entice younger audiences. I would argue that brands are missing the mark here. Instead of speaking to 'young' people as a mass group and identifying the appropriate superstar to broadly cover that huge market - could these brands identify a more personalised, engaging route? TikTok's algorithm offers brands a chance to gain a more pervasive understanding of their audience - and more importantly their parallel interests. 

Engaging parallel interests is something the travel sector can make more of too. What are the surrounding topics and interests which inspire people to go on holiday? How can you authentically engage with these sister spaces and categories, and provide content which puts your brand or service front of mind? Can you predict the best holiday location for a user's honeymoon based on their algorithm? 

TikTok is more than a collective of viral trends and videos. Brands can't simple dance their way to success on the app. Instead, they should focus on the incredible discovery the algorithm encourages, empowering users to unveil their interests, blending curiosity and familiarity like no app or service before it. As long as industries continue to work alongside the app and focus on the "we" over the "you", they risk being usurped. 

First published in CEO Today.