How TikTok’s Search Algorithms Power Content Discovery
Until recently, knowing how TikTok’s search algorithms worked was as unlikely to help you earn money as knowing how to sew buttons on eggs.
But in the past month, TikTok has launched Branded Mission, a new way for brands to crowdsource authentic and creative content from its community, and TikTok Pulse, a new contextual advertising solution that gives brands exposure in the top 4% of videos.
Suddenly, learning how TikTok’s search algorithms power content discovery seems a lot more likely to help content creators and social media influencers turn their side hustles into full-time gigs.
This seems like the right time for a comprehensive guide to how to get your videos found via the For You feed, as well as the Following feed, Search results, and Friends tab.
How TikTok Recommends Videos #ForYou
In June 2020, TikTok disclosed how its recommendation system selected videos in “How TikTok recommends videos #ForYou.”
Little has fundamentally changed since then, except the U.S. government is no longer trying to ban the Chinese social media platform.
So, here’s what creators and influencers need to know: TikTok’s For You feed presents a stream of videos curated to each user’s interests, making it easy for a user to find content and creators they love.
In other words, there isn’t one For You feed for over one billion monthly active TikTok users.
There are a billion For You feeds tailored to what each user watches, likes, and shares.
TikTok added, “This feed is powered by a recommendation system that delivers content to each user that is likely to be of interest to that particular user.”
And several factors impact recommendations, including:
- User interactions include liking or sharing videos, following accounts, commenting on a TikTok, and creating related content.
- Video information, which can include captions, sounds, or hashtags.
- Device and account settings such as a user’s language preference, country setting, and device type.
Two years ago, TikTok also revealed:
“All these factors are processed by our recommendation system and weighted based on their value to a user. A strong indicator of interest, such as whether a user finishes watching a longer video from beginning to end, would receive greater weight than a weak indicator, such as whether the video’s viewer and creator are both in the same country.”
On the other hand, TikTok said at the time:
“While a video is likely to receive more views if posted by an account that has more followers, by virtue of that account having built up a larger follower base, neither follower count nor whether the account has had previous high-performing videos are direct factors in the recommendation system.”
In July 2020, TikTok followed up with a second post, “5 tips for TikTok creators.”
It told us, “For You feed recommendations generally pull from videos posted within the last 90 days.”
Now, I don’t mean to quibble, but I found 10 tips in this post that are still useful today:
- Make captivating videos that tell stories, engage viewers, and spark conversation.
- Create vertical videos which perform best on TikTok and videos that are more than five seconds long.
- Write great captions to add context and provide additional information about a video.
- Bring your content to life by using creative effects (e.g., freeze-framing or AR objects) and sound effects (e.g., voice-overs or duets).
- Look broadly at the high-level trends in your analytics, then focus on a single metric from one video to another.
- Measure the performance of newly uploaded videos soon after publishing because that’s when you will generally see a peak in engagement.
- Capture viewers’ attention early and keep viewers interested because watch time determines how a video is recommended.
- Add relevant hashtags to your captions so they’re more likely to be found by audiences interested in your content.
- Add music and audio to your videos to help viewers who love the dances and challenges that TikTok has made popular discover them.
- Experiment, get creative, and post different kinds of content to see what resonates.
TikTok’s second post also busted some myths, including:
- Lots of factors determine how content is recommended in the For You feed, so no one engagement metric (such as likes or comments) is necessarily more important than another.
- More hashtags don’t guarantee broader reach, and hashtags like #FYP, #ForYou, and #ForYouPage don’t work any better than other hashtags, so adding these to your caption won’t improve your chances of being seen in someone’s For You feed.
- The number of videos you post won’t impact how your content is recommended in the For You feed, so focus on making deeply engaging videos from beginning to end instead.
So, does this two-year-old advice still generate results?
According to a post by Jacinda Santora on the Influencer Marketing Hub entitled, “Highest Paid TikTok Influencers of 2022,” Charli D’Amelio topped the list with average estimated earnings of $17.5 million.
She started posting dance videos on TikTok in 2019 and now has 141.3 million Followers, 10.9 billion Likes, and an Average Engagement Rate of 13%.
And her older sister, Dixie D’Amelio, ranked second on the list with average estimated earnings of $57 million.
A singer, she now has 57.4 million Followers, 3.2 billion Likes, and an Average Engagement Rate of 12%.
Jim Louderback, the author of the “Inside the Creator Economy” weekly newsletter, recommended in “What’s The Alternative To Spending $7 Million On A Super Bowl Ad?,” “Partner with the D’Amelios and bring them on as creative consultants/part owners of your brand.”
So, do you need to sing and dance to succeed on TikTok?
Let’s look at the results generated by other creators and influencers who weren’t born in Norwalk, Connecticut.
In July 2020, I taught a couple of the modules in the first Impact Digital Creator Program at the New Media Academy in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
At the time, all 22 of the creators and influencers in the program had Instagram accounts, and several had YouTube channels.
But, their most frequently asked question was: “Should I get on TikTok?”
In September 2020, the New Media Academy partnered with TikTok to add a course to the curriculum designed to help empower current and upcoming content creators in the region to learn how to use the Chinese social media app effectively.
That course, not I, taught creators and influencers in the UAE the best practices outlined above.
Since then, several creators and influencers in the program have launched TikTok accounts, including:
- Nabaa Aldabbagh, better known as ISpeakFootballOnly, now has 657,100 Followers, 7.1 million Likes, and a 14% Average Engagement Rate.
- Maitha Mohamed, an Emirati animation artist, and storyteller, now has 438,200 Followers, 4.2 million Likes, and a 10% Average Engagement Rate.
- Saif Darwish, who isn’t your everyday doctor, now has 195,800 Followers, 1.1 million Likes, and a 2% Average Engagement Rate.
- Ahmed AlMarzooqi, a content creator with a finance slant, now has 167,200 Followers, 1.1 million Likes, and a 6% Average Engagement Rate.
- Zainab AlSawalhi, the inspiration behind The Picture Happiness Project, now has 141,800 Followers, 2.3 million Likes, and a 6% Average Engagement Rate.
- Marwan Alwadhi, better known as DJ Bliss of Dubai, now has 43,000 Followers, 221,900 Likes, and a 2% Average Engagement Rate.
- Ghaith Al Falasi, an Emirati certified race car driver, self-taught off-roader, and drifter, now has 38,400 Followers, 318,100 Likes, and a 4% Average Engagement Rate.
So, yes, this two-year-old advice still generates results, but results can vary.
How TikTok recommends videos for the Following feed, Search results, and Friends tab
In August 2021, TikTok published the third post in the series, “Discover more of what you love on TikTok.”
So, how does the Following feed work? TikTok said,
“As you follow new creators, their content will start showing up in your Following feed, which surfaces some of the latest and most relevant content from accounts you follow.”
You should create entertaining, inspiring content targeted at one of the many communities on TikTok.
Because you need to enchant viewers to do more than just “Like” your videos.
You need them to “Follow” your account.
And trying to be all things to all people rarely triggers the kind of emotional response needed to get viewers to do that.
What about Search results?
“you can search for what you’re looking for, from hashtags to videos, creators, and sounds. Exploring these results can also help expand your viewing experience in your For You and Following feeds, as interactions like following an account, saving a video to Favorites, or liking or commenting on a video you’ve discovered through Search can help shape your future content recommendations.”
What should creators and influencers do with this scant amount of information?
Well, there’s only so much space in your captions, and more hashtags won’t guarantee a broader reach.
So, optimize your captions to add context to your video.
And along with adding hashtags that are relevant to your content, you might consider tagging another creator who inspired your content or use hashtags for trending topics or video challenges.
Or, you could leverage this insight from eMarketer: The #tiktokmademebuyit hashtag has 8.8 billion views on TikTok to date.
You should also optimize your selection of free music clips and sounds.
Although TikTok curates music and sound playlists with the hottest tracks in every genre, you need to find out if your audience responds to Hip Hop, Edm, Pop, Rock, Rap, Country, or other original sounds?
In addition, TikTok’s machine learning is shaped by an individual user’s search results over time.
So, consider focusing on specific affinity segments who search for videos on popular topics again and again.
Affinity segments like gamers, foodies, beauty mavens, pet lovers, or sports fans have interests and habits that enable you to make an ongoing series of short-form videos that they will find exciting, spontaneous, and genuine.
Finally, TikTok started rolling out a “Friends” tab last month, replacing the “Discover” tab.
According to a Tweet on May 5, 2022, by TikTokComms, the Friends tab:
“will allow you to easily find and enjoy content from people you’re connected with, so you can choose even more ways to be entertained on TikTok.”
So, who are these “Friends” and how do they differ from the accounts that you are Following? It’s simple. They’re the accounts you follow that follow you back.
So, the “Friends” tab will enable you to see what’s currently capturing the interest of your community – from trends to effects and sounds on the rise.
And while you are out looking for inspiration, you might also want to use TikTok Insights, a new tool that surfaces insights marketers can use to target different demographics worldwide.
So, why should creators and influencers use a tool designed for marketers? For exactly the same reason that Willie Sutton robbed banks.
In the 1930s, a reporter named Mitch Ohnstad asked Sutton why he robbed banks. According to Ohnstad, Sutton replied, “Because that’s where the money is.”
And creators and influencers who want to earn money need to identify the “sweet spot” that represents the intersection of what their audience wants to watch, like, and share, and which audience endemic advertisers or brands in specific industries want to reach.
To illustrate that endemic advertisers and brands are interested in reaching specific audiences in the U.S. and the UAE, here are a few short success stories.
International House of Pancakes (IHOP) wanted to get millennial-aged food lovers to check out the restaurant by driving mass awareness around limited-time-only products.
IHOP looked to TikTok as part of its 2021 Halloween campaign to build interest and create in-store demand for these limited-time-only products at the “International Haunted House of Pancakes.”
For its Halloween campaign, IHOP partnered with popular creator and DJ @IsaacLikes to serve up likable and informative In-Feed Ads that felt organic to the platform thanks to his “I LIKE YOU” personality.
Creatively, the In-Feed Ads leaned into popular trends like food hacks and comedy, with @IsaacLikes introducing the new menu and showing viewers how to get creative with their pancakes.
The funny and engaging content inspired them to head to their local IHOP to experiment with the new Halloween menu. One ad introduced the limited-time spooky menu, including create-your-own Scary Face Pancakes, while another showed Isaac’s six ways to eat an IHOP pancake.
IHOP then used the Reach objective to reach as many users as possible while also using TikTok Ads Manager to focus on specific interest and behavior groups to get in front of food lovers who were more likely to visit their nearest IHOP.
By targeting keywords such as “fall,” “autumn,” and “pancakes,” IHOP created efficiencies in connecting with the right audience to drive awareness while also realizing lower-funnel success at restaurants.
IHOP then used Foursquare Attribution to measure how the ads moved the needle in getting users in-store to sink their fangs into the new, spooky menu.
The International Haunted House of Pancakes reached over 33 million users.
More importantly, using interest and behavior targeting in TikTok Ads Managers ensured IHOP got in front of the right customers efficiently, leading to a 26% lower CPM than the national average on TikTok.
The TikTok community engaged with the creator-led content, too. The @isaaclikes videos brought in over 134,000 clicks to the Halloween menu landing page, 289,000 likes, and 2,000 shares.
Moreover, a post-campaign Brand Lift Study showed that humorous ads delivered a significant +8.4% ad recall.
Awareness was the primary goal, but the campaign’s hocus pocus also enchanted the TikTok community to try the menu in stores.
The Foursquare Attribution study proved that 5.42% of exposed users visited an IHOP location after seeing an ad on TikTok, a behavioral lift of 1.81% compared to those not exposed to the ads.
But wait, there’s more!
Kraft-Heinz wanted to showcase the versatility of its products and extend its relevance on dining tables in KSA and UAE, from using it on mostly-Western dishes like French fries to traditional Middle Eastern meals like shawarma.
Heinz called on the community to participate in a Branded Hashtag Challenge, encouraging them to share their unconventionally tasty #HeinzIt combos, focusing on meals that were more traditional to the region.
The brand enlisted the help of the TikTok creator community, partnering with key voices that represented different demographics and interests within their target audience.
The creators kicked off the campaign and set the tone for the challenge by harnessing TikTok’s suite of creative tools. Using native transitions and the power of sound to produce TikToks dramatically brought to life how a little Heinz can elevate the experience of any meal, taking the brand from dull and uninteresting to fun and exciting in an instant.
The wider TikTok community was inspired by this early activity and quickly followed suit, sharing their own versions of unconventionally tastier meals through the #HeinzIt Challenge.
The campaign generated over 33.6 million views in the two markets of the hashtag content and inspired the creation of approximately 2,400 UGC videos.
In other words, Heinz succeeded in sparking a campaign echoed by the community, building a wave of advocacy that surpassed the brand’s expectations.
For people who saw the ad, the campaign produced a lift of 27 % points in the UAE and 23% points in KSA compared to people who didn’t see the ad, when asked about the statement that Heinz “can be used across a wide variety of dishes.”
The brand was also able to significantly lift Favorability by 25% points in the UAE and 32% points in KSA. This further solidified the brand as the preferred staple on the dining table while influencing the lower funnel with an uplift of 30 percentage points in the UAE and 24 percentage points in KSA on Purchase Intent – resulting in a full funnel win for Heinz!
Content Creators & Social Media Influencers Are Mini Media Companies
As more advertisers and brands start testing Branded Mission and TikTok Pulse, a growing percentage of TikTok creators and influencers will become mini media companies.
I worked at a media company in the late 1980s and 1990s.
Initially, I was the director of marketing at PC/Computing magazine, and later, I became the director of corporate communications for the Ziff-Davis Publishing Company.
I learned that the world’s largest publisher of computer magazines focused first on creating content that acted as a magnet and a screen.
The magnet attracted a specific target audience, such as “PC brand specifiers” or “PC volume buyers.” At the same time, the screen kept those who weren’t as interested in buying PCs from diluting the composition of the audience.
And it was the composition and the size of the audience that attracted endemic advertisers.
This special-interest publishing formula, which put content first, audience second, and advertisers third, enabled Ziff-Davis to fetch $1.4 billion when Forstmann Little & Company purchased it in 1994 and $2.1 billion when it was sold again in 1995 to the Softbank Corporation.
So, my advice to TikTok creators and influencers is simple: To be successful, focus first on creating entertaining and inspiring content that attracts and retains a clearly defined audience that will attract advertisers and brands – and, ultimately, will turn your side hustle into a full-time gig.
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