What makes TikTok so addictive?
TikTok is everywhere — in the news, on every social marketer’s radar and last but not least on over 1 billion people’s phones.
Almost 70% of the users on the app are Gen Z and 60% are female. They spend on average 80 minutes per day on the app and open it at least 8 times a day.
So, what makes this app so special and addictive?
Let’s start with the non-existing friend graph.
Remember the old days when you signed up on Facebook?! Facebook executives calculated that if you added 7 friends in 10 days, then you’d be retained for life. Woohoo! So the secret sauce was adding a minimum amount of friends in a limited amount of time. That made sense back then: The more friends you have on a social network, the higher the likelihood you’ll be using it actively.
Instagram started as a photo-sharing app, but quickly moved into the same direction over time. It was all about your friends and their content that you followed on your friend graph. Open your app, check out what your friends are doing and close it again.
This strategy works, but has one flaw — mental fatigue over time. We live in a digital world, and Facebook and Instagram are apps that help us connect with our friends and family spread across the globe. That’s great, but that’s also leads to mental fatigue.
Be honest, when was the last time you opened Instagram and especially Facebook and got inspired and excited? You’re following a fixed subset of people and see their pics, videos and stories every day. Over time, you’ve pretty much seen everything there is about them. The good thing, both apps allow you to follow other people and brands, to help with the mental fatigue. Over time the same thing happens though — you become bored and used to their posts and content. That’s the ultimate flaw of an app built on a friend graph — you become bored over time.
It wasn’t just Instagram and Facebook who got trapped in this friend graph dilemma, but almost every other social network.
TikTok went a different path. It just nixed the friend graph altogether. When you open the app, you see an endless feed of funny and entertaining AI content, but you don’t know any of these guys. Not one.
Guess what: 99% of TikTok users don’t care about that. They went through the friend graph dilemma on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and they had enough.
The average number of people you follow on TikTok is less than 20, on Instagram it’s more than 340.
So how is it that despite following 17X less people on TikTok vs Instagram, you’re 4X more engaged on TikTok?
The simple answer is: TikTok focuses on fun and entertainment, not social networking. TikTok connects you with thousands of creators around the world without even asking you or you having to do anything. Download the app, boom you’re watching thousands of creators without ever creating a profile page, following people and uploading a single video.
Closely related to the non-existing friend graph, is another reason why TikTok is so addictive:
An endless AI feed of content.
Above you see a live example of my own TikTok feed. So what happened? I opened up the app, flipped through 9 videos in 30 seconds and got two valuable gifts at no charge: Entertainment and Dopamine Rushes.
In today’s world, time and attention are amongst the most valuable metrics every marketer is aiming for. There is so much free information and content out there, that it’s hard to keep up and get excited about anything these days. People are uploading tens of millions of pics, videos, blogs, and podcasts every single minute.
Gen Z, which will be the largest demographic in the US in 2021 with over 74M people, has been impacted the most by that. They’re not digital-first as some say, they’re digital only. They grew up with iPhones, iPads and Gaming Consoles. They don’t know what a modem is. They read about fax machines in history books. For them dating is swiping profile pics left and right on Tinder & Bumble. For most of Gen Z folks, shopping inside physical malls seems like a waste of time.
This generation grew up with access to all the world’s information and content via digital channels. Anything they want and need, is a simple Google Search or Voice Command via Alexa or Siri away.
So how does this impact their TikTok usage? Because Gen Z grew up with such easy access to endless amounts of information and content, their attention span is significantly less than that of let’s say Gen Z or Baby Boomers. They can hardly focus more than 15 sec at a time without starting to get bored. Try talking to a teenager about a random topic and watch their body language after 15–30 seconds. They get bored quickly and unlike the rest of us, are really good at multitasking with multiple apps at the same time like Spotify, Fortnite, Snap, TikTok and Doordash.
TikTok understood this issue and brilliantly solved for it by providing users and endless feed of short AI generated content that is entertaining and renewable with flick of your thumb. You can be bored and instantly get entertained and receive multiple dopamine rushes inside your brain simply by opening TikTok and swiping through endless funny and entertaining videos. The amount and quality of creation on TikTok is unmatched. You can literally spend hours and hours watching dance compilation and prank videos (they make up the majority of the content by category) and never feel like the content is repetitive and boring.
To phrase it in mental health terms: TikTok provides you with free, cheap and lasting dopamine rushes in a short amount of time, simply by swiping down your left or right thumb. This is the same neurotransmitter that helps you get excited such as having sex, doing cocaine, gambling or whatever else gets you excited and turned.
Makes sense?! Ok, back to TikTok’s endless AI content feed.
What makes TikTok stand out amongst peers is that no other app can provide this amount of original content, because it turns 83% of their users into creators. Look at Instagram in comparison. Their creators have beautiful grids of polished pics and high end videos that users watch, but it’s hard for them to participate in this process. They get downgraded to admiring them through validation of likes, views and comments. TiKTok makes everyone a creator through its genius video editing software. It’s powerful but yet simple. You need some time initially, if you’re not a digital native Gen Z member, but you can dance along others in less than 5 minutes after using the app.
TikTok’s AI feed algorithm constantly “feeds” you with new exciting content, and you don’t have to do anything to make it work. You don’t have to feed it with personalization metrics like other apps rely on: They don’t need your follows, likes, views and comments to create curated content for you. Somehow they figured out a formula that works for almost all ages and cultures. What they show you on day one seems already curated and customized to a brand new user. It doesn’t feel like a clunky feed that needs your input in order to be useful.
Compare Instagram and Facebook against that: They aren’t really useful on day one since they’re built upon social networking, having a minimum number of following and personalizing your feed through metrics that users have to provide.
So let’s sum up what we have so far on why TikTok is so addictive:
That brings us to the last feature:
TikTok content is raw, authentic and relatable.
Why does that matter and how does that make the app more addictive?
First of all, TikTok catered to its main audience: Gen Z.
This generation prefers raw, edgy and imperfect content vs Photoshop edited beautiful content you find on social media apps like Instagram and Pinterest. TikTok is not about creating perfect and beautiful content that is aspirational to millions of me-too users. TikTok is about being raw and authentic and that in return boosts engagement of its users.
Let’s step back for a minute. Instagram’s popularity came from making us all aspirational photographers competing for the perfect shot, colors, angle and location. This led to a surge in engagement initially, but soon turned sour with negative mental consequences for millions of users.
It created an unhealthy competition towards: Who has the best life, the most beautiful holiday shots, the best looking friends, the most romantic partner and the most exciting hobbies. I could go on an on.
That led to people engaging for all the wrong reasons. Spying on what others are projecting about their “perfect life” and trying to up them up.
This process is still ongoing but you can already see cracks in constant decline of engagement on Instagram vs TikTok and increasing mental health issues.
TikTok stepped away from the competition about who has the perfect digital life. They focused on creating lasting engagement through raw, authentic and relatable content.
Not just because that’s what their main audience likes, but because it works better for the long game. Instagram’s perfect digital life race only works for a period, but then users are starting to get jealous, exhausted, disappointed and occasionally frustrated.
TikTok’s raw and not photoshopped content is more relatable to users. It’s easier to create and participate vs creating perfect and beautiful shots and videos. It triggers community and belonging vs competition and me, myself and I attitude.
That’s why I believe you’ll see engagement continue to be high on TikTok vs Instagram continue to lose its engagement amongst its billion users.
Last but not least here’s a deep dive into TikTok’s app features and famed algorithm
Credit to Wallaroo for the below stats.
TikTok has over 1 billion users with over 100 million in the U.S. alone.
Subset of Users
When a video is uploaded to TikTok, the For You algorithm shows it first to a small subset of users. These people may or may not follow the creator already, but TikTok has determined they may be more likely to engage with the video (based on their past behavior). If this initial group responds positively by either liking, sharing, or watching the entire video at a rate higher than what is normal for that account-TikTok then shows it to more people who it thinks share similar interests. That same process then repeats itself, and if this positive feedback loop happens enough times, the video can go viral. But if the initial test group doesn’t signal they enjoyed the content, it’s shown to fewer users, limiting its potential reach. It’s basically a mini-voting system that happens over and over until the metrics fall below the norm.
For You Page
This strategy is why your For You page may contain videos with lots of likes and views, alongside videos that may have been seen by only a few people. A new user with a small amount of followers can still make it to the For You page. Although creators with large followings may have an advantage do to their inherent advantage of follower count. “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,” the TikTok blog post reads. This is why TikTok is the best we’ve ever seen in regards to building an organic social following.
Watchability and Shareability of Content
TikTok relies on a variety of signals to identify what kinds of videos users want to see. Some signals are weighted more heavily than others. Strong signals include things like whether you watched a video to the end, whether you shared it, and if you followed the creator who uploaded it after watching. TikTok also considers negative feedback on a video, like whether a user tapped “Not Interested,” or if they choose to hide content from a certain creator or featuring a specific sound. Due to these signals, creating content that catches people’s attention early (as in the first few seconds) is key.
When videos are published is also a weak signal. TikTok says recommendations on the For You page may be up to roughly three months old, though videos usually peak in virality soon after they are posted. Since time stamps aren’t visible on the For You page, users may not know the videos they’re watching are from long ago. So anyone saying that there are certain days/times that work best for distribution are incorrect (although late at night probably doesn’t help at all).
Songs and Hashtags
The For You page algorithm looks at other elements like songs used in the video, hashtags, and captions, to categorize them and then recommend more videos like them. That’s why you may have noticed that your For You page often includes videos with the same sounds, if you’ve engaged with content using similar sounds in the past. The fact that TikTok utilizes hashtags proves that gaming the For You page-simply by adding the hashtag #foryou, is effective. If users engaged previously with videos using #foryou, it’s indeed possible they could be recommended more of them, but there’s nothing particularly special about the hashtag itself. Just a self-fulfilling prophecy.
TikTok says the For You page algorithm isn’t optimized for any specific metric, but rather is designed to take into account many factors. TikTok acknowledged in its blog post some of the challenges that come with designing recommendation algorithms, like the risk of creating filter bubbles, where users are shown the same one-sided ideas over and over again. To prevent this, TikTok says it purposely shows users different types of videos, even if they don’t match what they may have engaged with in the past. “Our goal is to find balance between suggesting content that’s relevant to you while also helping you find content and creators that encourage you to explore experiences you might not otherwise see,” the company wrote.
Thanks for your attention and time — I know that was more than 15 seconds, so I really appreciate it :) I hope you found this post useful.
Originally published at https://socialcommerce.substack.com.