TikTok and the secrets to viral growth

TikTok and the secrets to viral growth
Photo by Alexander Shatov / Unsplash

In 2021, TikTok beat out Google to be the world's most popular domain in terms of traffic. This is huge considering that the Google domain includes Search, Maps, Translate, Photos, Flights, Books, and News, among others and still people visited TikTok more than all these other services combined.

With over 1 Billion active monthly users, the short-form video app is no longer "just for teens" and can no longer be ignored. In this article, I tackle some of the secrets to TikTok's viral growth and explain why it's shaping up to beat giants like Facebook & Instagram.


Its parent company ByteDance valued at over 400 Billion is currently the world's most valuable privately held company. This is despite only being started in 2012, beating out US heavyweights like SpaceX. Its investors include SoftBank Group, Sequoia Capital and Xiaomi.

Initially launched in 2016 as Daouyin, the app quickly gained traction in China gained 100 million users in its first year. In 2017, the company decided to expand globally rebranding the app to TikTok. Today it maintains both brands, TikTok for the international market and Daouyin for mainland China.

Tiktok managed to reach 1 Billion Monthly Active Users in just 4 years, a feat that took platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Youtube at least 8 years to pull off. Others companies like Twitter & Snapchat are still yet to reach this number of monthly active users.

Below I explain some of the reasons for its great adoption :

Great Technology

Ever wondered how TikTok seems to know exactly what you want to watch & how to keep you hooked?

The key to TikTok's success is its incredible AI. Its parent company, BtyeDance, has strong AI roots, having its first product Toutiao, a news curation site, that had great AI which ultimately lead to its success.

TikTok has a great recommendation engine that rivals the ones used by Amazon, Netflix & Youtube. The recommendation engine uses data points like watch time, likes, user follows, video tags & more to predict the perfect video for you to watch. The result is that people are more satisfied with what they watch & spent more time on the app. This increases app engagement and traffic.

Creator First

At its core TikTok empowers almost everyone, from your little sister to your grandfather, to be a creator. The application is incredibly user friendly and has easy to use tools like filters, video effects, an audio library and so much more! The platform also shares resources with its creators on different content creation strategies.

TikTok also provides its users with different routes for monetization through its Creator Next program:

  • Creator Fund - TikTok's own fund paid for top creators
  • Creator Marketplace - A portal for brands to find and collaborate with creators
  • Virtual Gifts for Videos & Live streams
  • Tips

Organic discovery

The biggest barrier to most beginner creators is getting their brand out there & getting discovered. Platforms like Facebook & Twitter offer users paid ads & promoted tweets as a way to remedy this. Unfortunately, this means users have to part with their money and this friction is a deterrent to most new creators.

TikTok offers a radically different approach & removes this barrier to entry by offering organic discovery. Unlike other platforms where users only get content from the creators they follow, TikTok's For You Tab recommends content from popular accounts & new accounts alike.

After the initial appearance in the For You tab, the recommendation engine then uses things like the number of views, watch time, likes & comments to keep recommending content from beginners to even more accounts. This means new users have a higher chance to be discovered and as such beginners are setting up accounts on TikTok & starting their creator journey every day!


In today's digital world we are constantly bombarded with data, the internet currently has over 50 zettabytes and that number is increasing every day. Additionally, we have so many apps on our phone always competing for attention, take this hypothetical situation for example that occurs when someone tries to watch a 25-minute video on Youtube:

  • 2 minutes in: Twitter notification - Jim23 mentioned you in a tweet
  • 5 minutes in: Whatsapp notification - Donald: Are we still getting drinks later?
  • 8 minutes in: Outlook notification - Boss: Any update on those timelines
  • 10 minutes in: Instagram notification - SarahAnne liked 17 of your photos
  • 15 minutes in: Google Duo notification - Incoming Video Call: Mom
  • 17 minutes in: Whatsapp notification - Mom: Why aren't you answering my call?
  • 20 minutes in: Facebook notification - "Ex-girlfriend" just posted a relationship update

Now I don't know about you but it's going to be very hard for me to finish watching that video, there are just too many distractions. This phenomenon has led to shorter attention spans & demand for more engaging content.

TikTok delivers just that, short-form engaging content tailored to your needs. Unlike platforms like Youtube, Tiktok limits its video to 3 minutes. It understands that in a distracted world short-form content is more engaging. The following graphic shows how TikTok is topping all other social media apps in terms of user engagement

Graph showing average session duration for different social media apps

Easy Sharing

Unlike platforms like Youtube & Instagram where downloading videos is restricted, and normally done through 3-party 'illegal' apps, TikTok makes it easy to download & share. Being famous for viral videos, TikTok videos are normally shared everywhere across different social media platforms. All downloaded videos contain the app's watermark and the creator's username. This watermark coupled with easy sharing creates a viral loop that drives 1000s back to TikTok in the hopes of similar content.

Getting copied 😤

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and in TikTok's story, no words are truer. Seeing TikTok's great success with short-form video other platforms in the content industry quickly rolled out their attempts, soon we had Youtube Shorts, Instagram Reels & FB lasso.

While imitation normally leads to competition & reduced market share, in TikTok's case something strange happened. Their number of users actually increased following being copied 📈. While this appears strange, it was part of all TikTok's brilliant strategy, let me explain.

Because TikTok was creator centric, creators were more comfortable creating and editing their video's on Tiktok. They would create them there and then simply share them on other platforms. The brilliance of TikTok is that all the videos are watermarked with their logo, to let people know where the content was created. Over time users' of these other platforms would realise if they wanted fresh content, they would need to be on TikTok.  This drove TikTok installs up and as users joined TikTok, they would discover other similar creators to the one that had attracted them to TikTok and be hooked.

Locked In

The key to TikTok's success is how engaging it is, some users of the app report uninstalling it after noticing how addictive it is & describing the feeling as being trapped. This is because once you open the app, every step is engineered to keep you engaged. For example, the app doesn't initially require registration, and one can start enjoying the moment they download the app. Another trick is that the moment you open the app, a preselected video auto-plays, this removes the initial friction of finding content and starts you off your journey.

Time To Fun (TTF), is a metric used in the gaming world to measure how much time it takes for the user to gain value from the app. Most top apps can achieve this in under 60 seconds, TikTok does it in under 10 seconds🤯. From there their recommendation engine makes sure you're engaged with a continuous stream of content.

When one tries to exit however you're presented with a new video & asked to confirm before exiting. This is an attempt to re-engage you & keep you in the app.  If you take more than 5 seconds to confirm that you want to exit, the app takes it as a success and re-activates the lock, meaning if you attempt to exit again, you are taken through the process again.

TikTok is indeed a marvel of product design, from activation to engagement to retention, the application was designed for viral growth. Although initially dubbed another Vine clone, it proved itself to be different. The product team was intentional in every aspect and because of this, the app is a huge success.

I hope you enjoyed this deep dive into an amazing product, I definately enjoyed writing it. Please do let me know what you think in the comment section, both feedback and criticism are welcome.  Would also love to know what other factors you think contributed to TikTok's growth.