Going Viral on TikTok

The progression goes like this:

Refuse to download TikTok because you’re better than that. Cave and download TikTok because no you’re not, and your friend finally convinced you. Scroll for five minutes and not get the hype, but keep going back because now you kind of want to get it. Suddenly realize that the algorithm has figured you out and the For You Page is really the For YOU Page. Become irreversibly addicted. 

But scrolling endlessly through TikTok is just the beginning—the app’s structure is even more interesting when you begin uploading public content. Out of the users who actively make TikToks, far more go “viral” than you would think. The low barrier to gaining an audience is an aspect of the platform that many users gravitate towards. If you make good content, it’s not all that difficult to get it in front of at least a few hundred people. 

So the app’s structure makes it easy to go viral, but what exactly does that look like from a creator’s perspective? Everyone seems to find a different way to do it. Out of a communication student’s curiosity about this somewhat strange platform, I asked 4 creators about their viral TikTok experiences to better understand how going viral on TikTok really works.

How often do you post on TikTok?

The question of frequency is relevant to any social media platform, but the varied nature of different users’ posting habits makes TikTok particularly interesting. Charli D’Amelio, undoubtedly the most famous TikToker, posts 2-4 times a day. 

Following this model, user Caele Panares (@caele) posts on her TikTok account 1-3 times a day. Her most popular TikTok is a compilation of videos from her time as a camp counselor at Camp Half-Blood Austin, a summer camp inspired by Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. The video has 267.7k views and 64.6K likes (as of 9/14/20).

@caele

chaotic version LOL ft. @anslan999 ##percyjackson ##percyjacksoncosplay ##camphalfblood ##austin ##fyp ##foryoupage 🧡

♬ original sound - kalepanerabread

(Link: https://vm.tiktok.com/ZMJAuWLvs/)

On the other hand, Jonah Lione (@jonah_lione), whose viral TikTok sparked a trend that was covered by Buzzfeed, says, “Sometimes I won’t post for weeks, and then I’ll randomly post like seven times in three days.” His viral video was only the second TikTok he had ever posted. 

@jonah_lione

Damn what you doin out here with all this space 🤑

♬ original sound - jonah_lione

(Link: https://www.tiktok.com/@jonah_lione/video/6782002804694322437)

The difference in Jonah and Caele’s experiences goes to show that TikTok doesn’t inherently favor users who post more often. While you may manage to get more views overall by increasing the amount of content you’re putting out, you don’t need to be consistent to be viral.

How do you come up with the idea for a viral TikTok?

The level of intention behind any given TikTok also varies. Some are videos taken outside of the app that happen to work well on the platform, while other videos are planned specifically for TikTok, sometimes playing on a trending sound or challenge.

User Amy Schroeder (@amymaeschroeder) fell on the more thought-out side of TikTok creation with her viral video, in which she paints Peppa Pig onto her hot pink pepper spray to turn it into “Peppa spray.”

@amymaeschroeder

My mom got me pepper spray for Christmas...you better watch out! ##foryoupage ##wintersports ##fyp ##peppapig ##peppapigchallenge ##peppa

♬ i'm Peppa Pig - funny

(Link: https://www.tiktok.com/@amymaeschroeder/video/6775992780616502534)

“This was around the time where Peppa was really popular,” Amy says. “I thought it would be the most hilarious thing to paint Peppa Pig on my pepper spray and call it ‘Peppa Spray.’”

Closer to the middle ground of intention is user Abby Gross’s (@abbygr0ss) viral TikTok of her and her friend going berry picking.

“My friend and I were berry picking and just thought of funny things we could do with the berries,” Abby said. “It was not thought out or planned at all, we were really just messing around. I didn't think anyone else would find it funny in the slightest.” 

@abbygr0ss

berry tik tok blow this up

♬ original sound - abbygr0ss

(Link: https://www.tiktok.com/@abbygr0ss/video/6846509127473171717)

While Abby did not have as much of an intention to make a TikTok that people would enjoy, she did make the video with the quick jump cuts that are characteristic of TikTok videos. Her video still very much subscribes to the format that TikTok viewers enjoy and that captures their attention.

Jonah’s refrigerator video, however, was not even meant to be uploaded to TikTok. He explained that it was a silly video he texted to some friends, who convinced him that it was worth putting on the app.

Between these different methods of creating TikToks, it is clear that what matters most is finding the way that suits you. The algorithm favors content that engages people, and there are endless ways to do that, whether you put a lot of thought into elaborate videos, or just post something that you know will interest TikTok users.

Was your viral video similar to the rest of the videos that you post on TikTok?

I find this question interesting because far too often the video that goes viral on TikTok is the last one you’d expect to. Many people make content fairly regularly and find that the one video they post that is not like the rest is the one that the algorithm picks up on.

Caele: "I post all kinds of content, from relatable posts, makeup transformations, dance videos, silly videos with my friends/family/boyfriend, and videos about the fandoms/films/TV I'm into... Honestly, I like to post whatever, but I know that people follow you if you have some sort of niche, so I try to stick mainly with makeup, avatar, and Percy Jackson related content. I'd say my viral video was similar to my content in the way that it is Percy Jackson related, but it attracted way more people because it was footage from actual Camp Half-Blood."

Jonah: "What I post is pretty inconsistent...  Everything I post tends to just be things I find funny.  Sometimes it's just me saying funny things to the camera. Last week I filmed myself putting Christmas lights on a house plant; I'm not trying to stick to any specific kind of content like many creators."

Amy: "I post on TikTok to get things out of my brain… I will come up with an idea whether it be a story or an adaptation of a trend, and I just post it. I have done everything from singing videos to “put a finger down” videos." 

Abby: "I normally post more about concerts or musicians that I like or art that I've made. The viral video was nothing like my other videos."

And the big question… what’s it like to go viral on TikTok?

For people who stick to scrolling through the For You Page instead of posting, there’s a level of intrigue surrounding the idea of going viral on TikTok. While you see videos with big numbers all the time on your For You Page, the idea of it happening to you feels slightly intangible until you finally post that first viral video.

Caele: "It was awesome to go viral (though I did have to answer many questions I have answered a million times before and made several vlogs and Q&A's about) but I still wouldn't consider myself popular on TikTok at all. I made a few friends and still love to put out content though!"

Jonah: "It was exciting! I was very new to TikTok and it was only my second video (my first one I had posted that same day), so I was shocked it got so many views so quickly. It was a couple days later that it began to go viral, it stayed around a couple hundred views for the first day and then virtually overnight I was at a couple hundred thousand. Nine months later I still get likes and comments on that video and I am up to 3.1 million views."

Amy: "I actually had a previous video that had about 70k views and I thought that was viral. So that was really fun to relive. But the numbers did not stop. It was fun to refresh my phone and constantly get notifications about my TikTok. I kinda thought it was funny that other people enjoyed a joke that I thought was so easy."

Abby: "It was comical because the video that went viral was IDIOTIC. I have so many other TikToks that I put effort into making and THIS was the one that blew up. A disgrace."

If at first you don’t succeed in going viral, you definitely shouldn’t be discouraged. In all probability, if you keep trying you’re bound to at least get a couple thousand views on your video at some point, even if you have 10 or less followers. 

But TikTok’s low barrier for getting a wide audience also means that it’s tricky to hold on to that audience once they’ve viewed your content. The viewer-centric model wants to put as many videos on a user’s For You Page as possible. This means that if you’re trying to establish yourself as a creator on TikTok, you’re always competing with newer creators and their content for space in users’ feeds.

If you’re posting without a set goal of becoming TikTok famous, however, you’ll easily find that it’s a fun way to create and to find people who like what you create. So, post those drafts! Film that “put a finger down” video! Learn that new TikTok dance! We’d love to see what you make next.

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