May 24, 2023

How to go viral on TikTok: What works and what doesn't

There's lots of advice out there about how to go viral. A successful TikToker explains which strategies are actually effective — and which are just a mirage.
May 24, 2023

How to go viral on TikTok: What works and what doesn't

There's lots of advice out there about how to go viral. A successful TikToker explains which strategies are actually effective — and which are just a mirage.
May 24, 2023
Brenton Zola
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Many people want to go viral on TikTok. You might have dreams of setting the next trend or seeing one of your videos rack up millions of views. But there's a lot of bad advice out there about how to go viral. 

I've had several viral videos with six and seven-figure views on TikTok and I've also worked with other creators who have racked up millions of views on their own videos. In this article, I’m going to explain which strategies are actually effective and which are just a mirage. 

First, it's important to understand there are two motivations for going viral.

  1. Because you think it'd be cool to have a video seen by people all over the world
  2. Because you want to build a sustainable online presence for yourself or your business 

If you fall into the first camp, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Within the first category, there are many things that can go viral: cute videos of your pet, family gaffes, fun dances, the list goes on. 

But if you fall into the second camp, you’ll need to be more strategic and figure out how to apply viral methodologies to your specific type of content, brand, and style.

The pillars of virality 

If you want to create viral videos, you need to understand why people share videos to begin with. Social scientist Jonah Berger has written about the key principles of why content spreads.

Social currency

According to Berger, people share content that enhances their social status or makes them appear knowledgeable. For that reason, viral content needs to be remarkable, unique, or offer exclusive information that others will want to share to boost their own social standing.

Emotional resonance

Content that brings out high-arousal emotions such as awe, laughter, or surprise is more likely to go viral. If your content tugs at the heartstrings, evokes strong reactions, or provides a cathartic experience, you’ll probably inspire more people to share your stuff..

Social proof 

People want to be a part of what’s already popular. Videos that have lots of likes and comments are more likely to get even more likes and comments. Finding ways to encourage engagement and start a conversation with your content can create a virtuous cycle where more people feel compelled to engage because others have already done so. 

Practical value

Content that solves a problem is incredibly shareable. Berger suggests creating content that provides actionable tips, hacks, or advice that can improve people's lives or make tasks easier. Content that offers a tangible benefit makes people feel helpful when they share it with others.

Storytelling

Berger also highlights the importance of storytelling in making content more shareable. Humans are wired for narratives, and compelling stories have the power to captivate and engage. Craft narratives that are relatable, emotionally compelling, and easy to remember. Stories can create a deeper connection with your audience, which makes them more likely to spread the story further.

Jonah Berger's bestelling book "Contagious: Why Things Catch On"

What works to go viral on TikTok

Identify trending topics and challenges

TikTok thrives on trends. To increase your chances of going viral, try using a TikTok trend, dueting a popular video, or even leveraging a current event. But it’s important to make it your own style. A good example is creator Jake Novak, who took the popular “PS5” rap duet trend and did his version from the perspective of an “awkward guy.” He made a reference to Chidi Anagonye from the TV show The Good Place, which endeared many viewers. The video went massively viral with over 18 million views. 

In this vein, the biggest mistake I see content creators make is to take a trend and then make a video that looks like the thousands of other videos that are using that trend. By jumping on these trends early and adding your unique twist, you can capture the attention of the TikTok community and increase the likelihood of your video content being shared.

Create powerful hooks — and make it shorter

In a sea of TikTok videos, standing out from the crowd is essential. Capture the viewer's attention within the first few seconds with an intriguing opening. Experiment with different video formats, such as tutorials, storytelling, comedy skits, or unexpected twists. Also, try different video lengths. Most viral videos tend to be under 45 seconds and many are under 20 seconds, so experiment with how you can create a moment of awe or surprise in a really short period of time.

Leverage trending sounds

Audio plays a vital role on TikTok. Incorporate catchy, trending songs into your videos to make them more engaging and relatable. Some creators will even post trending audio and then mute it, which can help to get some algorithm boost even if your video needs only your original sounds. Try to find audio that matches the style of your video.

What doesn’t work

Stressing over hashtags

Some creators and influencers say that hashtags are vital for discoverability on TikTok. They might encourage you to spend lots of time researching trending hashtags and dumping a ton of hashtags on your video. Hashtags may have been more important in the past (and everyone has superstitions around the infamous #fyp or #foryoupage). But what I've seen from both research and experience is that hashtags don't make that big of a dent. It might be a good idea to include one to three (but no more) relevant hashtags to your video, but you don't need to spend hours researching like some advice might suggest. What matters more is having a keyword-rich description in your caption. Eventually, people and the algorithm will come to know the kind of content you create.

Stressing over posting times

There are a million articles out there analyzing the best times to post on TikTok. You can definitely experiment with different posting times and analyze your audience's behavior, but don’t overthink it. If a video is good, it’s good. Sometimes a great video will be snubbed by the TikTok algorithm. And if that happens, it’s perfectly okay to repost it and try again. If you identify good times to post, that’s great. But don’t stress too much if you post at a time that deviates from your usual schedule.  

Stressing over production value

Two thirds of TikTokers say professional-looking videos from brands or certain creators can feel out of place. The great (and challenging) thing about TikTok is that it rewards authenticity and informality. So grab your phone and try to make something that’s true to you and your ideas — and don’t worry about the Hollywood effects. 

Do you actually want to go viral? 

Many people are obsessed with the idea of virality. But virality doesn’t equal consistency. Virality doesn’t build a community. And there are a number of downsides to going viral, especially when you’re not ready.

Attracting the wrong audience

Going viral can increase your follower count quickly. But creators often find that a sudden influx of followers brings in people who are primarily attracted to a viral video rather than a creator. This can lead to a disconnect between the creator's authentic voice and the expectations of their new audience. And if the viral video was just a one-off, you might feel pressure to make TikTok content that’s inauthentic — and that’s not a strategy that can last.

It can be addictive 

Many creators who go viral talk about the dopamine spike: the views, the comments, the emails, the attention — it can be intoxicating. But a viral video can create unrealistic expectations for future content. The pressure to repeat or surpass the success of the viral video can be overwhelming. This focus on going viral can stifle your creativity and lead to a constant quest for validation through numbers, instead of letting your genuine creative vision and personality shine.

Pressure and burnout

The pressure to consistently produce viral content can be mentally exhausting. There’s often a fear of losing followers or becoming irrelevant, which can lead to burnout. Creators may even find themselves trapped in a cycle of trying to recreate the magic of their viral video. The success of a single viral video can create a perception that the creator is limited to that particular niche or style. Breaking out of the mold and exploring new content areas becomes challenging, as the audience may expect more of the same viral formula. That puts a damper on personal and creative growth.

There’s a lot of mystique around virality, but there’s a process and strategy to it just like anything else. Going viral can seem like a dream come true, but it’s crucial to recognize the potential pitfalls of focusing on virality at all costs. The ultimate goal for any creator or business should be building a sustainable and engaged community rather than chasing viral success. True success lies in nurturing genuine connections, fostering creativity, and staying true to your authentic voice. And if millions of people resonate with that content, then that’s even better.

Brenton Zola
Brenton Zola is a first-generation writer, thinker, and multidisciplinary artist fascinated by what it means to be human.
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How to go viral on TikTok: What works and what doesn't

Metronome with a smartphone bearing a TikTok logo

Many people want to go viral on TikTok. You might have dreams of setting the next trend or seeing one of your videos rack up millions of views. But there's a lot of bad advice out there about how to go viral. 

I've had several viral videos with six and seven-figure views on TikTok and I've also worked with other creators who have racked up millions of views on their own videos. In this article, I’m going to explain which strategies are actually effective and which are just a mirage. 

First, it's important to understand there are two motivations for going viral.

  1. Because you think it'd be cool to have a video seen by people all over the world
  2. Because you want to build a sustainable online presence for yourself or your business 

If you fall into the first camp, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Within the first category, there are many things that can go viral: cute videos of your pet, family gaffes, fun dances, the list goes on. 

But if you fall into the second camp, you’ll need to be more strategic and figure out how to apply viral methodologies to your specific type of content, brand, and style.

Our full-featured video editing tool is as powerful as it is easy to use.
Look for our all-in-one audio & video production that’s as easy as editing a doc.

The pillars of virality 

If you want to create viral videos, you need to understand why people share videos to begin with. Social scientist Jonah Berger has written about the key principles of why content spreads.

Social currency

According to Berger, people share content that enhances their social status or makes them appear knowledgeable. For that reason, viral content needs to be remarkable, unique, or offer exclusive information that others will want to share to boost their own social standing.

Emotional resonance

Content that brings out high-arousal emotions such as awe, laughter, or surprise is more likely to go viral. If your content tugs at the heartstrings, evokes strong reactions, or provides a cathartic experience, you’ll probably inspire more people to share your stuff..

Social proof 

People want to be a part of what’s already popular. Videos that have lots of likes and comments are more likely to get even more likes and comments. Finding ways to encourage engagement and start a conversation with your content can create a virtuous cycle where more people feel compelled to engage because others have already done so. 

Practical value

Content that solves a problem is incredibly shareable. Berger suggests creating content that provides actionable tips, hacks, or advice that can improve people's lives or make tasks easier. Content that offers a tangible benefit makes people feel helpful when they share it with others.

Storytelling

Berger also highlights the importance of storytelling in making content more shareable. Humans are wired for narratives, and compelling stories have the power to captivate and engage. Craft narratives that are relatable, emotionally compelling, and easy to remember. Stories can create a deeper connection with your audience, which makes them more likely to spread the story further.

Jonah Berger's bestelling book "Contagious: Why Things Catch On"

What works to go viral on TikTok

Identify trending topics and challenges

TikTok thrives on trends. To increase your chances of going viral, try using a TikTok trend, dueting a popular video, or even leveraging a current event. But it’s important to make it your own style. A good example is creator Jake Novak, who took the popular “PS5” rap duet trend and did his version from the perspective of an “awkward guy.” He made a reference to Chidi Anagonye from the TV show The Good Place, which endeared many viewers. The video went massively viral with over 18 million views. 

In this vein, the biggest mistake I see content creators make is to take a trend and then make a video that looks like the thousands of other videos that are using that trend. By jumping on these trends early and adding your unique twist, you can capture the attention of the TikTok community and increase the likelihood of your video content being shared.

Create powerful hooks — and make it shorter

In a sea of TikTok videos, standing out from the crowd is essential. Capture the viewer's attention within the first few seconds with an intriguing opening. Experiment with different video formats, such as tutorials, storytelling, comedy skits, or unexpected twists. Also, try different video lengths. Most viral videos tend to be under 45 seconds and many are under 20 seconds, so experiment with how you can create a moment of awe or surprise in a really short period of time.

Leverage trending sounds

Audio plays a vital role on TikTok. Incorporate catchy, trending songs into your videos to make them more engaging and relatable. Some creators will even post trending audio and then mute it, which can help to get some algorithm boost even if your video needs only your original sounds. Try to find audio that matches the style of your video.

What doesn’t work

Stressing over hashtags

Some creators and influencers say that hashtags are vital for discoverability on TikTok. They might encourage you to spend lots of time researching trending hashtags and dumping a ton of hashtags on your video. Hashtags may have been more important in the past (and everyone has superstitions around the infamous #fyp or #foryoupage). But what I've seen from both research and experience is that hashtags don't make that big of a dent. It might be a good idea to include one to three (but no more) relevant hashtags to your video, but you don't need to spend hours researching like some advice might suggest. What matters more is having a keyword-rich description in your caption. Eventually, people and the algorithm will come to know the kind of content you create.

Stressing over posting times

There are a million articles out there analyzing the best times to post on TikTok. You can definitely experiment with different posting times and analyze your audience's behavior, but don’t overthink it. If a video is good, it’s good. Sometimes a great video will be snubbed by the TikTok algorithm. And if that happens, it’s perfectly okay to repost it and try again. If you identify good times to post, that’s great. But don’t stress too much if you post at a time that deviates from your usual schedule.  

Stressing over production value

Two thirds of TikTokers say professional-looking videos from brands or certain creators can feel out of place. The great (and challenging) thing about TikTok is that it rewards authenticity and informality. So grab your phone and try to make something that’s true to you and your ideas — and don’t worry about the Hollywood effects. 

Do you actually want to go viral? 

Many people are obsessed with the idea of virality. But virality doesn’t equal consistency. Virality doesn’t build a community. And there are a number of downsides to going viral, especially when you’re not ready.

Attracting the wrong audience

Going viral can increase your follower count quickly. But creators often find that a sudden influx of followers brings in people who are primarily attracted to a viral video rather than a creator. This can lead to a disconnect between the creator's authentic voice and the expectations of their new audience. And if the viral video was just a one-off, you might feel pressure to make TikTok content that’s inauthentic — and that’s not a strategy that can last.

It can be addictive 

Many creators who go viral talk about the dopamine spike: the views, the comments, the emails, the attention — it can be intoxicating. But a viral video can create unrealistic expectations for future content. The pressure to repeat or surpass the success of the viral video can be overwhelming. This focus on going viral can stifle your creativity and lead to a constant quest for validation through numbers, instead of letting your genuine creative vision and personality shine.

Pressure and burnout

The pressure to consistently produce viral content can be mentally exhausting. There’s often a fear of losing followers or becoming irrelevant, which can lead to burnout. Creators may even find themselves trapped in a cycle of trying to recreate the magic of their viral video. The success of a single viral video can create a perception that the creator is limited to that particular niche or style. Breaking out of the mold and exploring new content areas becomes challenging, as the audience may expect more of the same viral formula. That puts a damper on personal and creative growth.

There’s a lot of mystique around virality, but there’s a process and strategy to it just like anything else. Going viral can seem like a dream come true, but it’s crucial to recognize the potential pitfalls of focusing on virality at all costs. The ultimate goal for any creator or business should be building a sustainable and engaged community rather than chasing viral success. True success lies in nurturing genuine connections, fostering creativity, and staying true to your authentic voice. And if millions of people resonate with that content, then that’s even better.

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