How To Create A TikTok Trend
It’s been just over a year since Nathan Apodaca, aka 420doggface208, became a TikTok phenomenon and sparked a global trend.
By now we all know the story. He inspired members of Fleetwood Mac, the CEO of Ocean Spray, and hundreds of thousands of others to create similar content.
It became so popular that it sparked renewed interest in Fleetwood Mac. Their song Dream’s re-entered the Billboard top 10 for its first time since 1978 (a year after the song’s original debut). Nathan has since managed to buy a home and now works as a full time creator.
But, why is it that certain TikToks spark trends?
What is it that allows some videos to spark global movements, while others languish in obscurity?
It’s an answer everyone wants to know. If you’re a creator or musician it could rocket you to fame and fortune. If you’re a brand it could lead to products selling out.
To find the answer you must look at the data.
I partnered with TikTok analytics startup Trendpop, which has indexed nearly 10% of all the platform’s content. Over 900 million TikToks, 80 million creators and 100 million sounds and hashtags were analyzed.
Based on this data we identified the qualitative and quantitative factors that go into the creation of a trend.
TikTok has overtaken Facebook as the most downloaded app worldwide. Within the US the platform has more users than Twitter and Snapchat.
Perhaps, more important is its impact on culture.
Tiktok has changed the way we shop. The term ‘TikTok made me buy it’ has become commonplace.
According to studies, 67% of TikTok users say the platform inspired them to find out more about a product or brand, and 74% of users say it helped them decide what to buy.
Much of this is driven by trends on the app. If you trend on TikTok you’re not just popular on TikTok, you’re impacting culture on a massive scale.
What is a TikTok Trend?
What do we really mean when we say something has become a TikTok trend?
The layman’s definition is something along these lines of: a sound or a hashtag (or both), that everyone sees and is being replicated.
Within TikTok, these trending sounds and hashtags almost always reflect a behavior or cultural meme that has been adopted.
A TikTok trend is really just a new form of internet meme.
According to Richard Dawkins, who coined the term meme, an “internet meme”, “is a hijacking of the original idea and that instead of mutating by random change and spreading by a form of Darwinian selection, they are altered deliberately by human creativity.”
One user does the behavior, then another, and another and another. Each person may alter or change the behavior; the core idea and execution remains familiar.
A TikTok trend works the same.
We’ll go into detail around what mathematical benchmarks we’ve put in place to identify trends below. For the sake of simplicity we’ll define a trend as follows:
A TikTok trend is a widely popular remix, replication or abstraction of a behavior, sound, and/or hashtag.
Why TikTok is Conducive To Trends
It’s not uncommon to see TikTok trends with hundreds of millions (or even billions) of views and tens of thousands of participants.
Why do TikTok trends generate so much participation?
The reason… creating a TikTok riffing off of someone else’s content is so easy a five year old could do it.
Want to make a video using someone else’s sound? Simply select the sound as an audio track.
Want to share your reaction to someone’s content? No need for editing. Use the duet feature.
TikTok has made remixing, reacting, and editing easier than any other platform. Within the app you can shoot, edit, and manipulate video within minutes. No need to export files, use editing software, or motion graphics.
Eugene Wei articulated it best:
They explicitly lower the barrier to the literal remixing of everyone else’s content. In their app, they have a wealth of features that make it dead simple to grab any element from another TikTok and incorporate it into a new TikTok.
Additionally, the platform actively promotes the adoption of trends. It’s a unique characteristic of TikTok.
When I think of Facebook, I think of connecting with friends and family. When I think of Instagram, I think of creating a highlight reel of my life.
But, when I think of TikTok, I think of community participation.
TikTok features a curated list of the most recent trends via the Discover tab. It highlights trending sounds and topics. Top performing content within these trends receive prominent placement. As a result, everyone is on the lookout for the next big trend.
This ultimately creates a flywheel effect.
Users participate in trends in order to get that prominent placement and grow their following. This, in turn, sparks further participation in a trend.
Even the biggest creators riff upon trends started by smaller accounts. Many users even take it upon themselves to scour TikTok to identify emerging trends.
It’s become so common that #trendalert has become a popular hashtag in its own right. The appeal of following this hashtag is that all you have to do is jump on whatever trend they’ve identified.
How To Identify A TikTok Trend
We identified and classified trends by measuring the day over day percent growth across all sounds / hashtags, and then looking at a percentile ranking.
Previously, we defined a TikTok trend as a widely popular abstraction, remix, or replication of a behavior, sound, and/or hashtag.
But, what is that (specific) threshold of popularity?
A behavior becomes a trend when the sound and/or hashtag is growing faster than 99% of the rest of TikTok. This is measured by the number of TikToks created to match the trend. The threshold is approximately 13-15% daily growth and around 100% week over week growth. However, this can vary day to day.
Here’s what this growth looked like for the top trends over the first two weeks of September — every line on the graph below is the growth of a single trend over time.
Mass trends (i.e. ones that are globally adopted) typically see at least 50% daily growth until they reach 50,000 video participants. Because of the “law of large numbers,” we take into account the relationship between scale and growth rates. For example, it’s easier to grow from 500 TikToks to 1,000 than it is to go from 500,000 to 1 million.
We can see this in practice with the, “Yo bro, who got you smiling like that” trend.
If you’re unfamiliar, the trend uses audio featuring a remix of Loverboy’s “A-Wall”. A voice from the audio says, “Yo bro, who got you smiling like that” while the creator (typically) shows themselves smiling at the camera. Then, as the chorus kicks in, the video transitions to something wholesome which makes the creator happy. Oftentimes it’s something sentimental or personal (a pet, parent, child, significant other, etc).
The “Yo Bro” trend’s growth aligns with the quantitative benchmarks we’ve outlined above.
It peaked at 354% day over day in early August. It generated more than 1.2 million video participants and 2 billion total views. With a 21% engagement rate (ie likes + comments + shares) / (views)) it is better than 80% of all videos on TikTok.
Additionally, the trend’s impact on culture has been widespread.
Loverboy by A-Wall generated 7.8 million streams in August. The song also hit number 9 on Rolling Stone’s Breakthrough 25 Chart for that same month.
The Qualitative Factors Of A Trend
Trends don’t spontaneously appear (although it may feel like that at times). Instead, there’s always a source of inspiration. We’ll refer to these as genesis videos. These are the originators. The initial TikTok that kicks off waves of participation.
So, how does one create a genesis video?
In analyzing previous trends we can identify commonalities. Some of these are critical to the formation of a TikTok becoming a genesis video.
The elements of a genesis video are:
- Simple – essential
- Universal – essential
- Reactive – essential
- Followers – helpful
Genesis videos have a clearly defined format, that is easily recognizable, and most people could recreate without a great deal of effort.
For example, the Dreams trend required has basic elements – skateboarding, Ocean Spray Cranberry juice, and Fleetwood Mac’s Dreams. Each of those variables could be swapped out with proxies to create recognizable remixes. TikTok’s regularly featured people driving or walking. Oftentimes participants were drinking something other than Ocean Spray. Sometimes they were skateboarding with Ocean Spray, but the audio wasn’t Dreams.
It was easy enough just about anyone could jump in and participate.
This is why many dance trends only use the upper body. These dance trends are far easier to learn than ones requiring fancy footwork. The recently viral “Alors On Danse” trend exemplifies this.
The original video features, “group of friends dancing simply but with synchronicity to a remix of “Alors on Danse” by Belgian singer and rapper Stromae.”
Participation is relatively simple. Set up the video in green screen then sway side to side in sync with the original creators. Just about anyone can do this (even Jerry Springer 😂).
When you look at food trends you see the same pattern emerge. Not everyone can bake, but anyone can put honey in their freezer (an actual trend).
If you want to create a large trend, it has to be relatable (and usually one where everybody smiles). The more ‘friction’ in relatability (i.e. the less universal it is), the less likely it is to become a trend.
As a result, genesis videos incorporate familiar elements to (most) people’s lives. You’ll notice trends about significant others, friendships, pets, daily life, and hobbies are common.
Once again the, “Yo bro, who got you smilin’ like that” trend is an excellent example of this.
Watch any popular TikTok trend and it’s clear there’s an X-factor. A vague notion that there’s something there which evokes some visceral reaction (good or bad).
That reaction stems from an emotional response.
It’s been widely documented that an emotional reaction is critical to making content more ‘viral’. We didn’t have the resources to apply this methodology to our TikTok data. However, the results of previous studies seem in line with what we’ve observed.
Viral trends tend to,“be surprising, emotionally complex, or extremely positive.”
Once again, the “Yo bro, who got you smilin’ like that” trend exemplifies this.
It is overwhelmingly positive (you feature what makes you smile), and it’s surprising (there’s the reveal of what makes you happy). Harvard Business Review’s synopsis of research in this arena reflects what we’re (anecdotally) seeing with TikTok trends:
“Positive content is primed for social sharing. Our study found that admiration and happiness have a strong correlation with high dominance. This makes sense since the motivation for sharing upbeat content may be rooted in self-presentation. Passing on a positive emotional experience makes others feel good, which in turn makes the sharer look good. Including an element of surprise can help magnify the content’s positive valence.”– Kerry Jones, Kelsey Libert, and Kristin Tynski (Harvard Business Review)
While not essential, having a high amount of followers correlates (slightly) with the likelihood of creating a genesis video.
Intuitively this makes sense. More exposure, means more opportunities to drive participation.
However, the exciting thing about TikTok is that this is not a necessity.
We observed many genesis videos started by people who did not have a high number of followers.
For example, the ‘Yo bro who got you smiling like that’ trend was really kicked off evolved from the genesis video by @dan_is_nice (which used the remix of Loverboy by A-Wall). From there it was picked up by TikTok user @_itsokayhun on August 5th when he only had a few thousand followers. This video achieved 3.8 million views, giving it the modest rank of 94th most viewed video of this trend. Eventually it inspired larger creators like @brandonspam (3.9 million followers) and @JessieMaeAlonzo (640k followers) to post videos that achieved 29.9 million views and 22.4 million views respectively. From there the format drew mass awareness and participation – becoming a true trend.
When it comes to TikTok trends people tend to follow the crowd. The perception that something is popular breeds more popularity.
This is something that has been well documented on YouTube and appears to be equally true on TikTok. Professor Karen Nelson-Field, author of “Viral Marketing: The Science Of Sharing,” proved this in her research:
“If high-levels of viewing and sharing occur in a short period of time, the popularity of the video can act to amplify the share rate even further. People like to be part of the latest, newest video trend that everyone is talking about.”– Karen Nelson-Field
We analyzed the growth patterns of the top 5,000 viral sounds over the week of September 5th. Over half achieved a peak daily growth velocity of greater than 85%, and most of them nearly doubled at least once in a day.
Once a trend reaches a velocity of greater than 85% it’s more likely to see exponential growth. If it doesn’t cross this barrier, it may continue to grow a bit but does not benefit from the momentum.
Velocity is critical.
The more drawn out the level of engagement, the less likely something is to trend. Participation within a short period of time creates a snowball effect. This is likely the direct result of social proof.
When you see others quickly jumping on to a trend, the odds of you participating increases.
While it’s tempting to want to create a trend – it’s not essential in order to be successful on TikTok.
Whether you’re creating content for yourself, your brand, a niche audience or a broad one. The SUR(F) insights are applicable to content creation.
Use our findings as a checklist for your own work: Is your content emotionally resonant? Is it inviting participation? Is it relatable?
If you make sure your content is following these principles, you’ll see your community and engagement grow. And, there’s a greater chance you just might start the next “unexpected” trend.
After all, given TikTok has made content creation and distribution easier than ever, what’s stopping you from trying?
In the words of Napoleon, “Glory is fleeting, Obscurity is forever”.
Special thanks to Trendpop for providing data and their insights.