Adapting To The Algorithm: Understanding How To Position Your Brand’s Organic PresenceBY Alexis Luthringer // Account Analyst
I proudly embrace the stigmas that come with being classified as Gen Z. Whether we’re criticizing middle parts or deeming skinny jeans a trend of the past, Gen Z has seemingly gained a reputation for having a constant online presence. In reality, who could blame us? Growing up alongside digital technology, we’ve become masters at content consumption and dissemination. And while these generational skills will undoubtedly drive our industry to new heights, unfortunately, last year’s shut down only amplified our “constantly connected” reputation.
2020 turned our weekly screen time reports from interesting and insightful to cringe-worthy and embarrassing. Bedrooms were remodeled into virtual offices, “you’re on mute” was coined as a new colloquialism, and America’s favorite past-time came in the form of binge-watching Tiger King. Media consumption has increased roughly 60% due to stay-at-home orders and COVID-19. In March 2020, the average adult spent roughly 56% of their day in front of a screen and the average time spent on social apps increased for nearly every platform.
Ideally, we all envision our screen time gradually declining over the next year as the world does its best to revert to normalcy. In true Gen Z fashion, the most significant obstacle I’ll face when reducing my screen time will be TikTok.
Those of you who downloaded TikTok within two weeks of stay-at-home orders, (assuring yourself you weren’t susceptive to the craze) don’t worry. Over 315 million people had the same idea and downloaded TikTok during the first three months of 2020. With these numbers proving that it is more than just a fad, TikTok saw the most considerable amount of growth of any social media in 2020, recording a 325% increase in time spent on app YoY and a 58% increase in downloads from Q4 19 to Q1 20. TikTok gained more users in one month than Instagram did in any quarter throughout 2019.
So, what’s so special about TikTok? The platform didn’t merely discover short-form video content as an untapped user affinity—remember Vine?
For starters, TikTok’s algorithm retains a user’s attention longer than any other social network. In Q1 of 2020, users only spent 3 more minutes per day on TikTok than on Instagram; however, TikTok holds users for the most prolonged session duration of any social platform. One user praised TikTok’s recommendation system in the New Yorker, saying, “some social algorithms are like bossy waiters: they solicit your preferences and then recommend a menu. TikTok orders you dinner by watching you look at food.”
Despite this notable growth, only 4% of U.S. social media marketers are activating on TikTok. Regardless of how rapidly TikTok expands, don’t expect users to abandon all other platforms. The average user owns more than eight social media profiles. And while TikTok’s growth is astronomical, Instagram still towers over TikTok in overall active users. As marketers, we should not desert other platforms either. Instead, we must understand how these platforms differ to deliver the most robust holistic strategies. In an industry threatened by a cookie-less future, understanding how social algorithms rank organic content is more important now than ever. By comparing Instagram and TikTok, two primarily visual platforms, differences in how organic content is prioritized become increasingly apparent.
- Released in October 2010 as a profile-based photo circulation social media platform.
- Facebook bought Instagram in 2012, immediately implementing notable changes such as the addition of video content, story content, and sponsored advertisements.
- Despite infrastructure changes, photo circulation between the user and the accounts a user follows remains the dominant function.
- In 2016, Instagram shifted to an algorithmic feed, personalized for each user.
- Previously organic content was listed reverse-chronologically from the time posted.
- Launched in August 2018 as a short-form video-based social media platform.
- TikTok is the product of the merging of similar short-form video apps, Douyin (Beijing-based social media) and Musical.ly (American-based social media).
- In contrast to Instagram, TikTok’s feed (called the For You Page) has always sorted content algorithmically — primarily because the content consumed on TikTok’s For You Page (FYP) is not exclusive to content posted by accounts a user follows.
Both Instagram’s and TikTok’s algorithms are proprietary, largely to prevent competitors from replicating them; however, there is available information to help understand how the social platforms sort and rank organic content, both cautiously disclosed by the companies and through reverse-engineering case studies.
Instagram and TikTok try to accomplish a similar goal: serve users a customized feed, filled with content that will make them happy. Both platforms leverage engagement as a proxy to predict user happiness, but Instagram and TikTok define engagement differently.
Instagram defines engagement in terms of the following:
1. Actions: What posts/whose posts a user likes or comments on frequently.
2. Priors: Previously established author-viewer relationship that considers frequent platform interaction such as a direct message to another user or visiting their profile often.
3. Empirically Observed Data: How the post is performing in real-time, evaluating if other users are also commenting on or liking a specific post.
Bottom line: Instagram sorts our organic feeds based on what we like or comment on and how often we previously engage (likes, comments, messages) with the content creator’s account. Instagram focuses on the post’s author rather than the post’s content.
TikTok’s FYP delivers users content from accounts they do not follow, a key differentiator from Instagram. TikTok must select content before ranking it, while Instagram ranks a collection of content posted by the accounts a user follows.
When measuring engagement, TikTok considers time metrics more heavily than Instagram.
Here’s an example of how TikTok’s predictive feed weighs some metrics more strongly than others from highest to least importance:
1. Rewatch Rate: How many times a user rewatches a video.
2. Completion Rate: If a user watches the entire video.
3. Shares: If the user shares a post via direct message, SMS, or Snapchat.
TikTok’s algorithm does not focus heavily on prior or ongoing relationships between users. Instead, TikTok focuses on relationships with the substance of the content itself. Leveraging natural language processing, metadata, and computer vision technology, TikTok identifies what makes up the audio, video captions and descriptions, and what the video visually displays.
Regardless of follower count, live content is pushed to a small batch of users for a two-hour period. Suppose that content garners strong performance with the first small batch of users. In that case, it gets pushed to a medium batch of users and, if engagements continue, the content gets served to a larger set of users for a longer period (typically around four days).
TikTok prioritizes content heavily in terms of time spent on content, rather than clicking buttons (likes and comments). TikTok’s FYP introduces users to accounts they do not already follow, and no followers are necessary to have your organic content viewed.
What does this mean for your brand?
Given Instagram’s daily user count and TikTok’s growth trajectory, both platforms are here to stay. While it’s obvious that the user experience differs immensely from Instagram to TikTok, it’s essential from a brand perspective to understand the distinction between how each platform prioritizes content. Brands will need to adopt agile social strategies that differ for each platform to account for Instagram and TikTok’s differing definition of engagement.
Instagram has a higher entry point for visibility. If you are a brand with a historically large following, Instagram will likely rank your content higher in more users’ feeds due to having many followers.
But if that does not sound like your brand, that does not mean you should delete your Instagram account. While it may be harder to grow a following on Instagram than on TikTok, having no Instagram presence will make growth impossible.
As a brand looks to grow and expand its presence on Instagram, it’s imperative to emphasize a community management strategy to engage with fans and followers. Because Instagram sorts organic content on mutualistic relationships, engaging with followers bears strategic significance. Respond to your content engagers, repost UGC to your profile, and interact with your followers through conversation starters such as give-away posts or comment-provoking captions.
Unlike Instagram, what a user engages with on TikTok’s FYP does not affect their visibility as a content-creator. As a result of TikTok’s model not considering prior relationships, TikTok’s FYP has a lower entry point for visibility. Content creators can gain a following without already having one, and any content creator can create viral content. As a benefit for brands just entering the short-form video landscape, users across TikTok could see and engage with their content regardless of the brand page’s follower count. Virality will solely be based on the content performance rather than how many followers you have.
With TikTok’s lower entry point for visibility, there are still crucial factors to keep in mind when planning your strategy:
Patience is a virtue. As a content creator, you will receive feedback over a longer period. Content may drive very little engagement in the first few days due to TikTok testing videos with a smaller number of users first. Unlike Instagram, posts may stay relevant or viral for longer. From a content curation standpoint, try posting timely content (such as holiday posts) ahead of time, knowing it may be 4-6 days before larger groups of users are exposed to your TikToks.
Consistency is key. Although visibility on TikTok has a lower entry point than on Instagram, there is no guarantee your brand will be continually viral or popular. On Instagram, large followings tend to yield high organic engagements. On TikTok, however, performance will likely vary from post to post.
Success looks different. Content creators have developed the habit of measuring a post’s success based solely on how many likes it receives. But on TikTok, users behave differently. Videos will often go viral while receiving very few likes in comparison to total views. Instead of sending instant gratification to content by double-tapping to like, users on TikTok more often rewatch or share content they enjoy. TikTok lacks a direct indicator of how many people organically rewatched your video or swiped past it before completion. Instead of evaluating how many likes your content drove, reference the number of views to indicate how many users were served your content.
As brands adjust their digital strategies to account for a cookie-less future, fewer customer data points to collect, and limitations to targeting capabilities leading to less personalized ads, one element will remain — the personalization of organic content. Social platforms will always be privy to data surrounding a user’s actions-on-app, such as the time spent watching a video, the number of comments on an account, and the content that gets scrolled past. But as we’ve seen with Instagram and TikTok, how each platform uses this data to craft an organic experience differs vastly. As the landscape continues to evolve, brands need to recognize and understand these differences to incorporate the most effective and engaging organic content into their holistic social strategies.