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What Makes TikTok Tick: The science behind one of the world’s fastest growing apps

By now, you must have heard of TikTok. It’s the latest social media and content sharing app to hit the market and, alongside toilet paper, has been a quarantine staple in many American households. It’s one of the fastest-growing apps in the world, gathering 800 million active users in just a few years, and is still gaining traction. So, how did this app become so popular? It uses the perfect blend of behavioral science and market research principles to keep its audience engaged and active on the app for longer periods of time. 


One of TikTok’s most notable features is the short length of the videos that users upload. A TikTok can be no longer than 60 seconds, and the most viral ones are less than 20 seconds long. With evolving attention spans, it’s important to get a message across to your audience in a concise manner, and limiting the length of a video does just that. It allows for quick information intake so our “selective attention”, which deals with content overload on a regular basis, can pick up the main message and move on. The short videos also allow users to absorb more content in one sitting. Similar to the “denomination effect”, a cognitive bias where people are likely to spend larger amounts of money when using smaller bills, people are more likely to sit through ten 30-second videos, than they are to sit through one 5-minute video. Even though it’s the same amount of time, it seems like a smaller exchange and a better tradeoff. 


TikTok is overflowing with videos that range from dance challenges and clothing hauls, to social justice issues and advice for new entrepreneurs, all created and shared by everyday users. With so many creators uploading content daily, it’s easy to jump from one video to another and explore different ideas, still only touching the surface. This feeds what Ian Leslie in his book, Curious, calls: “diversive curiosity”. Diversive curiosity explains our urge to explore and experience new things, and only seeks instant gratification. It’s the kind of curiosity that pushes us to look up pictures of cats on the internet when we know there are other tasks that we need to complete. With TikTok, we can easily wear different hats and peek into different worlds to satisfy this curiosity with minimal effort.


TikTok doesn’t just offer its users an app that they can visit for entertainment in their downtime; it gives them a platform where they can create value for themselves and others. They make it easy to curate your own content, not just because of the friendly interface, but also because of the flow of creativity from one video to another, getting your own creative gears turning. The app encourages a sort of a sharing economy for content, you can borrow or build off of others’ ideas and create something of your own, then upload it and be a part of the TikTok community. As with the “IKEA effect”, people place more value in items that they have a hand in building, similar to IKEA furniture. People are more interested in a product when they have a stake in it, so being able to create your own content, share it with the world, and drive its success keeps app users more engaged in the long run. You’re co-creators of value rather than just recipients of value.


What can marketers learn from TikTok?

Markets can apply these same principles to boost customer engagement and keep their audience hooked. A few key takeaways:

  • Keep your communications short and sweet. Get rid of the clutter and make sure your audience can pick up your main message in just a few seconds. If they don’t, they’ll move on; there’s a lot more to see out there.

  • Fill gaps in people’s curiosity. Share content that answers questions or provides solutions that people are looking for. Sharing the same message in the same style will cause your audience to lose interest.

  • Invite your customers to create value with you. Every time they interact with your brand, they should feel like they’re adding value to their lives, as well as adding value to your brand.