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The secret of TikTok’s success, according to SEA business marketing head Ng Chew Wee

How TikTok's For You feed and its diversification algorithm underpins its success with users, creators and businesses.

As maligned as TikTok is, the numbers don’t lie. The app has over a billion users, each of whom open the app an average of eight times a day. In the past three months in Singapore, according to Sensor Tower, TikTok was consistently one of the top 10 downloaded apps.

“We have seen rapid growth in Singapore. The community has grown, especially during the circuit breaker period when we saw new and interesting trends emerge,” says Ng Chew Wee, head for business marketing for TikTok in Southeast Asia.

As a marketing platform, Ng shares that on a global scale, companies such as Apple, Prada and Burberry have tapped on TikTok as part of their campaigns. “In fact, Burberry was one of the first brands to run a campaign on the platform,” says Ng. Launched last year, the #TBChallenge invited users in the US and UK to recreate the new Thomas Burberry Monogram motif with their hands to unlock a new lens. This was to promote the new Thomas Burberry Monogram collection.

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The #TBChallenge on TikTok by Burberry. Photo by TikTok.

The #TBChallenge on TikTok by Burberry. Photo by TikTok.

Closer to home, Zalora partnered with TikTok with online fashion portal Zalora for the #ZStyleNow challenge, which encouraged users to film outfit transformation videos while flashing the Z sign with their hands.

While Ng couldn’t share revenue numbers nor projections, she says that revenue as a whole “is growing at a healthy rate”.

One of the arguments against TikTok, other than the national security concerns voiced by the current American administration, was that it promoted objectification of young girls who want to become famous. In that regard, Ng remarks that that has changed over the past year. According to her, “content types have evolved and expanded… with each country taking the platform and making it its own”.

The audience demographic has also gotten slightly older, with a large majority of users in the 18 to 35 range.

“These older creators coming on board have started creating different types of content. Recently, we’ve also started seeing more educational content on the platform. From cooking and healthcare to even finance, there is increasingly varied content catering to different people,” says Ng.

And unlike other social media platforms that tend to promote an echo chamber if one isn’t careful, Ng is quite proud of TikTok’s For You feed, which is powered by a machine learning recommendation system that has a unique element. “The system deliberately diversifies the recommendations to keep it varied and interesting because we believe that diversity is essential in maintaining a thriving global community,” says Ng. “The user gets to stumble upon content, discover new creators, and experience new perspectives and ideas. At the same time, it allows new creators to be discovered. So it doesn’t mean that the earlier creators who have already attained critical mass will always remain in that stronghold; new creators will always be able to be discovered through this recommendation system.”

This diversification element, according to Ng, is based on an elaborate system of signals that the system picks up from your activity before recommending something new. TikTok has written multiple blog posts about its system.

(Related: Are you ready for a hyper-personalised world?)

TikTok.

TikTok. Photo by Kon Karampelas on Unsplash.

For example, Ng shares that most of the feeds that she follows were working parents, marketing news and motivational speakers. Then, one day, TikTok recommended a couple of stand-up comedians to her. Soon, she started following them too.

The team has gone all in on transparency and diversity. TikTok has a transparency centre in Los Angeles that allows experts to learn how the app’s algorithm works while also reviewing the source code. It understands that the engine powering the For You feed is core to the app’s continued success.

And what about success as a creator on TikTok? Ng gives four tips – be as authentic as possible, be vertical, capture attention within the first three seconds, and remember that TikTok is a sound-on experience, so make content with sound.