TikTok's Algorithm: Unlocking Growth and Maximizing User Engagement


Hatched by Glasp

Jul 26, 2023

3 min read


TikTok's Algorithm: Unlocking Growth and Maximizing User Engagement


In the ever-evolving landscape of social media platforms, TikTok has emerged as a dominant player, capturing the attention and engagement of millions of users worldwide. The success of TikTok can be attributed to its unique algorithm, which has allowed the app to break out of its early adopter group and appeal to a diverse range of users. By understanding the inner workings of TikTok's algorithm and its impact on user engagement, we can uncover valuable insights that can be applied to other social media platforms and startups.

The Power of Algorithmic Design:

The exploit versus explore conundrum is a classic challenge in algorithmic design. In the case of TikTok, the algorithm has proven to be significantly responsive and accurate in piercing the veil of cultural ignorance. Despite being developed by two individuals in Shanghai, the app has managed to outperform established U.S. video apps such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. This success can be attributed to the algorithm's ability to abstract culture, allowing it to transcend geographical and cultural boundaries.

Connecting Disparate Groups:

To facilitate the growth of a social network, it is crucial to bring in new users and subcultures while enabling them to find each other quickly and branch off into their own spaces. Bytedance, the parent company of TikTok, recognized this and took two key steps to jumpstart TikTok's growth. Firstly, they invested heavily in user acquisition in the U.S., expanding their user base beyond teenage girls. Secondly, they introduced an updated For You Page feed algorithm, which acts as a rapid and efficient market maker, connecting videos with the audiences destined to enjoy them.

Building Interest Networks:

Traditional social networks often struggle with negative network effects and the challenges of constructing an interest graph from a social graph. TikTok, on the other hand, has bypassed these obstacles by operating primarily as an interest network. The algorithm leverages short video content to assemble an interest graph without burdening the user. This passive personalization, fueled by high volumes of training data, allows TikTok to deliver personalized entertainment experiences to its users.

Lessons for Startups:

The success of TikTok's algorithm holds valuable lessons for startups looking to maximize user engagement and growth. Here are three actionable pieces of advice:

  • 1. Prioritize Product Revenue: Investors highly value companies where the majority of total revenue comes from product revenue rather than services. Services revenue is non-recurring, less scalable, and has lower margins. By focusing on developing and monetizing a strong product, startups can attract more investor interest and ensure long-term sustainability.
  • 2. Calculate LTV Accurately: Lifetime Value (LTV) is a critical metric for evaluating the viability and profitability of a business. However, it is often miscalculated by estimating it as the present value of revenue or gross margin instead of calculating it as the net profit of the customer over the customer's lifespan. Startups should ensure they accurately calculate LTV to make informed decisions regarding customer acquisition and retention strategies.
  • 3. Measure Paid CAC: Blended CAC (total acquisition cost divided by the total new customers acquired across all channels) can be misleading when evaluating the effectiveness and profitability of paid marketing campaigns. Investors consider paid CAC (total acquisition cost divided by new customers acquired through paid marketing) to be a more important metric as it provides higher resolution insights into the profitability of user acquisition budgets.


TikTok's algorithm has revolutionized the social media landscape and set a new standard for user engagement and growth. By leveraging the power of algorithmic design, prioritizing product revenue, accurately calculating LTV, and measuring paid CAC, startups can learn valuable lessons from TikTok's success. As the social media landscape continues to evolve, understanding and adapting to the changing needs and preferences of users is crucial for long-term sustainability and growth.

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