“Nobody Is Talking About…”: Why TikTok Is Creativity’s New Research and Development Lab

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If you’re in the creative industry and aren’t studying TikTok, you’re at risk. Why? Because you’re being outpaced by the world’s largest class of citizen creators who are pioneering and innovating the art of attention-grabbing and action-inducing creativity for the short-attention-span era. They are mastering an art that advertisers have been trying to hone since the dawn of our industry, leading some to predict that creators will replace advertising agencies as the primary source of brand ideas in just a few years.

In our noisy and fractured media landscape, there is simply no better always-on masterclass for creativity than TikTok for the latest techniques on how to stand out in a crowd, hook attention-challenged consumers, keep them engaged and push them to act using clever psychological techniques — techniques that are constantly evolving as creators steal from one another, experiment, iterate and innovate at a blistering pace.

If Google is the world’s largest real-time focus group for human interest and intent, then TikTok is the biggest R&D lab for content, commerce, attention psychology and creativity writ large.

The Science of Virality Deciphered

Live long enough in the agency world and you will hear a client or colleague say that they want an idea that will “go viral.” Sure, who doesn’t? The problem with “going viral” as an objective is that there wasn’t a repeatable playbook for how something becomes viral. Until now.

The best creators on TikTok have studied the algorithm behind what elevates a piece of content to the ultimate tier of distribution, sometimes called the “god tier” in TikTok’s three-tiered algorithm for identifying and elevating the most engaging content. You can see an explainer video on how this works on (where else?) TikTok. In fact, there’s a cottage industry of creators explaining how TikTok works. Notice, by the way, how creators borrow from and iterate on one another’s advances. This is an always-on example of mimetic innovation, or how we humans mimic others by copying and pasting behaviors, building on them and making them our own. Unlike many creative agencies that consider the production the culmination of the creative process, often one that results in a small number of “in the can” assets that are not intended to be changed after post-production editing, TikTok creators (and social creators generally) see the distribution of their videos not as the end of the process but as part of a cycle of continuous creative experimentation. Adopting a sort of call-and-response approach, creators incorporate audience feedback — i.e., audience engagement or, almost as valuable, lack of engagement — as part of their creative process. As a result, they create content with embedded experiments and variables to learn what best drives audience engagement and, in turn, algorithmic resonance. The goal? To create those engagement metrics that juice the algorithm and help content level up ever closer to that god tier and viral scale.

Gaming the Human Algorithm

Understanding how the TikTok algorithm works is only part of the equation. Creators understand that they must also dissect the human-attention algorithm. By rights, humans are a trickier system to hack, what with our shifting tastes and mayfly attention spans. But creators are identifying new methods to game our psychology and generate response as well.

Whether the content is 15 seconds or 3 minutes, the best creators know to follow psychological techniques and empirical structures known to generate the most engagement. And what’s amazing — and why every creative agency should be looking at TikTok as free R&D into current and emerging communication best practices — is that creators openly share techniques on the platform, which further fuels that mimetic innovation cycle of copy, paste, iterate, share, repeat.

For example, one TikTok user studied hundreds of successful videos to identify 10 common ways creators can stop the scroll and quickly capture the audience’s attention — aka the hook, or clever ledes designed to grab the viewer during the initial seconds of video. (Note: The title of this piece uses a common hook: “Nobody is talking about…”.) These hooks have applications for other platforms, for example TV spots, where fighting for attention is perhaps even more challenging than within the endless scroll of TikTok, given DVRs and second-screen viewing habits.

Once hooked, creators will tell you to use clever rhetorical devices and psychological hacks to keep people watching by opening loops or even linking them as nested loops. Again, these methods are ripe for application in other video formats and channels.

Creators understand that successfully hooking and looping audiences is but two-thirds of the battle. Closing with a powerful call to action converts the energy of attention into the energy of momentum by moving audiences from passive consumers of content to active shoppers of whatever it is marketers wish to sell. And creators are cataloging and evolving the art form of CTAs as well — CTA techniques that could even be applied to static mediums like email or display ads.

TikTok is proving to be the best real-time laboratory for state-of-the-art creative communications designed for the short-attention-span era. The best part for creative agencies? It’s free, always open and always innovating — no lab coat or goggles required.