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Kickstarting TikTok: 55,500 Followers & 7m views in 6 Weeks
No hired help, no gimmicks, no fancy gear. Just vibes.
This week’s post is a digression from my normal philosophical ramblings. But marketing articles started my online writing journey, and it was a blast writing this post and using those old muscles again. If you’re not interested in TikTok, fear not. I’ll be back to my normal programming next week.
Last month, I got bored and decided it would be fun to start doing TikTok.
Now, six weeks later, I’ve gone from 400 to 55,900 followers.My videos have been viewed 7 million times. And I have seen a clear and significant impact in the off-TikTok action I was trying to drive: book sales.
I also did this without an agency, editor, or assistant. Just me, my phone, and my laptop.
I think the majority of people are sleeping on TikTok’s potential. They still think it’s silly dance videos and memes. But if you thought YouTube would always be “Charlie Bit My Finger” and “The Evolution of Dance,” you would have missed out on a massive opportunity.
I haven’t written about marketing or done something like this in a while, but it was fun to scratch that itch and work those old muscles. And, honestly, it felt good to show myself I still got it.
So if you’re considering building an audience on TikTok this year, this is the guide I wish I had before I started.
Here is the Table of Contents in case you want to skip around:
TikTok vs. YouTube
Finding Your Niche
Generating Topic Ideas
Trends, Viral Sounds, etc.
Choosing a Style
Filming & Cadence
Publishing, Descriptions, & Hashtags
Testing and Iterating
And while I’m not sure if I’d do this, if you’re interested in a self-paced mini-course (< $100) going into more depth on all of this, put your email here.
Okay, before we dive into the meat of the article, here is one quick housekeeping thing:
TikTok vs. YouTube
Please read this brief section if you’re already on YouTube and trying to get into TikTok.
TikTok is not YouTube!
I see many YouTubers trying to do the same style on TikTok: the constant cuts to B-reel, the little popup animations with the annoying sounds, the same lighting and filming style.
But if you watch TikToks you’ll notice that most popular videos don’t use this style. Some do, sure, and there’s a market for it, but it’s not really the vibe. The vibe is much more natural, still edited, but more like a conversation with a friend than trying to be a movie studio.
Could that change? Maybe, but I’m leaning toward no. I think the trend in general is towards more human connection and less of an ultra-manicured look. And if you can’t be interesting without the constant sound effects and B-reel, then, well…
Again, not a hard and fast rule, but I’d strongly encourage doing a more TikTok-native style like I’m going to talk about later in the article than trying to do the same kind of style that does well on YouTube. It just doesn’t seem to work for most people.
Alright, on to the good stuff.
You and the Algorithm
Doing well on TikTok seems to come down to two main things:
Figuring out what the algorithm likes for your niche to get in front of viewers
Figuring out what those viewers like so they want to follow you
Some people just focus on #1 and get millions of views with a very low follower conversion. Others do great on #2 and have a high conversion rate but never get in front of many people. You need to do both if you want relatively rapid growth.
Whore yourself out to the algorithm just enough to spread but retain enough of your dignity that people want to see what you come up with next.
The wonderful thing about TikTok is that the algorithm is so good that you can start to go viral quickly if you nail number 1. And once you go viral once, if it’s for deliberately designed content, you’ll be able to go viral many more times.
Finding Your Niche
You want people to eventually be interested in you for you, to “be the niche,” but you’ll need to start with some focused topic to get picked up by the algorithm.
Finding the right niche on TikTok is a combination of:
What topic do you have a meaningful competitive information advantage in?
What topic are people already following?
What you don’t want to do here is try to go after a very popular topic with no competitive advantage. Could you be the best person on TikTok at turning Wikipedia page summaries into snappy videos? Maybe, but it’s going to be a brutal competition. Unless you have some way to stand out among the noise you’re going to be languishing with low views forever.
What topics are popular? You can search around on TikTok to see what videos have tons of views and likes or find a few people you already follow on other platforms and see what kinds of their content is doing well on TikTok. Maybe an area that doesn’t do as well on Twitter is actually big on TikTok.
For me, I decided to focus on non-fiction books. I have notes saved and organized from 300+ books which gives me a huge competitive advantage over almost anyone else in the niche. And there’s already a meaningful interest in books on TikTok, though more on the fiction, especially fantasy and romance, side.
Once you have some idea of what this niche is for you, find five to ten accounts that are doing a great job that you can use for inspiration. You’ll need it for the next step.
Generating Topic Ideas
You probably have tons of ideas for videos, and you can use them, but you’ll have better luck if you figure out what people are watching and then come up with ideas based on that. There are a few ways to do that.
High-Level Categories: What’s Working for Your Inspiration
The easiest way to come up with those ideas is to look through those five to ten accounts you liked and then see what topics of theirs have performed the best. Don’t copy what they say. But if a certain topic did well for one of them, especially if it did for multiple, your take on that topic would probably do well too.
Let’s say I was going to do this for a new account focused on pickleball. Quickly skimming the popular videos and accounts, a few topic areas stand out.
Of those, all but the “crazy plays” would be good fits for me. Those would be very hard to film consistently.
But the other four are my high-level categories to start with. Put those in a spreadsheet.
What People Are Searching For
Using the high-level categories of what’s working for the accounts you like, start plugging those topics into the search bar and see what else pops up. Start adding those more specific topics to your spreadsheet list of specific video ideas.
There are two ways to find them: in the search bar and in the search results.
Any Adjacent Ideas
From those high-level topics and that initial SEO-driven list, spend twenty minutes adding any other topics that come to mind.
Any time you get stuck, plug one of those ideas into the search bar and see what other searches TikTok recommends.
By this point, you’ll have a pretty extensive list, but there’s one last thing you can do:
Bundling and Unbundling
Listicle-style videos tend to do well on TikTok, so think about how individual topics can be bundled into listicle videos, or listicle series, and how listicle videos can be unbundled into a number of individual videos.
For example, let’s say you have 20 different video ideas on “common beginner mistakes.” Could you do a “beginner mistakes” series? Could you do a video on the “3 most common beginner mistakes”? What about “The 3 easiest beginner mistakes to fix”? Or the 3 hardest. Now do the 5 easiest and 5 hardest. With just the “3 easiest” topic ideas, you could do a short one where you just name the mistakes, and a longer one where you go into how to fix the mistakes. There are tons of ways to bundle and unbundle ideas, get creative.
Okay now you probably have hundreds of video ideas. Take the ones you’re most excited about and put them into some kind of CRM where you can see everything you’re working on and where it is in the process. I like to use Airtable for this:
Before we get to filming, let’s answer one common question:
What about Trends, Viral Sounds, Filters, etc?
Don’t bother. If a trend is going around that fits your content and style, sure, make a quick video. But this should be an afterthought in your strategy unless you’re making dance videos.
It’s a way to potentially go viral, but it’s not showcasing you and why someone should follow you. You’re just being another trend follower.
Plus, when a trend is blowing up, those are the most competitive videos in the algorithm. You’ll have a much harder time standing out.
Okay, on to filming.
Choosing a Style
Once you know what topic you’re going to cover, you need to find a style that’s working that fits you.
Don’t just do whatever you want here, and don’t just copy over what style has worked on YouTube or Instagram. TikTok has a vibe you want to tap into, and if you don’t do that you’ll have a hard time getting picked up by the algorithm.
The first step is to go through the five to ten accounts in your niche you picked and see what is consistent across them that you almost definitely need to emulate. Different niches often have certain styles of editing, or certain popular topics, or certain formats, that you can quickly pick up on to incorporate in your videos.
Those common themes create your baseline, the pieces you definitely need to incorporate into your videos to do well. But from there, you can figure out what other stylistic elements you can bring to the table to stand out.
For books, I could see there were two high-level formats: impersonal videos where the video shows the books on a table or in front of a bookcase, and more personal videos where it’s a recognizable person showing you the books they like.
The former videos without people’s faces tend to do better. They have the most views and likes. But I decided not to do that because it also seems the most fragile. It’s very hard to tell those creators apart and they’re easily replaced. I knew I could craft a recognizable style by filming in front of my family room bookcase and incorporating books I’ve heavily annotated.
If no one in your niche is doing YouTube-style crazy edited videos, I wouldn’t do them either. You want to fit in while being recognizable and not seem like a total outsider.
Whatever stylistic flair you decide on, though, I think you should bring some of you to the videos. Your goal over time is to move away from playing the algorithm to just being an interesting person on your own. If no one recognizes you from your more algorithmed videos, you’ll have a much harder time making that transition.
One last piece to the style: try to pick something hard to copy. If it’s you in front of a green-screen with a microphone, anyone can do that. Do you have a unique setting you can use? Special props? What can you do so that the minute you pop back up in someone’s feed, they think, “oh yeah, this person!”
Filming & Cadence
Alright, let’s make some videos.
First, I think you should aim for two or more videos per day for the first few weeks until you get some hits. That might sound insane, but, it’ll give you a lot of data very quickly on what’s working and what isn’t, and you can slow it down to one video per day once you have a good backlog of content for people to go through and once you have a good idea of what’s going to perform.
It’s a lot of work, yes, but it’ll also save you a lot of waiting. And there are ways to make it less overwhelming.
Think of making your videos in three phases:
Filming the A-reel
In each step of the process, you can batch your work so that you aren’t constantly trying to find time to film and edit. What worked for me was:
Filming eight days’ worth of A-reel on Tuesday
Editing all of the videos on Wednesday
Drafting them to be published on Thursday
That way, all I had to do over the weekend was open TikTok and hit “publish” on whatever was next in my queue, and I was never scrambling to get something filmed and edited to hit my deadline.
Don’t overthink it. Get a good tripod and ring light, a phone microphone, and then get to work. I find editing easiest if I just record one long video for each topic, including the pauses and mistakes, and then chop it up later.
If scripts will help you, do your scripting the day before recording. I usually script out my videos using high-level bullet points that I want to hit on, then let it flow a little more naturally for actual recording.
One last thing I’ve found helps is to record myself goofing off and talking about whatever comes to mind for a few minutes beforehand to get warmed up for talking to the camera. Depending on how much you’ve done before, it might feel kinda unnatural, so letting yourself loosen up will help make sure your first few videos of the day don’t come out too awkward.
Oh and don’t film in the TikTok app unless you’re doing something specific with a filter. It’ll be easier to edit if you just film normal video on your phone.
This will vary significantly depending on your niche and what style you’re going for, but I definitely recommend sending your videos to your computer and editing them there using Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere.
You can edit on your phone with Rush or CapCut, but I find it takes 50-100% longer to do on my phone than my computer, and I don’t want to spend all day editing.
So I’ll upload everything to my laptop, load them into Final Cut one by one, edit them, export the finals, and save them in folders for publishing.
As for how to edit, I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of Ali Abdaal’s Skillshare on video editing for YouTube. It’ll get you up to speed on the hotkeys and such very quickly. Plus, Ali’s a good dude, and it’s worth the money.
The most important part of editing is getting your video as tight as possible. Attention spans are short on TikTok, so you have to be willing to cut the video to make it as good and concise as possible. And make sure the first 2-3 seconds immediately hooks people. That’s how long you get before they scroll to the next video.
Publishing, Descriptions, & Hashtags
Once I’m done editing the videos on my laptop, I’ll send them to my phone and turn them into drafts within TikTok.
The only changes I make within the TikTok editor is to add captions so people can read what I’m saying (I suspect many people watch TikTok on silent, so captions help), and I add a text hook to the first few seconds of the video. Something the viewer can read to see what they’re going to get.
After that, the only other thing I need to do is the description and cover. For the description, I’ll usually first add another hook in case they read it right away. Then I’ll add the specific search term I want that video to rank for.
So for a video on, say, “3 tips for better serve returns in doubles,” the description might say “The 3rd helped me the most. 3 tips for better serve returns in doubles.”
Then I add a couple line breaks, and add any hashtags I want the video to possibly rank for. So there are the obvious ones like “#pickleball” and “#pickleballtips,” but you also want very specific ones like “#pickleballservetips” or “#pickleballreturns.” More hashtags don’t seem to harm you, and I suspect it helps with ranking for SEO.
Finally, I leave all the videos in drafts, and publish them during the day when I have a break between work. I was publishing around noon and 4pm, but I haven’t seen any noticeable variation in performance from different posting times.
I try to cross-post my videos to YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels. I’m not always good at remembering, though, and success has come much slower on both platforms.
I’m not sure if that’s because they’re less algorithm-driven, more saturated, or if my content is more tailored for TikTok’s style, so they don’t land as well. But it seems like a free option, and a few videos have done quite well on Instagram, so why not.
One thing I will mention, though, is that Instagram and YouTube can probably tell if you try to upload a video downloaded from TikTok, even if you use one of those apps that let you download without the watermark. So make sure you’re uploading the same video file and doing the last few edits within those apps instead of ripping the video from TikTok. It takes a little extra work, but I think it saves you from getting shadow-banned by their filtering algorithm.
Testing and Iterating
After the first two weeks of posting twice per day, I had a pretty strong idea of what would do well and what would not. I would throw a bunch of ideas at the wall and see what sticks first, and then focus in on what style you know is resonating with your audience.
Once you’ve figured that out, you can slow down to one video every day or so.
But one important note on evaluating videos: while you won’t often be wrong about a video doing well, you can sometimes be wrong about a video doing poorly. I’ve noticed that sometimes I’ll post a video, and it will get a mediocre amount of views, and then a few days later, or even a couple weeks later, it will suddenly take off. I have no idea why this happens, it must be something with their algorithm, but it means you can’t easily say, “that one didn’t work” until it’s been a few weeks with no movement.
Aaand here are a bunch of random FAQ-style questions I wondered about at the beginning and eventually found or guessed answers to that you might also be curious about.
Do I Need a Fancy Setup?
No, just buy the ring light and microphone I mentioned, and you’ll be fine. Assuming you aren’t still using a flip phone, of course.
What About Commenting on Other Videos?
Not gonna help. It’s not bad for making friends with other creators, though.
How Do I Make Money?
TikTok seems to drive a lot of off-TikTok activity, but in ways that are very hard to track. For example, I could clearly see I was driving book sales for the books I talked about (based on their Amazon sales rank), but there was no way to attribute those sales to my videos directly.
So you’ll need to get comfortable with old-school, vibes-based billboard-style marketing. If you need a fancy dashboard showing exactly which video drove how many sales to which product, then you’re ngmi.
Vibe marketing is back, baby.
How Long Until I Go Viral?
Depends on how good your videos are. I posted my first video of this experiment on 12/16, and the first video that did really well was on 12/23. So it took me a week.
That said, I see many others on TikTok posting for months and never having a video do well.
In almost every case, my guess for why they aren’t succeeding is one of three things:
They aren’t very charismatic
They don’t have a good hook in the first few seconds
No one cares about the topic
If it’s been a few weeks and you’re still hearing crickets, evaluate yourself on those three (or email me and offer me money to do it). It’s probably your hooks. Most people aren’t great at hooks.
Why Am I Stuck in the 200-500 View Range?
This is some sort of holding-pattern view number for new TikTok accounts. None of my videos broke through this number for the first week, but once the first one did, they all did.
So if you’re stuck in the 200-500 purgatory, just have patience. But if it’s been a month, review the previous section on the three most likely reasons.
How Can I Learn More?
And like I mentioned, if you want me to do a more structured course thing on TikTok, drop your email here.
Honestly, I’m having way more fun with TikTok than I expected. I certainly enjoy it more than I did YouTube, and I like creating content for it much more than Twitter.
So I’ll keep going and keep talking about my books and see what happens. It’d be cool to get to 1m followers. I don’t know if there are even that many book-curious people out there on TikTok…
Most of my posts aren’t like this, but they’re generally really good and you should totally subscribe
I made a few videos back in 2020 for fun but didn’t stick with it. Most of the 400 were from contacts and those first few videos.
I thought I was out of the course game, but this feels like one of those situations where a structured video-series with spreadsheets and other useful templates makes a lot of sense.