Unlocking the Secrets of Virality: How TikTok Hashtag Challenges Drive User Engagement
For content creators, understanding how videos go viral is a lucrative pursuit, as success can lead to fame and significant financial gains. As TikTok has grown in popularity, the platform has become the focus of creators, journalists, and academics trying to decipher its inner workings.
At the heart of TikTok’s content engine is the hashtag challenge, which drives trends and engages users. Hashtag challenges typically involve a catchy hashtag combined with an on-camera activity, such as a dance or a joke. While it is common for users to search for and participate in emerging trends, predicting which challenges will go viral has proven difficult.
A recent academic paper titled “Will You Dance to the Challenge? Predicting User Participation of TikTok Challenges” analyzed user participation in 12 popular challenges on the platform. The researchers developed a machine-learning model that can predict future participation in a hashtag challenge with twice the accuracy of baseline models. However, the level of accuracy remains relatively low at 49%.
The research team, led by Lynnette Hui Xian Ng at Carnegie Mellon University, collected data from individual users and monitored popular videos under the 12 hashtag challenges. They analyzed video captions and content to identify patterns and features that characterize the average video for each challenge.
The study found that users are more likely to participate in a challenge if it aligns with their interests, with broader challenges having the widest appeal. This “wide appeal” is referred to as “social contagion.” However, achieving social contagion is challenging, as internal TikTok data suggests that 90% of users never post a single video.
The researchers also discovered that users were more likely to participate in a challenge if celebrities had previously done so. While hashtag challenges can potentially transcend specific interest groups, they often remain within a silo of existing beliefs and interests.
The research highlights the complex nature of user participation in TikTok challenges, and even TikTok’s editorial team admits to being perplexed by what makes content go viral. While the pursuit of virality continues, academics and creators alike will undoubtedly keep probing the platform for insights into the elusive formula for success.