Last week, Billboard’s Elias Leight wrote a timely story about why there are fewer and fewer hit songs from TikTok:
“This era of TikTok — creators-turned-late-night-TV-guests, ubiquitous dances — remains fixed in the popular consciousness. But the app has changed drastically since then. In December 2018, TikTok had around 270 million monthly active users, but that number has now ballooned to over 1 billion. And at the same time, nearly every artist, label, and brand is trying to push a product on the platform, further dividing users’ attention.”
Look at TikTok growing up fast! The app has survived its hyper-growth phase, geopolitical turmoil, and leadership turnover. It has hit that next stage of the social network lifecycle.
Early users always get a boost in the early growth stage on platforms like TikTok. These users “figure it out” before the rest of the competition. The social networks champion those content creators with advice, preferential treatment, and more. It happened on SoundCloud, YouTube, Snapchat, Clubhouse, and now TikTok.
The overwhelming narrative is that the “party is ending” since it’s now tougher to grow on TikTok because the hyper-growth moment has passed. But TikTok’s next stage of TikTok is where the flash-in-the-pan stories fade and the real businesses emerge.
The double-edged sword of early-user growth
The first power users on any social media platform will always appear on the “people you should follow” sections. New users will follow those power users as a rite of passage to fully experience the new platform.
But when the honeymoon phase is over, those early power users are often left with a less-friendly algorithm and a hodgepodge of uninterested followers. The lack of engagement and unpredictable nature of responses to their posts often leads to usage decline.
Twitter’s three-most followed accounts are Barack Obama, Justin Bieber, and Katy Perry. As a platform, Twitter had one of its biggest growth years in 2012, so that tracks given the mainstream popularity that those public figures had at the time. Obama, Bieber, and Perry were famous before Twitter, but there are countless others who rose to Twitter fame in the early 2010s and peaked at that moment.
Lil B was one of the first rappers to make a name for themselves on Twitter. The self-proclaimed Based God was notorious for setting curses on NBA players. But maybe Lil B was the one who was cursed all along by the preferential treatment in Twitter’s early days.
Where the real business emerges
The next phase is where two types of success stories emerge. First, there are the early users who didn’t blow up during the hyper-growth phase but studied the app and perfected the craft. They got their 10,000 hours in. This is what Russ and Chance The Rapper did on SoundCloud. It’s also what Marques Brownlee and MrBeast did on YouTube. They got their 10,000 hours in.
These are the artists and creators who often have The OutKast Edge—the theory I introduced last year about why slept-on trends become popular and sustain their unique edge over time. They create content for like-minded outsiders, build an audience on independent platforms, and play the long game. It’s why Tyler, The Creator has had a slow and steady rise to stardom, Tyler Perry took years to build his Madea empire, and how Quinta Brunson went from a 2014 viral meme “Oh he got money!” to a 2022 ABC hit show with Abbott Elementary.
The second type of success story is the new user who joins with a game plan in mind. They approach social media like a business. They have a clear target audience. Sure, customer acquisition will cost more than it did in the hyper-growth days, but they’ll gain more valuable fans and customers in the long run.
This is where record labels, brands, and others who spend money on TikTok campaigns can struggle. Do they care more about a short-term boost in streams, or the long-term development of a fanbase?
TikTok is the easiest social media platform to grow a following, but the hardest to convert each of those users into true fans. The ‘For You Page’ makes it easier to reach casual fans, but that’s why it’s at the top of the funnel for most creators—even above other social media platforms.
The silver lining
For a lot of artists, a 2019 plug from Addison Rae or Charli D’Amelio would have been their 15-minutes of fame. TikTok’s evolution will force newer rising users to find the influencers, brands, and partners that are in their niche and can help them level up. And if they aren’t there yet, they’ll get there soon enough. This is the time when they often emerge.