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How TikTok grew 500% with product-led strategies
Lessons behind TikTok's early product-led growth strategies and how they designed it. It's not by accessing your Wi-Fi.
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TikTok has been downloaded 3 Billion times, almost half of the world's population.
At a spicy hearing on Capitol Hill last week, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew fought for the app’s survival in the US. But the question is — how did TikTok even grow so fast to 150M+ Americans on the app?
In today’s newsletter, I will tell you about their 5 key early product-growth strategies. Can you guess what are they? Scroll down to find the answer.
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How TikTok drive 500% product growth: A breakdown to 5 key strategies.
It’s difficult to overstate how dominant TikTok's become. Even the analysts are puzzled. If you add up the revenue of Twitter, Snapchat, Zoom, Lyft, Dropbox, Airbnb, and Spotify together, it still wouldn’t be as big as Bytedance.
TikTok’s grown so fast it’s broken the models. In this case study, we will dive into Alex Zhu (founder of Musical.ly. He’s a designer and PM), where it eventually transformed into TikTok.
My biggest takeaways from this deep dive:
Most product-led growth is designed by understanding humans.
To execute any of these strategies, it’s important to first narrowly define your target user.
Always start with a niche. You can expand the use case once you have distribution and design for the billions.
Most of these strategies are invented and worked well for consumer tech companies but B2B can learn from too.
Users need to feel invested to want to continuously contribute to and share your platform.
Let’s dive into 5 product growth strategies that drove TikTok’s insane growth. 👇
1. Focus on a niche from zero to one phase, then diversify new use cases
“In the zero to one phase, you want to be a brush, you have to solve a specific need very well, but once you reach one, and one to grow to X, you want to be a canvas, you want all kind of things to happen on this blank canvas”
This is very much in line with how most of the largest consumer tech companies grew.
Facebook started with college kids
Amazon focused on books
ADPList started with designers
Uber started with ride-hailing
On a smaller scale, Paul Graham talks about how all one needs to do is to find 1000 of your truest, most obsessive fans and you can make a living off that group.
📌 Key question: Am I narrowing down my audience enough?
2. Don’t design against human nature
“I was observing their behavior, 50% [they] were listening to music, and the other 50% [they] were taking videos and photos, selfies and [put the] stickers and shout[ing] around, and they had some good laughs. So that gave me some idea, first, entertainment is going to be much easier than education cause education is against [the] human nature and entertainment are following human nature.”
Top tech companies started as underestimated frivolous things and the next big thing will look like a toy.
Giving into human vices can change the world.
YouTube, Apple, Google, and Netflix started out as toys but contributed more to education and learning than smaller education-focused companies.
📌 Key question: Is my product catering to the most primal instincts of human nature or looking to serve a higher need?
3. Focus on utility, retain with community
“We have to focus on the utility aspect, like the first user of Instagram 1.0, they didn’t use Instagram for the feeds, for the likes, for the comments, they use Instagram for the amazing filters, then post on other social media[s] right? Before you have the critical mass of the users, you have to focus on content and utility.”
One strategy to overcome this is to create a single-player tool first, but it is still a good strategy to solve the cold start problem.
Creating a single-player tool first can make it difficult to attract users initially as the network has no value.
A single-player tool can allow for early feedback and improve the product before launching the network.
Once the single-player tool gains traction, it can be expanded to include social features to attract more users.
However, this strategy may not work for all types of networks and products.
📌 Key Question: Am I building utilities that will solve my users’ problems'?
4. Build alongside the users
“We have to stay really close to our users, different kind of users, we call this Participatory Design. Involve the end users in the design process from the very beginning, actually, we have hundreds of users on WeChat… We have daily conversations, not only conversations about the product and ideas but what they think and being immersed in the American teen culture. For every design, we present the ideas, and share the wireframes before we do any coding.”
Alex and his team were based in Shanghai but targeting the American market.
The key to success for a product designer/manager is having a deep understanding of the consumer's behavior. You should be doing:
User testing, surveys, customer support interactions, and social media engagement are ways to achieve this.
Understanding the consumer's behavior allows for better prediction of their needs and wants.
Informed decision-making when developing and launching new features or products is enabled.
Cultural and regional differences should be considered when targeting a market in a different country.
Success is possible even if the product manager is not part of the user demographic, as long as there is a deep understanding of their behavior and needs.
📌 Key Question: Do I understand my users’ behavior enough and are we talking to them every day?
5. Users need to feel invested
“We make sure, people invest. Invest basically means posting, so we send a notification for new users, post your own Musical.ly, and that dramatically increased the retention”
This reminds me of “The Hooked Model” by Nir Eyal (hi Nir!).
Trigger (External or Internal): This is the actuator of behavior. It cues the action that then builds a habit. In Musical.ly’s case, it would range from creative expression to social validation
Action: Behaviour executed in anticipation of the reward. In Tiktok’s case, it would be posting a lip-synch dance/stitch.
Variable Reward: The problem that’s solved because of the action taken reinforces the cycle of behavior. Reward types include:
Rewards of the Tribe: social rewards based on connection and acceptance.
Rewards of the Hunt: search for material resources.
Rewards of the Self: personal gratification in the form of mastery or self-realization.
Investment: An action that improves the product or service in the future. This action for TikTok would be sharing videos across their social networks.
📌 Key Question: What drives my users? What can I do to fulfill this and trigger this? What can I make them do to feel invested in the product’s success?
Focus on a niche from zero to one phase, then diversify new use cases
Don’t design against human nature
Focus on utility, retain with community
Build alongside the users
Users need to feel invested
Key questions to ask when building products
Is my product catering to the most primal instincts of human nature or looking to serve a higher need?
Am I narrowing down my audience enough?
Are my product team and I talking to my users every day?
How can I either incentivize my users with either cash or status?
What drives my users? What can I do to fulfill this and trigger this? What can I make them do to feel invested in the product’s success?
That’s it for this week 🙏! This community lives thanks to word of mouth. Share this newsletter with your team/someone to whom it might be useful!
Hit me up if you have any stories, feedback, or insights to share. See you next week!
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