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Can Instagram Reels Compete with TikTok?

Two global powerhouses battle for supremacy while the world watches. No, that’s not the tagline for a new spy thriller. This epic showdown is happening in the social media industry, between rising star TikTok and the Facebook-owned established favorite, Instagram. In the midst of major controversy over TikTok’s data sharing, Instagram introduced Reels. This new section within Instagram directly challenges the young Chinese-based social media network. The question is: Can Instagram Reels Compete with TikTok?

Businesses and their marketers seek an answer to this question to help them decide where to spend their video marketing dollars. Many are already established on other parts of Instagram. Some have found their stride on TikTok. Both platforms present short-form video content to (mostly) young audiences. To help businesses understand the Instagram Reels versus TikTok debate, we spoke to Stacey Nachajski. As a social media strategist and speaker, Stacey teaches small business owners how to leverage social media through her online learning community, Embrace Social U.

“It doesn’t have to be either or,” Stacey said. “I think you can be on both and you can build strong followings on both at the same time if you want to.”

To figure out whether they want to, businesses should take their audience, comfort level with the platform, and goals into account.

Instagram Reels vs. TikTok: A quick comparison

Both Reels and TikTok are short-form video sharing platforms. TikTok videos max out at one minute while Reels videos are no more than 15 seconds long. They combine user-generated content with popular music, filters, and simple editing to create bingeable content. On both platforms, users discover content in a feed through an app on their mobile device. They can swipe to move to the next video and can like or comment on videos.

Chart: Instagram Reels Vs. TikTok. Reels column: 15 second videos, owned by US-based Facebook, one section of a more diverse app, audience in teens and 20's. TikTok column: 1 minute videos, owned by Chinese tech giant ByteDance, standalone, audiences in teens and 20's.

TikTok launched in 2016 in China and went worldwide after merging with the app in 2018. Originally, it appealed mostly to teens and young adults.

“What happens with any emerging platform is the kids get on at first and then the parents get on it and then the grandparents get on it,” Stacey said. “So [the platforms] effectively age up. Young people were hopping over to TikTok because it was cool and fast and all those things.”

Instagram saw the direction everyone was jumping and implemented a strategy they’ve used before, copying. They took the kernel of a great idea, short videos in a continuous feed, and ran with it. In August 2020, Instagram introduced Reels as their answer to TikTok.

TikTok has an established and growing audience of more than 2 billion, which grew substantially during the pandemic. Meanwhile, Instagram has only about 1 billion monthly active users. But as of the end of 2019, Instagram was far more popular among U.S. users than TikTok. Reels is so new, that it’s too early to tell what kind of impact it will have on usage statistics.

Choosing TikTok or Reels for Business

If you’ve only heard about TikTok in the news, you might be anxious about marketing on the platform. President Trump has moved to ban TikTok over concerns that user data could be shared with the Chinese government. This could result in a forced sale of TikTok’s US interests.

Some businesses might choose Reels over TikTok to avoid the possible complications a ban or sale could bring. This wouldn’t be the first time a country banned TikTok either. In 2019, India banned the app for two weeks. Despite this road bump, India was the number one market for TikTok downloads that year.

Stacey encourages users and businesses to keep privacy concerns in perspective. “There’s that risk really with any social media platform and then there’s tracking and all sorts of different things,” she said. “We all have to make our own decisions for the level of comfort that we have online.”

Ultimately though, she says businesses don’t have to choose between TikTok and Reels. Neither one is a must-have. “It really comes down to our ideal people and where their attention is and where we can reach them,” she said.

Businesses that are already established on Instagram might want to test out some of the new features. Those that have been successful on TikTok may find a new audience on Reels. The best way to know is to make a few videos and test it out.

Stacey doesn’t consider herself an early adopter, she prefers to analyze a platform and see how it fits into her overall marketing strategy. However, there is a benefit to testing Reels early. “Whenever Instagram releases a new feature, they want your eyeballs on it,” she said. “So you’re going to get better reach with that brand new feature.”

Best practices for super-short video

When it comes to best practices, Stacey’s advice is exactly what the team at IdeaRocket would tell a marketer: “Keep your audience in mind and create for them.” When you focus on how to meet the needs of consumers, you naturally create better, and more engaging content.

As an example, take a look at this Reel from Dr. Courtney Tracy, LCSW, PsyD. It’s professional. It’s approachable. And it helps her ideal audience understand what she does and how she might help them.

A quick look at her profile also reveals something interesting. She has more than 740,000 followers on TikTok. Presumably, she’s using some of what she learned there to make engaging Reels videos. (notice the TikTok logo in the bottom right of her video).

“If you’re just creating, because everybody told you to be on Reels, that’s not going to be helpful to your audience and they’re not going to care,” Stacey said. Instead, start by asking yourself if a short video will help you help followers. If so, go for it. If not, reach for longer form videos or other platforms that better meet their needs.

“We want to lead with service,” Stacey said. “That is going to keep people coming back, keep them, watching the videos if they’re truly feeling like you helped them.”

After you’ve decided that short-form video is the right choice for your audience and your business, we recommend these three best practices.

1. Use captions

Even though soundtracks are part of the draw for both TikTok and Reels, users often watch without sound. Make sure your video is understandable even if their device is on mute. You can add captions, pop-up text, and other overlays that help viewers understand your message.

Notice how this video from Mainely Succulents works even without sound.

2. Have a plan

In a 15-second, or even a 1 minute video, there’s no time for tangents. Viewers can easily swipe to the next video if you’re not clear and compelling. Have a script or at least a well-developed outline so you stay on target and avoid distractions. Ultra short videos need to be snappy to be effective.

3. Repurpose whenever possible

You don’t have to make brand new content for every platform. Instead, find a clip or eye catching tidbit from your longer-form content to make videos that fit these ultra-short platforms. If you’re on both Reels and TikTok, there’s no shame in repurposing content from one to the other.

Can Instagram Reels Compete with TikTok?

So far, Stacey thinks that Instagram has a good chance of competing with TikTok. Despite the meteoric rise of TikTok, businesses shouldn’t underestimate the value of the familiar. So many people already spend time on Instagram feeds, watching Instagram stories, and perusing IGTV, it seems likely that they’ll at least explore what Reels has to offer. Meanwhile, TikTok probably isn’t going away anytime soon.

“We don’t want to put all of our eggs in one basket,” Stacey said. “Remember Vine?” Social media platforms come and go. Your strategy should be resilient enough to weather the changes. In the competition between Reels and TikTok, the real winners may be businesses who learn to make the most of these platforms.

For help creating quality video content that catches audience attention on Reels, TikTok and beyond, reach out to the experts at IdeaRocket.

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