On Wednesday Instagram launched a new video feature called Reels that is intended to rival the success of TikTok, the app that achieved the most downloads Q1 2020.
Reels is the Facebook-owned app’s tactic to win over TikTok’s fans and keep users on Instagram. But will it work?
TikTok has approximately 800 million active monthly users, 60% of which are Gen Z – between the ages of 16-24 – according to Wallaroo Media. Engagement on the app soared during the months of the Covid-19 lockdown, when the many were looking for light-hearted, instant distraction in the form of 15-second user-generated videos, often in the form of dances and challenges.
The newly launched Reels, meanwhile, can be accessed via Instagram’s Stories feature and, like TikTok, will allow users to record or upload 15-second videos with platform-specific or original audio and effects. Other features include augmented reality effects, a countdown timer, speeds and video analytics for creators. All seemingly straight out of TikTok’s playbook.
Reels will appear on Instagram’s Explore page and on followers’ feeds, in a manner similar to TikTok’s For You page, which compiles videos based on each user’s engagement data.
Instagram Reels and the power of Gen Z
As digital natives with considerable free time for social activities, Gen Z is arguably the most important demographic to target for social media companies looking to grow audience and engagement. According to Pew Research, 89% of US teens say they use the internet almost constantly or several times a day.
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The ways in which Gen Z uses and adopts social media is fundamental for app developers to understand. Gen Z online behaviour has a defining impact on the perpetual cycle of trends, and the Mark Zuckerberg-led Facebook has been historically in tune with their evolution.
“First [Zuckerberg] came for the ephemeral posts popularised by Snapchat, which exist today as ‘stories’ on Facebook and Instagram. Now he’s after short amateur aesthetic videos set to music,” says Dr Ben Marder, senior lecturer at University of Edinburgh Business School.
“Reels will become a popular function of Instagram, in a similar vein as its ‘Stories’. The TikTok video format is not just a short-term trend but a new style of content to be embedded into daily social media consumption.
“The introduction of ‘Reels’ acknowledges that user needs are changing and have become too complex for Instagram’s current offering.”
TikTok vs Instagram Reels: Is there just one recipe for success?
For Instagram, Reels will provide a new formula for influencer brand monetisation within the already lucrative app. And given its strong position, it could prove to be a valuable addition.
Yuval Ben-Itzhak, CEO of AI-powered social media marketing company Socialbakers, says Instagram’s “over a billion monthly active users” and highest overall levels of engagement will enable it to more successfully monetise the “TikTok-esque format” than TikTok itself.
“By offering another highly engaging content format to compete with TikTok, Instagram is looking to further secure its place as the most engaging platform for brands,” continues Ben-Itzhak.
However, Reels may struggle to take Gen Z attention away from the more nuanced alchemy of TikTok’s algorithm but instead will provide an extension to pre-existing Instagram influencer culture.
Shan Hanif, CEO of brand creation agency Genflow, believes that if Reels is “seamlessly embedded into the Instagram app,” it will be successful.
The feature will enable influencers to “turn followers into customers by building brands and businesses from their passions to generate real long-term value and ownership,” Hanif argues.
By contrast, many of Gen Z find respite in TikTok as a less monetised platform.
“Tiktok provides an antidote with an aesthetic that is very different: amateur, real and playful, which is a large part of the appeal for the technology,” explains Marder.
Instagram feels like an “arguably fickle and unrealistic depiction of life”, according to Marder, while Gen Z finds TikTok is more nuanced and multifaceted.
Instagram’s challenge is replicating the unique TikTok culture to sway Gen Z back to the already familiar Instagram platform. However, Ben-Itzhak says TikTok’s ability “to compete with the largest social media platform in the world in the long-term will depend on its ability to attract big brand advertising dollars without losing its authentic appeal to users”.
TikTok vs the US: A timely launch
Of course, this launch comes at a commercially savvy point in time.
Instagram’s launch of Reels at the same time as the US looks to push through its outlawing of ByteDance-owned TikTok and its proposal for Microsoft to take control of TikTok’s US data seems hardly coincidental in the midst of the US’s trade scuffles with China.
If this US campaign against the company gains ground, it could deter users from TikTok and into the open arms of Instagram Reels. However, Marder argues that “Reels will not be the death of TikTok”.
Nevertheless, he says Facebook’s offering “will slowly infiltrate and grow into older generations – something which was always going to be hard for TikTok”.
TikTok’s headwinds in the US, and for that matter India, brings Instagram’s Reels a greater chance of reaching, and converting, Gen Zs than they might otherwise have managed. Outside of the US, the jury remains out.