Should marketers bother with Instagram Reels?

Instagram has launched Reels to compete with TikTok, but what does this mean for marketers planning social content to grow their audiences?

Brands have never had more ways to connect with the public. From television adverts to physical billboards, newspaper advertising, and the plethora of social media and online channels, the opportunities are seemingly endless. However, picking the right platform can be tricky for marketers.

One of the newest, fastest-rising platforms is Chinese-owned TikTok. But battered by negative headlines and facing the threat of a ban in the United States, some companies are looking at competitors, including Instagram Reels, which launched this summer.

The two apps are functionally very similar, but do they offer the same sorts of returns for companies looking to reach customers? When weighing up Reels versus TikTok, which one comes out on top?

“The launch of Reels in August was a long-awaited, exciting development for Instagram in its pursuit of becoming a one-stop shop for any social media user’s needs,” says Mary Keane-Dawson, group chief executive of Takumi, an influencer marketing firm.

But she’s circumspect that Facebook’s Instagram Reels will supplant TikTok, the short-form video app owned by Chinese parent company ByteDance, anytime soon.

“Anyone making that prediction needs to remember that Instagram’s platform is populated by an entirely different user base who have interests that may not align with TikTok’s,” she says. “Therefore, the type of content that will likely dominate Reels will be dissimilar to the trendsetting, creative, spontaneous videos that made TikTok the world’s most downloaded non-gaming app.”

The fight for short-form video supremacy

TikTok and Instagram have both come to dominate the world of short-form video in a very short time. Instagram users love the app’s clean, idealistic aesthetic, creating content found through the Explore tab and lapping up sun-kissed photographs and videos both through the main feed and through Instagram Stories, short snippets of everyday life from users.

On TikTok, video is the main method of communication, combined with original audio. Creating content is simple and streamlined, and potentially visible to an audience of millions. In the UK, TikTok has 17 million monthly active users, a quarter of the population.

“Consumer interface is the key to TikTok’s not-so-secret recipe for success: they completely remove the paradox of choice,” says Andrew Rajanathan, global business director at Publicis Imagine, which works with brands to market their companies on social media platforms. Publicis also manages some of TikTok’s global media advertising.

“Everything is served in one spot, designed to bring videos to users, instead of making the users search for them,” says Rajanathan.

A Takumi survey of the marketing sector shows that in the current climate, Instagram is the place most businesses put their money on social media. Eighteen per cent of businesses believed Instagram was the best marketing channel to receive a good return on investment in influencer campaigns, compared to 6 per cent who said TikTok. But that’s based on Instagram photo posts, rather than Reels.

“Reels feels like an add on,” says Rajanathan. “It’s impossible not to notice the flood of reuploaded videos from TikTok, with TikTok watermarks still dotting the upper left-hand corner of reel after reel.”

An industry primed for growth

But that might not be the case for long. The stakes in the battle pitting Reels versus TikTok are potentially huge. According to Takumi, over the last year, three quarters of companies have allocated more resources to influencer marketing, with big increases in spending in retail, legal and manufacturing, in particular. It’s a sector ready to grow significantly.

And Reels is coming around the corner. “The Reels product only launched in August, but there is no complimentary ad product at present,” says Rajanathan. “We can expect, based on the typical Facebook and Instagram playbook, that an ad product that also covers both brand awareness and direct response will arrive sooner rather than later.”

Reels feels like an add on. It’s impossible not to notice the flood of reuploaded videos from TikTok, with TikTok watermarks

Keane-Dawson also thinks the choice won’t be a binary one for brands. “We expect creators to continue using TikTok, while also testing out Instagram Reels,” she says. “And for brands, the rising popularity of Instagram Reels will likely accelerate the use of short-form video apps by marketers.”

It’s hard to deny the might of Facebook, Instagram’s parent company. Yet TikTok has proved to be a social media monster, dominating all that has gone before it. Its growth in just two years eclipses even that of Facebook itself. Before TikTok’s second birthday, it had achieved nearly half the UK users Facebook took 15 years to acquire.

The future of TikTok and Instagram

As we’ve seen with the rise and fall of numerous social platforms in the past, such as Myspace and Bebo, or the false dawns that promised so much, but remain simply a stalwart of the social media scene like Snapchat, canny marketers don’t put all their eggs in one basket, but instead rely on reaching consumers wherever they may be.

At the minute that appears to be TikTok. Its user base is young, possessing the all-important disposable income brands are keen to capture. It also benefits from the dynamism and trendiness of being the hot new app that brands can leverage to their favour. For some, Instagram is old hat and old news. But more importantly than picking one app over the other, it’s how you use them that matters most.

“What will be a fundamental challenge for advertisers and agencies to overcome is building creative assets that are bespoke for these new platforms,” says Publicis Imagine’s Rajanathan. “For brands, messages can be deployed in very unique ways, using the various features on TikTok and Reels.” Whichever app you choose, don’t simply repurpose the same messages and videos from TV adverts onto social media, or even cross-pollinate between the two platforms. Instead, carve out distinct, unique messages on both, best suited to your audience.