Can Instagram Provide ‘Reel’ Competition to TikTok?

The pros and cons of the newest social feature

Instagram Reels and TikTok
The success of TikTok doesn't guarantee the rise of Reels. Source: Instagram, TikTok
Headshot of Amber Zent

For the past week, everyone has been talking about Instagram Reels, which enables users to edit 15-second videos with audio and fun AR effects. Sound familiar? Yes, there are a lot of similarities between Instagram’s Reels and TikTok. And even though Instagram confirmed the U.S. launch of Reels in mid-July, it seems especially significant as users and brands anxiously await Sept. 15 when the Chinese-owned, video-sharing app must be sold to an American-owned company or face being banned from the United States.

But just because TikTok has experienced huge success with its video-sharing model, and its potential banishment leaves room for competitors to move in, doesn’t mean the launch of Reels will be a guaranteed success—or help Instagram further its fan base or connection to brands.

Many Instagram users already felt like the app had become increasingly bloated and confusing with the addition of so many new features like IGTV, Instagram Live and Instagram Stories. There’s a chance that the introduction of yet another new in-app feature will exacerbate that brand confusion and the addition might hurt Instagram’s large user base. It also remains to be seen how much users will care that the essence of Reels is yet another feature that has been “cloned” from a different platform. (For what it’s worth, despite the criticism, adding Stories á la Snapchat, was undoubtedly one of the platform’s smartest decisions to date.)

The success of Reels may depend heavily on the fate of TikTok.

The success of Reels may depend heavily on the fate of TikTok. According to a Qustodio report, TikTok’s user base is incredibly devoted; TikTok users average 52 minutes per day on the platform, with the youngest users spending 80 minutes per day. And they aren’t just spending all that time passively watching content; 83% of users have posted their own videos. But if TikTok is shut down, Reels could be viewed as a comparable alternative. Users clearly enjoy the activities on TikTok and that isn’t going to change; they’re still going to want to create and consume that type of content.

We could expect to see users shift to Reels as celebrities continue making the kind of video content that allows them to connect with fans and influencers continue making the kind of videos that makes them valuable to brands. If online personalities transition to Reels, we could see the adoption of the feature by even the most die-hard TikTokers. And even though many TikTok influencers are currently taking a wait-and-see approach, some started linking to their Instagram profiles on TikTok and encouraging audiences to follow them there, recognizing they may need to find a new home. It’s worth noting that other apps like Triller and Byte are also gaining traction with TikTok in the news, but because of Instagram’s reach, they won’t likely benefit as much.

For brands, Instagram brings a lot to the table with the launch of Reels. They have stronger advertising and shopping features built into their app, and have been business-friendly for a long time, while TikTok has not been an easy platform for brands to crack. The combination of Instagram’s highly-tuned commerce chops with TikTok’s addictive video-sharing format—which has been the clear social media choice of some of the important, and younger, demographics during lockdown—is the dream for marketers. We’re only a few days in with Reels and brands like Dunkin’ and Maybelline are already testing the waters, and other brands will likely jump in quickly because Instagram is a known entity. Brands can build off a platform they already have, and simply create content using a new feature—not try to launch a new platform.

Amber Zent is partner/vp and director of social media at Marcus Thomas.