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1. What are Instagram Reels?
In the first week of August, Instagram announced ‘Reels’: a new addition to the already feature-packed Instagram app. In their own words, Reels is a new way to create and discover short and entertaining videos on Instagram.
Reels allows you to record and edit 15-second multi-clip videos with custom audio, effects and tools like filters. Users can add a caption, tag others, and set a custom cover image. You can choose to share Reels publicly, or just with your followers.
Users discover Reels from their Explore tab, where they can scroll through Reels from their followers and the wider Instagram network. Your vertical feed is ‘customised for you’ – though we aren’t too sure what dictates this algorithm. On the Explore tab, you’ll also see ’Featured’ Reels selected by Instagram to aid content discovery.
Getting a sense of deja vu yet? So are we. Reels is awfully similar to TikTok, bringing the concept of short-form video with custom effects and audio over to Facebook’s Instagram network.
2. Why has Reels been launched?
Bringing short-form video to Instagram
Video is only growing in popularity as a format, especially with younger markets. Both millennial and Gen-Z users indicate a strong preference for streaming or video content. However, Gen-Z is truly video-first, with 76% watching YouTube videos on a daily basis, and 73% streaming videos on their phones.
Recognizing this, video content exists across Stories (15-second videos expiring daily), Posts (capped at 60 seconds), and IGTV (longer form videos, capped at either 10 or 60 mins). Users respond well, with 35% of Gen-Z consuming video content daily on Insta. While most bases were covered – until Reels, there was no real way of producing TikTok-esque music-and-video-crossover content on Instagram.
Stories was integrated across the Facebook network (including Instagram and Facebook) in response to strong competition from Snapchat in younger markets. IGTV was launched in response to competition from YouTube, poised as the middle-man between YouTube videos and traditional TV programs. IGTV hosted longer-form videos across beauty tutorials, comedy, gaming and education on YouTube, and performed modestly well.
So, Facebook has a history of imitating competitor’s features. Sometimes they do this incredibly well as with Instagram Stories, which effectively shut down Snapchat’s growth for three years. Other times, they get mixed results as in the case of IGTV. Time will tell for Reels.
Second time lucky?
Reels is Facebook’s take on TikTok, responding to strong competition in important markets like the US and UK. This isn’t their first attempt either, they tried to launch ‘Lasso’ in 2018 – a separate app with a similar premise. Lasso failed to acquire a large, cult following in the way TikTok did. A year and a half later, it was shut down as a failed experiment. Enter Reels.
Reels beta has been out in countries like Brazil as early as November 2019, with the feature now officially out across 50 countries including the US and UK. And with great (or very opportunistic) timing – as the threat of a ban materialises in the US, one of TikTok’s largest markets.
So, in a nutshell Reels was launched to offer Instagram’s audience a TikTok alternative. Given 122 million of TikTok’s 1.5 billion users are based in the US, this makes good business sense. It doesn’t hurt that American TikTok users were already looking for an alternative app to migrate to in light of a potential ban – with some considering Triller, and others simply reposting their TikToks to Instagram.
What remains to be seen is whether Instagram Reels will succeed like Stories, or go the way Lasso did.
3. Who is using Instagram Reels?
One of the biggest questions for marketers, and potential users: Who’s using Reels? Theoretically everyone ‘on’ Reels is everyone on Instagram (over a billion people). In reality, feature usage varies: some people view tons of content and post very little, others post more regularly on Stories than Posts, and some are only there to watch IGTV.
So far, celebrities like Will Smith, Shakira and Selena Gomez have all posted Reels. Beauty brands and influencers have been one of the first to try out this format, with Patrick Starrr (4.6M Instagram followers) sharing makeup tutorials. Brands like Fenty Beauty, Benefit Cosmetics, Milk Beauty and Sephora have also posted content.
The content of these initials Reels is similar to what beauty communities on Insta are known for: highly curated, aesthetically pleasing posts. Beauty brand’s eagerness to be among the first makes sense, given the likelihood of sponsorship and ad opportunities becoming available in this format.
What’s interesting is how much original content Reels has – and it’s not much. TikTok influencers are reposting content either directly from TikTok (sometimes, with the logo still visible!).
Caitlin Reilly, a comedian famous for her ‘WASP Mom’ TikTok’s simply reposts TikTok content to Reels. Notably, Caitlin’s TikTok following is about ten times the size of that on her Instagram. @Bomanizer, famous for his fake reality TV-esque TikToks does the same thing. Despite encouraging his TikTok followers to follow him on Instagram, there is a huge gap, with 1.3M following him on TikTok, but only 125k on Instagram.
In short, it sounds like Instagrammers are dipping their toes in the water, but conservatively since not everyone wants to go out of their way to create Reels-exclusive content. And this makes sense, given the majority of Instagram users aren’t yet familiar with Reels, or perhaps aware it exists.
4. Will it be a worthy competitor to TikTok?
The classic answer: it depends.
For those who see Reels as an extension of Instagram, we can expect similar levels of activity that we’re currently seeing on Instagram – and those stats pale in comparison to time spent on TikTok. For marketers, Instagram Reels is uncharted territory, since ad opportunities aren’t yet clearly defined.
Instagram’s director of product management credits TikTok and musical.ly with their video format, echoing comments made about credit due to Snapchat by Instagram’s founder when Stories was added to Instagram. His comments highlighted a perceived advantage: “All your friends are already on Instagram. I think that’s only true of Instagram”. We’re not sure this is enough, or something Gen-Z particularly want, since we don’t use TikTok to connect with friends – we use it for entertainment and engagement.
But no doubt that Reels may keep their current users on the platform longer.
Launching in the US – is good timing enough?
Facebook has been lucky (or opportunistic) in presenting a TikTok alternative to US users in light of a ban. However, firstly TikTok hasn’t yet been banned, and many are hoping a sale to US brands like Microsoft or Twitter will ensure they can keep operating in the States. Secondly, while Reels is similar in product offering, it remains to be seen whether it presents a competitive alternative to apps like Triller and Byte (popular TikTok alternatives).
89% of Instagram users are from outside the US, with 110 million based in the States. These numbers are similar to TikTok’s 100 million monthly active US users. So, it could be anyone’s game globally, but TikTok’s future in the US will be crucial in determining whether Instagram wins out in its home market.
Content & culture
In an independent poll, 75% of UK TikTok influencers said they wouldn’t be making the move to Reels, though 20% said they would experiment with content creation. The core reason for not wanting to leave TikTok? The culture.
One of TikTok’s core USPs has been the goofy, kooky, informal culture – something that feels like a breath of fresh air to a generation tired of seeing curated, airbrushed Instagram aesthetics. TikTok’s represented a safe space for many niches, including creativity and weird humor – but crucially, also the LGBT community.
As of now, the content on Reels hasn’t really come into it’s own, and Instagram would be hard put to replicate TikTok’s culture. While a small amount of TikTok content borrows humor from ‘Vine’, the now-defunct 7-second video app, a lot of it is unique. It remains to be seen whether Reels can evolve similarly, or whether the association with filtered perfection on Instagram is going to be too difficult to shake off.
Fighting for attention
From a marketing point of view, Instagram and Facebook are incredibly competitive – with over 75% of US brands using Instagram, and almost every marketer running Facebook ads. This has led many brands to experiment with TikTok in a less saturated space, often with incredible results for companies like Chipotle, and Fenty Beauty.
An important hook for advertisers using TikTok is the ability to reach younger demographics they can’t find as easily, or in the same volume on other networks. With 50% of the audience under 34, TikTok is the place to be if you want to resonate with millennial and Gen-Z – especially the latter. Instagram was already struggling to compete in the Gen-Z market, so conversion from TikTok will dictate how successful they are in securing ads here.
Reels will struggle to offer a significant ad USPs compared to TikTok, especially in light of the unique ad formats available on TikTok. Marketers are more likely to diversify ad budgets rather than shift them back to Instagram, since Reels is still an experimental feature with unknown potential.
It remains to be seen whether advertisers opt for the ease and familiarity of running all their campaigns through Facebook, or take risks with huge pay-offs, with TikTok.
The algorithm wars
Arguably, TikTok’s biggest advantage has been their AI-driven algorithm. We’ve talked about how this encourages content discovery and makes it easier for everyday creators to go viral, reaping engagement you’d find it incredibly tough to gain on other networks.
It’s not just engagement, TikTok’s algorithm encourages you to spend longer in-app, with the average user spending just under an hour a day on TikTok. This is double the time Instagrammers spend in-app, potentially speaking to a shift in the kind of content people want to see online.
Anecdotally, when I scrolled through Reels I actually ran out of content and reached the ‘end’ of my vertical feed. This would be unthinkable on TikTok, and is probably down to the feature being relatively new given it was only released August 5th, 2020.
Reels could become competitive on algorithm, since for long-time Instagram users, Insta has your activity over the years to determine what you may want to see. However, we’re not sure whether what users want in their feeds is similar to what they want from Reels. We’re not entirely convinced Instagram has the competitive edge on algorithm, though this could develop.
5. The future of Instagram Reels
It’s a mixed bag. At Fanbytes, we feel TikTok has brought something new and refreshing to internet culture, giving way to the kind of content that is difficult to replace. As advertisers, we’ve seen unique opportunities for viral engagement on TikTok, that have been harder to replicate on Facebook’s Instagram. We don’t see TikTok’s huge internet impact fading out this quickly.
However, Instagram has the backing of corporate giant Facebook, meaning they can afford to innovate and invest in making Reels better than it currently is. We may thus end up with a landscape where Reels doesn’t emerge as a copycat or competitor, but rather a platform of its own. Influencer partners who are crucial to ads reach don’t necessarily want to ‘put all their eggs in one basket’ on a single network, so we may well see TikTok and Reels being used in parallel.
In conclusion, we’re not convinced Reels will emerge as the ‘next big thing’, but acknowledge the social media world moves incredibly fast, and the landscape can change virtually overnight.