September 9, 2020

Will Instagram Reels Leave TikTok Reeling?

A TDG 3-Minute Read

In early August, Instagram introduced Reels, largely a variation on its popular Story product. Reels was designed specifically to better compete with TikTok’s beloved video editing features. Unfortunately, Reels is under-baked; little more than a last-minute effort to capture TikTok users concerned about President Trump’s recent executive order.

Reels is the latest product to join Instagram’s video lineup, which included Stories, the Feed, IGTV, and Instagram Live. The arrival of Reels serves only to further complicate the already- complicated Instagram experience.

This TDG 3-Minute Read® assesses the Reels feature, its place within Instagram, and how it stacks up against TikTok’s video editing suite.

Why Reels, Why Now?
Reels attempts to replicate the video editing tools of TikTok. (A similar strategy birthed Instagram Stories, a clone of Snapchat.) With Reels, you can organize clips, adjust speed, show lyrics, or use a variety of Instagram Stories features such as filters, text, and stickers. For reference, TikTok videos are mostly around one minute in length, though pieces closer to 15 seconds are more popular. Reels videos, by contrast, are limited to 15 seconds and a vertical format, mirroring Instagram Stories videos.

Optical illusions created by clever jump cuts are a major part of TikTok’s culture. Users cut two videos together, creating, for example, the illusion that they changed clothes or makeup instantly. Reels added a feature called “Align” that allows for seamless jump cuts, making this trope easily achievable by even the most novice level editors. Most importantly, you can add mainstream music, which is a key driver of TikTok’s success.

A More Confusing Version of TikTok
As noted, Reels videos must be 15 seconds and vertical, just like Instagram Stories videos, unless you use IGTV, or Instagram Live, which are both vertical but can be longer, though how long depends on how many followers you have and if you’re verified, except IGTV doesn’t just have to be vertical, it can be horizontal too, but not really square, it has to be full-screen, unlike in the Feed, where Reels loop endlessly but not in Stories, just like the 60-second videos allowed in the Feed loop already, which can be horizontal, square, or vertical, but not full-screen vertical, but Reels are vertical, so they are too big for the Feed, so they get cut off, then you can open them larger and they take up the whole screen, just like Instagram Stories which are also 15 seconds and vertical but don’t loop but also have music and filters and stickers, unless you use IGTV or Instagram Live…. Makes perfect sense, no?

Some attribute TikTok’s popularity to its simpler interface. ; )

In addition to cluttering the Instagram app, Reels also have the advantage of being hard to find. For example, you might (or not) see a Reel:

  • In Stories, without any labels that it’s a Reel, not a Story;
  • On a user’s profile, as a tab like IGTV or tagged photos;
  • In your Instagram Feed, but cut-off. You need to click on them from the Feed to see them full screen;
  • When in full-screen and you swipe up in an endless scroll to view more;
  • Tucked away in the Stories camera; or
  • In Explore pages.

Confused? You’re not alone. Reels was slapped into the Instagram app wherever programming allowed, not where it would best improve the convoluted user experience.

Instagram Reels, much like Stories and the Feed, is filled with uploaded videos created on TikTok rather than on Instagram. For now, at least, creators still prefer TikTok’s editing features and effects, so much so that they’ll download their TikTok videos and re-upload them to Instagram. Competing with TikTok’s “For You” page, and its quirky culture, will take a more serious commitment from Instagram.

The For You page serves as TikTok’s home screen, where users can log or, and this is key, watch an endless scroll of video-enabled tiles served up – just for you – based on its algorithms. The power of this page is its simplicity. You can spend hours watching video on this one single screen. It also presents to users the possibility of being featured on the page and catapulted to overnight celebrity. (Speaking of clones, Instagram’s Explore page is attempting to emulate For You.)

The (In)Authenticity Factor
Users also complain that both Triller (another TikTok competitor) and Instagram Reels are filled with verified users. Polished, advertiser-safe influencers or celebrities—versus the strangely-entertaining, painfully-authentic “little guy”—are actually less appealing to Gen Zs. The voyeuristic thrill of being served up random strangers helps, too. TikTok users love silliness, showing process, going behind-the-scenes, and being flawed. Due to this aesthetic difference, it’s very likely that Reels may siphon off TikTok user growth from its key demos (millennials and Gen X) but not from the more loyal Gen Z user.

Reels further muddies the (already) murky waters that isolate the Feed from Stories. In the future, we expect Stories and Reels will merge into one product, making Stories—once a clone of Snapchat—now a clone of TikTok. But don’t forget Snapchat is also trying to clone TikTok by licensing music…just in case you thought this was finally starting to make sense.

Within six months, TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram Stories/Reels will likely be relatively identical products. User choices will come down to cultural nuance, content creator loyalty, and government regulation.

Lauren Kozak, the author of In Search of an Audience: Quibi’s Post-Pandemic Prospects, User Adoption and Trends in Social Streaming, IGTV, & Facebook Watch, and The Ascent of the Social TV Engager, is our Senior Advisor on Social Media, Analytics, and User Behavior. She has previously held positions for the Los Angeles Times, Tribune Publishing, and Britney Spears.

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