Earlier this week, Instagram launched their TikTok alternative - ‘Reels’ - in India. Given India’s sudden ban on TikTok, Reels has been released at the opportune moment when an entertainment vacuum has opened up in the world’s second largest smartphone market.
Following the ban on TikTok, there’s been a surge of activity with app developers rushing to create their Indian-made TikTok clones. On Twitter, there have been screenshots of app store rankings supposedly showing who the winners are from the ban - namely other video-creation apps such as Triller, Byte, and Indian apps like Chingari.
This flurry of activity can be justified by the fact that TikTok’s second largest market is India, and now 200 million of those users are up for grabs. Whoever can rush to meet the needs of the creators and the consumers, could in theory win big - not just in India, but in other markets that might follow on with a TikTok ban (e.g. USA). The longer that a ban remains in place, the greater the chance that these TikTok refugees find a new permanent digital home for their creation and entertainment needs.
Instagram’s entrance into this space makes intuitive sense. On the business side, Bytedance poses an existential threat to Facebook’s grip of the world’s attention, and in turn its market share of ad-revenue - this is a chance for Facebook to fight off that threat:
On the product side, Instagram already has a large global audience and significant creator tools (especially in the ‘Stories’ format), to provide a safe bet for people looking to entertain and be entertained in a post-TikTok world.
But moving beyond intuition, is the execution of Instagram Reels compelling? Have Instagram correctly understood the appeal of TikTok and executed accordingly?
What’s special about TikTok?
Before we go into Instagram Reels specifically, it’s worth just highlighting what makes TikTok special.
When I think about TikTok, I think about the history of television and the major disruptions that have taken place around the visual medium.
Black & White TV —> Colour TV
Colour gave a sense of realism that B&W lacked. Colour is how most of us saw the world and lived in it. To bring colour to a TV screen was to reduce the psychological distance between our own lives and the stories we watched.
The rise of Cable TV
Before Cable, TV content was broadcast through the airwaves. TV was dominated by a handful of big players. When regulations were eventually loosened to allow cable networks to compete with the big broadcasters, consumers benefitted from an explosion in the number of channels that could be watched, and higher quality programming of content.
The Internet (Piracy Sites —> P2P filesharing —> YouTube)
With the emergence of the Internet and home computer devices, we saw people get access to visual content from all corners of the world (legally and illegally). YouTube then saw a huge disruption to the monopoly that TV networks had on creating and distributing video content to people.
Netflix and other SVOD platforms became a high-quality alternative to watching TV from set-top boxes at home. Netflix created original programming, distributed it via the internet on a subscription, and leveraged deep user data to get a deep understanding of consumer preferences. The rise of Netflix gave rise to a phenomenon called ‘cord-cutting’ where people started to cancel their traditional cable subscriptions completely.
I would argue that TikTok deserves to be next in line for consideration as a major disruption to Television.
The impact of TikTok on Television can be considered in 4 ways:
TikTok’s tools have made it easy enough for everyone to be an actor, producer, dancer, entertainer, creator, curator, director, writer, all at once.
TikTok has created a global distribution mechanism for these creators to be given exposure, recognised and appreciated.
TikTok is a new TV experience where consumers are algorithmically served up compelling visual stories that are short and engaging. The cost of investment in a piece of content is extremely small (< 60 seconds) but the psychological return is optimised to be big (e.g. something that makes me laugh).
Although TikTok marketplace has not been fully launched across markets, TikTok created a potential monetisation engine for its creators by connecting them to brands for campaigns, as well as to consumers via in-app purchases.
In essence, TikTok has made it possible for everyone to be a TV star, provided the world a TV channel to watch the best content being created, and was working on an engine for those stars to be paid.
Some of the commentary I’ve heard around Instagram Reels (including from people working within the company) outlines the bull case for Reels as follows:
Instagram has a good track record at copying formats from their competitors - remember stealing stories from Snapchat and the negative impact it had on Snap?
Ultimately, TikTok is just a ‘content format’ of music and video, and Instagram is now opening up that format to its users
I don’t buy this line of thinking.
On the first, Instagram did indeed copy Stories extremely well from Snapchat and stole the thunder from an emerging competitor (momentarily). But there was a compelling use-case to Stories. With Instagram's core mission being to connect friends and family through the photos they take, the permanency of the feed was acting as a bottleneck to the velocity and frequency of those connections. Stories opened up that bottleneck by reducing the pressure of posting visual content. Snap’s story format ported across to Instagram extremely well. But the success of Stories doesn’t make Reels a sure bet. In fact, Instagram’s big product releases have had a mixed track-record. For example, IGTV’s effort to own ‘long-form’ video was poorly executed (and remains so).
On the second point, to consider TikTok merely as a ‘content format’ is worrying. While it is true that TikTok & Musical.ly gained their initial traction by providing amazing creator tools for syncing videos to music, the attraction of TikTok has evolved far beyond that. As I outlined above, TikTok is not just about the creator tools: it’s about the efficient content distribution mechanism that distributes fame beyond follower numbers and social circles; it’s the personalised TV station that is serving up engaging pieces of content that don’t rely on your social circle; and it’s the monetisation opportunities available for the creators via the platform.
So when judging whether Instagram Reels is a good competitor to TikTok, let’s compare it across each of these categories.
Execution of Instagram Reels
1) Creator Tools: Instagram vs TikTok
The Reels creative toolkit is currently accessed via Stories.
In theory, Instagram’s creative tools are just as good as TikTok’s. Reel’s UX is pretty intuitive in terms of selecting songs, recording clips and stitching them together. Moreover, the fact that Instagram’s AR filter universe has been open to 3rd parties for a while means that there is a wealth of additional tools that creators can leverage in their videos. In contrast, TikTok’s AR filters are not open to 3rd party developers.
However, one thing to take note of is how messy and unintuitive Instagram is becoming for creating content.
Here’s all the different types of Instagram content and the distinctions that the product makes between them:
When it comes to video, the distinctions that Instagram have made are:
- is the content full-screen?
- how long is the video?
- is the content supposed to be permanent or ephemeral?
One inconsistency appears with Reels. Reels is embedded into Stories because it’s a full-screen format and Stories is where full-screen content is created and edited on Instagram. However, Reels is supposed to be ‘Permanent’ content, in contrast to the ephemeral content that is otherwise created in the Stories section. It’s not necessarily a ‘major’ point that will cause uproar, but Instagram is definitely losing its sense of simplicity and cleanliness. The experience (especially from a creation perspective) feels more cluttered.
Moreover, Instagram still gives navigational preference to posting content on the feed. Creating Reels is embedded deep within the stories experience. I imagine this alone will end up lowering the percentage of people who end up creating ‘TikTok’ like videos.
So, even though the creator tools are in practice similar, creating Reels is far away from Instagram’s core creator experience and is now competing with a number of other content creation formats in the app.
2. Content Distribution Mechanism: Instagram vs TikTok
This is where things begin to get really messy:
Instagram is still prioritising content distribution with your immediate followers.
There is a ‘TikTok-like’ vertical scrolling feed for discovering Reels that is embedded within the Explore screen. Otherwise, each individual piece of ‘Reels’ content is primarily distributed to followers through snippets on the home feed.
The big pull of TikTok for creators is that it pushes content to people around the world without the constraints of a social graph. It enables more people to get a hit of fame. By focusing on the content and not the creator, a given piece of content theoretically has a similar likelihood of going viral irrespective of if a creator has 100 followers or 3 million followers.
This distribution mechanism means that:
the most compelling content is surfaced for consumption
the democratisation of fame encourages more people to become creators
the ‘slot-machine’ element of content going viral keeps people creating
With Instagram not prioritising the discovery of content outside of your social graph, the potential of Reels to compete against TikTok is lowered.
One may argue that Explore is Instagram’s discovery engine. Apparently, 50% of users go into the Explore space monthly. While that sounds great, the general use cases around Explore tends to revolve around these:
‘Place of Last Resort’ - exhausted content from stories and the feed, and then you tap on Explore to fill up more time.
‘Accidental tap’ - self-explanatory
‘Extremely high intent but low frequency events’ - for instance, wanting to see content around Black Lives Matter explicitly, but these tend to be rare instances.
While 50% of Monthly Users going into Explore might sound high, on TikTok 100% of daily users are exposed to content outside of their social graph just by virtue of landing on the For You feed.
3. Infinite TV Channel for Consumers: Instagram vs TikTok
TikTok is a philosophically different product to Instagram. Instagram has been built under the assumption that we’re most interested in the pieces of content from our friends, family and the pages we’ve vetted as being good creators.
TikTok assumes that we don’t care about the creator per se, we just want interesting content irrespective of where it comes from. Opening TikTok immediately lands you on the best content from the world that is personalised to your tastes and preferences. Each piece of content is optimised for delivering a huge emotional return on investment for a few seconds of your attention.
One more subtle UX point. When you open Instagram, there are two main elements competing for your attention: your friends who have posted content on their stories, and then a feed or permanent content posted by your friends. There’s a choice that I need to make around what I want to focus on. On TikTok, there is no burden of choice - I just tune in. Opening TikTok is a transformative experience; opening Instagram feels like emotional work.
For Instagram to compete with TikTok from a consumption-lens, it would need a philosophical shift and a major restructuring.
4. Monetisation Engine for Creators: IG vs TikTok
There’s not a lot of product progress to make a valid comparison.
On the one hand, Instagram have started talking and introducing micro-features that enable creators to monetise aspects of their Instagram experience (e.g. selling items via Live, IGTV ad-revenue splits, shops for brands).
But TikTok’s efforts have been more advanced and ambitious. They’ve been working on a creator marketplace to connect brands to influencers directly, as well as enabling creators to monetise through Live Streams.
If TikTok gets banned, it feels like a lot of progress around helping creators monetise their followings gets lost.
On the one hand, Instagram Reels has mimicked TikTok in terms of the creator tools reasonably well. However, creation on Instagram is beginning to feel bloated. There are 7 different overarching formats of content to be created on Instagram, each with their own different spaces and flows. Moreover, Reels is deeply embedded within the Stories creation space, making it hard to find in an already busy interface.
Besides creation, Instagram are falling behind against TikTok on creating an effective distribution mechanism for content outside the social graph. This matters for creators, who are less likely to get a hit of fame. It also matters for consumers, who can’t just ‘tune-in’ to amazing content from the world as easily as they can on TikTok.
Generally, Instagram’s video experience has become extremely confusing and cluttered.
Right now, the three big product tensions that exist on Instagram are around:
- permanency vs ephemerality of content
- full-screen vs not-full-screen content
- social-graph vs no social-graph
If Instagram is set on becoming a TikTok competitor, the product will need to resolve these tensions in a better way. They may do this in the following ways:
Release a separate app for Reels content: a direct TikTok competitor that prioritises content from outside your social graph, and focuses the creation process around this format
Restructure the Instagram app: making the discovery of content outside your social graph better and more fundamental to the consumption experience, as well as simplifying the content creation process. In my eyes, this could be around removing the distinction between full-screen and not-full-screen content, and also not making a distinction for the length of videos (i.e. get rid of IGTV).
If Instagram seriously wanted to test competing against TikTok in India, I think it would be interesting to try this approach:
- On the home feed, create a separate feed between content from the people you follow and content from Reels
- The Reels feed behaves like TikTok’s ‘For You’ feed that algorithmically serves up the best Reels content from creators around the world
- Centralise the content creation process and offer Reels as a content-format option.
With this experiment, Instagram would be competing with TikTok on the ‘tool creation space’, as well as the global distribution channel that surfaces the best content and offers creators a hit of fame.