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Is Instagram Reels Better Than Tiktok? It Depends on Who You Ask.

Instagram’s answer to TikTok, Reels, has left brand marketers questioning which platform is best for them. But they don’t necessarily have to choose.
Instagram's new Reels feature | Source: Courtesy
  • Alexandra Mondalek

NEW YORK, United States — After some initial resistance, fashion brands spent the end of 2019 and early 2020 cosying up to TikTok and its creators. Prada invited one of the platform's breakout dance stars, Charli D'Amelio, to its Fall Winter 2020 show in Milan, while Celine tapped "e-boy" Noen Eubanks for a campaign last December.

Owned by the Beijing-based ByteDance, the platform's rapid success has spawned a host of imitators, including Instagram Reels on August 5. The new feature, which Instagram introduced with content from the likes of Selena Gomez and Patrick Starrr, functions much the same as TikTok: Users can create short, looped videos that viewers swipe up to watch.

Reels received a tepid initial response from creators and critics. But that doesn't mean brands can ignore it. Stories, mimicking some of competitor Snapchat's most popular functions, and IGTV (YouTube-style long-form videos), were both met with skepticism. Today, Stories is among the most valuable features to marketers in the Instagram suite of products, while Instagram Live and IGTV hit their stride during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Brand marketers are scrambling to figure out how to allocate their resources. Should the two platforms be treated equally? Can you produce the same content for both? Where are all the Millennials? Is it better to embrace TikTok’s novelty or the comfort of sticking with another Instagram product, despite Reel’s apparent shortcomings?

With little reliable data to judge Reels’ performance in terms of boosting a label’s profile or converting views into sales, brands are flying blind.

“In terms of bandwidth, a lot of businesses are still struggling to utilise IGTV and IG Story, and of course posting on their feed every day, so to add in another platform with such a different format proves to be a challenge,” said Ariyana Smith Hernandez, co-founder of digital marketing firm the Nora Agency.

Rather than declaring the end of TikTok or rejecting Instagram Reels for its early deficiencies, brands have the opportunity to diversify their presence on both platforms. Here’s how.

Goals and budget help shape where a campaign lives

Like with any social media marketing campaign, a brand must first decide what its goals and budget are before choosing a platform.

Driving broad brand awareness, for example, may be achievable on TikTok, but is dependent on going viral rather than building a large following, an elusive goal for even the most skilled brand marketers. If a brand is interested in driving sales to its e-commerce platform, on the other hand, it has the ability to do so on either Instagram Reels or TikTok, since both platforms offer the option of linking to a website easily.

As for budget, Instagram is generally the more costly platform for brands to reach new consumers, either through paid posts or through influencer partnerships. In part, that’s because of the platform’s older audience, says Joe Gagliese, chief executive of influencer marketing agency Viral Nation. Brian Vaughan, creative director of integrated marketing agency Shadow, says that the influencers on Instagram are also used to bigger paychecks and deals.

When reaching out to creators on TikTok, Smith Hernandez said her team found that TikTok influencers were more flexible with budget than Facebook influencers, particularly because affiliate marketing programs that have the potential to reach a wider audience on TikTok can help reduce baseline fees. To be sure, that’s largely true for mid-level TikTok creators rather than the platform’s headliners, many of whom have developed enormous followings on their Instagram pages, too.

Bundling services with influencers is another way brands can squeeze value out of the two platforms. For example, Zahraa Berro, a California-based lifestyle influencer with 36,000 Instagram followers and 173,000 TikTok followers, has worked with brands including Ralph Lauren and Mented Cosmetics, and said she will often suggest posting across Instagram and TikTok in order to offer a "discount" to a brand partner.

Leveraging one platform to build the other

Even with limited resources and budget, there are ways for brands to put both platforms to use.

In a recent report exploring brand successes on TikTok, influencer marketing agency Tribe Dynamics found that TikTok offers brands the opportunity to “rapidly expand their brand awareness and reach new audiences,” given the relative lack of overlap with other social media platforms.

Still, creators on both TikTok and Instagram have encouraged their followers to find them on the other “since day one,” said Gagliese. The most common way to do this is to share exclusive content on one platform and promote it on the other, he added.

Meanwhile, reposting content from one platform to the other verbatim is generally not advisable, experts say. Instead, partnering with a creator and giving them the creative freedom to tailor the content for the specific platform based on their strengths is better.

“Tapping into content creators was kind of the secret sauce for us,” Smith Hernandez said.

(Tribe Dynamics, in their research report, said that it is still necessary to have a brand account and presence on TikTok, even if the majority of the attention a brand receives on the platform is due to influencer partnerships.)

If the brand is focused on its own channel instead of a partnership with an influencer for earned media, considering Instagram’s entire suite of products collectively may also be less daunting than trying to make a campaign work across more than one platform, said Samantha Edwards, co-founder and chief creative officer at digital agency The Charles. For example, a brand could create a longform IGTV video, which would be promoted in the brand’s Instagram feed, and adapted for Instagram Stories and Reels.

“It’s nice that it’s in the same ecosystem,” Edwards said, adding that the data available to brands and influencers on Instagram makes justifying its cost easier.

Best practices, but no guarantees

Although there are no guarantees for success on TikTok, best practices have emerged on the platform. For example, building up a cliffhanger and keeping videos between 11 and 17 seconds gives a brand its best shot at going viral.

Some of the best performing TikTok videos have already been recreated for Instagram, changing little in the format. Instagram's fashion partnerships director Eva Chen replicated a viral TikTok video of Chinese couples modelling their street style on her Instagram page during the Reels rollout. But if a brand is planning to create a challenge or templated format for followers to recreate on their own on Instagram Reels, they should try to keep editing down to a minimum.

“Early feedback based on our own experimentation and what we're hearing from creators is that the editing tools are a little bit tougher, especially with the transitions,” said Vaughan, referring specifically to an oft-recreated editing trick wherein users “jump” into a new outfit thanks to illusionary cuts made to the video footage. “When we're thinking through content, we should create a simpler, easier [way] to create content” in order to encourage the most people to participate on Instagram.

And while personal styling videos have emerged on TikTok as particularly popular (think: “Five ways to wear a white tank top”) fashion brands don’t necessarily have to think about content for either TikTok or Instagram Reels so literally, Vaughan said.

For example, Vaughan and the Shadow team helped produce the wildly-successful Aerie Real Positivity campaign which encouraged TikTok users to post about what was keeping them positive while at home during the pandemic with an accompanying hashtag and music, lending itself to the brand’s larger ethos than around a specific product. The campaign racked up more than two billion views and drove an average increase of 800 percent in web traffic over the duration of the campaign.

Whether that same reach could be replicated on Instagram Reels — still only two weeks into its release — remains to be seen.

“What's most important that [brands] are just creating content that's authentic to them on that platform,” Vaughan said.

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