In this editorial, Vimeo’s Director of Product Emma Cai explores the short video competition between TikTok and Instagram Reels. Which should content creators leverage for maximum exposure and success?

TikTok vs. Instagram Reels is one of the great rivalries of our time, much like Coke vs. Pepsi. Although TikTok has only existed globally for two years, it has already become a cultural staple for Gen Z. TikTok reached 1 billion monthly users in the fall of 2021; Meta-owned Instagram reportedly hit 2 billion monthly users a few months later. If Meta can replicate the success of Instagram Stories with Instagram Reels, it will put a lot of pressure on TikTok to maintain its growth. And YouTube has now entered the short video competition as well, with Shorts, upping the ante for all players involved.

As a content creator, you may wonder if you should focus on one platform over others. And each offers certain advantages. For example, TikTok’s “For You” page is very customized to users’ interests. On the other hand, the Instagram Reels “Explore” Page is a melting pot of content. In this article, I dive deep into the differences between TikTok and Reels, and what you should consider as part of your long-term content creation strategy. 

TikTok vs. Reels

TikTok is a video-sharing app that shows 15-second to 3-minute videos originally – extended now up to 10 minutes – that are algorithmically shared to the “For You” page of users. Users can also choose to follow their favorite creators on TikTok. Out of the 3 main categories of content – inspirational, educational, or entertaining – most TikTok content falls under entertainment. (With TikTok extending its video length, however, it has entered into Youtube’s territory of greater educational content.) 

The design of TikTok’s algorithm gives creators an opportunity to go viral much faster than on Instagram, which is a large part of what makes it exciting and appealing. For instance, my classmate Christion Concepcion has been on TikTok for less than 2 years and she has nearly 60K followers. A similar amount of followers would take her much longer to achieve on Instagram. 

Instagram Reels are 15- to 90-second videos to which users can add music, captions, and a variety of effects. Unlike how Instagram typically functions, where only your followers can see your posts, a major advantage of Reels is that it grabs the attention of more users than just your followers. A Reel goes under the Reels tab and shows up in a user’s main profile grid, in Feeds, as well as under the Explore button. It allows creators to attract new audiences. With the right hashtags, music, and effects, Reels can also appear on top pages in certain niches. As videos are the most popular content type consumers want to see from brands, Reels have a huge potential for gaining followers. 

In 2016, when Instagram released “Stories” – a feature borrowed from Snapchat – it was quickly adopted by Instagram users and soon surpassed Snapchat in the number of daily users. Now many are asking: will Reels get users off of TikTok?

TikTok’s ‘experimentation’ vs. Reels’ ‘presentation’

Since TikTok’s core business is video sharing, its users are exclusively focused on video content. This may make the platform more welcoming to experimentation in video content. On TikTok, creators aren’t afraid to try more variations of content, making it a safe place to try new content. For instance, silly trends like “berries and cream” took off on TikTok. 

On Instagram, meanwhile, in the same way that users of that platform tend to keep their grids curated, they may also be more reserved in their Reels content. Family and friends are more likely to see your content if they follow you on Instagram. The “For You” page on TikTok mainly serves strangers. Therefore, TikTok seems to be the best place for creators to test out their ideas. Meanwhile, Reels have stayed true to the “grid-worthy” hierarchy of content.

Some believe TikTok gets more action because its algorithm is better. Others claim Reels get more attention because this feature is being pushed hard by Instagram to everyone on the platform. So far, it seems TikTok does a better job if creators have a small audience or need to build an audience from scratch. Reels get higher engagement if creators have a pre-existing audience. Undeniably, there is an opportunity to jump on Reels early, the same way everyone wished they were the first person on YouTube. 

Ultimately, it is creators who make each platform what it is

YouTube has been able to maintain its dominance in the digital space for years. This is in part because of its Partner Program that allows creators to monetize their videos. It’s this program that pulled creators away from Vine onto YouTube, where they could be paid for their creative work.

In the past, TikTok has functioned more like Instagram in terms of creator support. Creators could upload sponsored videos or earn money during a live stream, but there was no ongoing monetization program. In August 2020, TikTok launched a $1 billion fund for U.S. creators with 10K+ followers and 100K monthly video views. Recipients of this creator fund will receive regular payments during the course of a year. However, many creators complain they are being paid very little by TikTok’s creator fund.

Meta, on the other hand, has reportedly offered millions to lure creators from TikTok to Instagram, according to the Wall Street Journal. When a company with superior cash reserves gets scared by an upstart, it typically tries to out-spend that competitor. That’s exactly what’s happening with Meta. This past summer, Meta said it would spend $1 billion on creators, taking a shot at TikTok’s creator fund. Social media platforms are only as good as the people creating content for their users, and Meta may be able to buy an edge over TikTok with its financial power.

Final thoughts

It is too early to tell who will win the short video war. On one hand, TikTok’s algorithm can help creators, especially the smaller ones, to go viral quicker. On the other hand, Meta’s deep reserve of cash could perhaps not only poach creators from TikTok but also give them better compensation. That’s not to mention newcomer YouTube Shorts, which has bagged 1.5 billion monthly users since it launched a year ago. 

In the end, I do not believe creators will jump ship from TikTok en masse. TikTok is its own community. And even before Reels launched, TikTok made it easy to share content on Instagram. This blurred the lines between the platforms while also making Instagram users aware of TikTok when scrolling their feed. In the parlance of product management, TikTok’s product is sticky. Therefore, my suggestion for content creators is to leverage both TikTok and Reels. Each platform has something to offer, from different creator tools, to different levels of experimentation and creativity, to better compensation for creators. Put your content on both platforms and see what sticks. Not all content will be a hit everywhere. Like any product manager, you need to find your product-market fit. Find what works, focus your energy there, and – as always – be ready to pivot when things change.

About the speaker
Emma Cai Vimeo, Principal Product Manager Contributor
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