3 Things Instagram Reels Can Do to Beat TikTok

Last month, Instagram rolled out an aggressive redesign placing Reels front-and-center on its new navigation bar. So far, the feature has been poorly received by critics and TikTok users, who claim it to be a blatant knock-off of the popular short-form video app.

Based on user reviews and general sentiment, it seems that Reels has yet to insert itself into most users’ daily activity on the platform. We witnessed a similar lack of enthusiasm back in 2018 when Instagram introduced its Youtube competitor, IGTV. According to TechCrunch, a mere 7 million of Instagram’s 1 billion-plus users have downloaded the standalone IGTV app in the 18 months since launch. Meanwhile, TikTok has seen rapid growth since its global launch in 2018, amassing over 689 million MAUs since October 2020.

Article headlines of Instagram Reels getting roasted

Instagram’s sluggish response has resulted in TikTok’s dominance of social entertainment and short-form video. And as we all know, social media is increasingly a zero-sum industry. Instagram’s metrics for total unique visitors and average monthly time spent are already flatlining. TikTok’s content catalog continues to grow as the For You Page (FYP) becomes a breeding ground and trampoline for unique expressions of creativity. TikTok has become a catalyst for activating cultural conversations. Reels is where those conversations retire.

THE PROBLEM

What Instagram failed to realize — and what it must frantically remedy — is that its biggest problem lies with content, not distribution or technology. TikTok creators disregard Reels as a legitimate content platform, and the average Instagram user refrains from posting TikTok-like Reels due to the in-feed social graph. The scarcity of good and relevant content results in suboptimal FYP experiences for new users, increasing churn. The current FYP is littered with old TikToks, influencer videos, or irrelevant user-generated content (UGC) with low views. The Reels algorithm will eventually catch up to TikTok’s, but without solid, engaging, and original content, Reels is but a re-posting platform for TikTok videos past their prime. Highly engaging content and the subculture communities that create and react to them are what drive users to stay on the platform. To replace TikTok, the “most fertile source for meme origination, mutation, and dissemination in [US] culture,” as Eugene Wei posits in his article TikTok and the Sorting Hat, Instagram must go beyond mere replication of TikTok’s algorithm and product design.

THE THREE-PRONGED SOLUTION

Reels’ inventory of content is much smaller and lower in quality compared to TikTok’s due to three underlying problems:

  1. Creators don’t have ideas for videos because it’s hard to remix existing videos.
  2. Creators don’t have the chance to go viral and become famous, so they aren’t incentivized to make videos.
  3. Instagram’s video production tools are far too poor compared to TikTok’s.

To solve these problems, we’ll examine content network building tactics and strategies and how they might be implemented for Reels.

THE KEY TO DRIVING CONTENT: MEME-ABILITY

On Reels, users must contemplate what content to create, resulting in heightened friction during the creative process. This is similar to the Youtube creation model, where creators brainstorm and storyboard content ideas, then layout production processes. The creator to viewer ratio on a platform like Youtube may be 1 in 100, while TikTok’s may be closer to 1 in 3 (In a 2018 Bytedance Advertiser deck, TikTok claimed that 34% of its DAUs shot content daily).

Imagine this — among all your friends who watch TV shows, how many people do you know who actually produce TV shows themselves?

The bar for creating Instagram-worthy content is simply too high. Even ex-Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom stated that “the biggest problem [people had] with Instagram is feeling the pressure of sharing really amazing photos… People want to actually share a lot more, but they don’t want it to hang on the gallery wall.” In contrast, the TikTok creation funnel works exceedingly well due to the very participatory nature and meme-ability (iteration through easy recreation or reaction) of content that traverses the platform — users see videos on their FYP and can recontextualize and create something instantaneously. What they already want to make is lying right there on their feed. Reels has not yet deduced how to replicate the meme-ability of its content.

Image from Nathan Baschez and Neer Shama’s article “Instagram can’t recreate TikTok’s magic”

Instagram’s solution to TikTok mirrors the Stories vs. Snapchat strategy (launching a standalone app copying a popular format, checking product-market fit in a secondary market, then aggressively integrating the feature into the main app). As was the case with Stories, Instagram assumes that its superior distribution will win in the long run as users eventually adopt the feature into their daily activity, but past performance does not indicate future success. Stories alleviated the pressure users felt to create curated content. It provided snippets of real-life unfettered by publicized validation (through likes and comments) or permanence on user accounts. It also served as an extension of Instagram’s core use case: connecting with friends and family. Reels’ purpose is to entertain, not to haphazardly chronicle one’s life, and therefore requires an entirely different creative process.

For Reels to succeed as a new content platform, it must enhance its meme-ability. “Meme” is defined as a cultural unit of transmission typical of behaviors or ideas, first propounded by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 bestseller The Selfish Gene. “Internet memes” are the hijacking of an original idea, Dawkins explains, that instead of mutating by random chance or Darwinian selection (like genes), undergoes deliberate iteration via human creativity. The success of a meme depends on the number of iterations it receives. As Turner Novak states, “the more iterations to a meme, the more momentum it gets.” Memes and viral challenges unique to Instagram’s platform are limited to dissemination via hashtags or Stories and DM sharing (For example, the #DollyPartonChallenge or #ChallengeAccepted trends of 2020).

TikTok’s platform offers multiple touchpoints to each unit of content, expanding the number of pathways a user encounters inspiration and nudges toward content creation. You may happen upon a video and choose to use the same audio and reimagine the gag, or download the audio and remix it — perhaps jumbling several viral sounds together. You can use the same Effect listed in a video you viewed, putting your own twist on it. You could Duet another user’s video and film your live reaction, or respond to the video through a Stitch. You could reply to a comment and use that to spawn your next video. Each new video gives fodder to another user’s creativity, and TikTok’s armory of meme-able content continues to propagate.

Instagram must enhance Reels’ participatory nature by increasing the number of touchpoints in a video, while also reducing friction in those pathways. Some fixes include:

1. Adding individual pages for effects, which aim to showcase a variety of examples to choose from.

2. Attaching an effect button on videos to allow users to click through and use the Effect immediately (e.g., add “Align” above the caption).

Designed examples of how the suggested fixes above could be implemented

3. Changing the current AR Filter video thumbnails in the Effect Gallery (which currently shows a short preview of the Filter in use) to examples of users demonstrating how to incorporate it in a 15+ sec Reels video. The current previews do not provide contextual information on how the filters may be used beyond taking a selfie.

4. Rearranging the Effect Gallery categories to include a separate section specifically for Reels-related filters, especially those that are meme-able and can drive narrative storytelling. The Effect Gallery is currently the same for both Stories and Reels. The available filters and categories do not apply to videos intended for Reels.

5. Offering a tutorial guide for recreating trends when a user first encounters new videos with effects. TikTok offers a how-to guide on its official page for trending video formats.

6. Promoting Reels native audio such as copyrighted sounds acquired via exclusive contracts with popular musicians like Charlie Puth or comedic personalities like Ricky Thompson and Bretman Rock. This increases the likelihood of creators reacting to in-app sounds.

REELS: THE NEW LAND OF OPPORTUNITY

Quite a long time has passed since a user has gone viral on Instagram (and by Instagram alone). The last hyper-viral influencer accounts I can recall include @wolfiecindy after Justin Bieber’s “Omg who is she!!” 2017 post and ex-model and photographer duo @alexisren and @jayalvarrez from trending travel posts in 2016.

TikTok presents the average creator what Instagram could not possibly offer — the chance to go viral without having the perfect face, an ideal body, professional levels of talent, or expensive equipment. It is the only content platform where amateurs can compete against seasoned professionals on the same playing field. To motivate content creators, Reels must first show them a path to success by conjuring an image of itself as a land of opportunity and a pathway to wealth creation. To do that, Reels has to find the new Charli D’Amelio, the new Addison Rae, the new Bella Poarch, the new Baby Ariel.

Top TikTok creators

TikTok did this exceptionally well by deliberately controlling the allocation of social capital. Building a community from scratch is like “nation-building,” states Musical.ly founder Alex Zhu in his 2016 talk with Greylock (Musical.ly, TikTok’s predecessor, was acquired by ByteDance in 2017). You must construct an economy and a population, and convince people from developed “countries” with ossified economies and social classes to migrate to yours. Instagram and Facebook typify these “developed countries,” where opportunities for upward social mobility continue to dwindle. The next step is to foster an economy with high income inequality and allocate most wealth to a few pioneers. Once news spreads about these new wealthy individuals, it triggers a gold rush, prompting others to follow. Musical.ly manipulated attention on its platform by manually featuring videos from certain creators, guaranteeing massive exposure on their accounts. This drove large amounts of traffic and higher visibility to obscure, new creators, immediately catapulting them to celebrity status.

Reels needs to create a gold rush scenario. Currently, most of the high-performing content on Reels is created by Instagram’s top influencers. When I browse my FYP, I am continuously shown perfectly curated content from verified accounts or influencers with over 50K to 1m+ followers. Emerging creators who’ve consistently posted Reels gain a few thousand followers, but nothing compared to the millions on TikTok. Evidently, no one is becoming famous because they’re using Reels. Instagram must incentivize people to use Reels by showing them that they can become famous and gain millions of followers through the new platform. A single successful case study, such as the story of Baby Ariel’s viral growth on Musical.ly, will trigger a gold rush, galvanizing more users to create Reels. At their own discretion, Instagram can manually index videos from specific users to be featured and tilt the odds in their favor. The more success stories that are generated, the more user accounts will be converted.

Creators with a propensity for making relatable, everyday content should be prioritized in this selection. While the current influencer content elevates the type of posts viewers see, it also raises the bar for emerging creators, dissuading them from posting more Reels. Reels already faces a content friction issue since its purpose is antithetical to Instagram’s core use case. Reels aspires to go beyond Instagram’s strict social graph but is inevitably tied to the parent platform because all posts are sent to one’s main feed anyway. It’s doubtful that people are willing to watch their friend’s cringe-inducing TikTok-like Reels, so most UGC wouldn’t work on Reels. However, this deviance of behavior can be normalized — that is if everyone starts doing it.

Instagram has a chance to justify this behavior as socially acceptable by conditioning average users to post relatable, everyday content, and rewarding those early adopters with virality. We can compare this to when users first downloaded TikTok. Was using TikTok socially acceptable back in early 2019? Probably not. Most of my friends judged me for doing so. But in mid-2020, at the height of COVID-19, when Charli and Addison crossed 50m+ fans, and everyone started posting TikToks? Definitely. Over time, as success stories spread and social proof accumulates, posting Reels will become normalized and set a new standard for UGC.

CREATOR TOOLS LEVEL UP

An easy victory for Reels is to offer a vastly superior production process. Musical.ly won over users in its early days with a simple, speedy video-editing tool. A child could effortlessly piece together a lip-syncing video that looked professionally made. Reels’ current suite of creative tools feels awkward to use (despite being beautifully designed) and limited in their functionality. To encourage native-produced content, Reels must decrease the amount of friction encountered in its production process by leveling up on tools.

TikTok vs. Reels design analysis

TikTok has made several savvy design choices. Placing “Sounds” at the top and center of the screen emphasizes the importance of audio in the video. Reels relegates its “Sounds” tab to the same status as features requiring less consideration, like Speed and Beauty filters. Additionally, TikTok’s Effects feature is much more usable than Reels’, with a slide-up card featuring folders of popular effects via icons. To use Reels’ Effects, a user must slide through a carousel of saved and featured effects and find the Effects Library, resulting in heightened friction.

TikTok uses a card design to showcase all its Effects so users can sample each of them and see immediate results of the Effect in action. Instagram forces users to tap through each Filter, try it on, then return to the library (taking 4+ steps to try on a new Filter).

A few missed opportunities include the “Align” tool, which Reels placed temporarily on its sidebar. “Align,” which allows you to line up objects from a previous clip before recording the next, helps create seamless transitions for moments like outfit changes. This feature was rolled out during the rise of the “Boo! I’m a ghost” trend, where TikTok users employed the “Out of Body” Effect during a dance challenge. Many TikTok users struggled with aligning their bodies for these videos, something that the “Align” tool could have easily provided a solution for, had they promoted the feature more.

Another missed moment was incorporating Instagram’s Threads app into Reels for automatic closed captioning. TikTok users flocked to Threads to record videos with captions after heightened demand for accessibility (also due to the comedic censoring of curse words). Integrating automatic closed captioning serves as an enticing feature for those who spend excessive time manually writing out captions on TikTok.

TikTok’s video editing tools offer a suite of different features for video uploads, while Reels only offers deletion, video cuts, or beauty filters.

Although Reels is slowly rolling out new creative tools (like the ability to edit uploaded videos individually), the range of creative options is still far behind TikTok’s. Instagram’s lack of urgency is unsettling and raises the question of whether it is appropriate to consider acquiring a superior video-editing tool.

Many creators prefer using third-party editing apps like Videoleap (owned by Lightricks), InShot, or Zoomerang to editing natively, citing better usability or added benefits (like video masking, animations, or filters) currently unavailable on TikTok.

An acquisition of any of the listed companies could provide immense value to Facebook. In previous instances, Facebook acquired Instagram to neutralize an early existential threat, as it did with WhatsApp. (Oculus, on the other hand, fulfilled an accelerant need). Creator tools do not fall under an existential threat — but TikTok certainly does. And while Facebook is unable to acquire TikTok, it must find a solution to outcompete them instead. Acquiring a third-party app or video-editing app developer would provide the best accelerant to catch up.

Time is critical — Instagram must commit to a plan of action: deploy their team to work on creator tools now, or set it aside and work on something even more essential. When Instagram decided to focus on rolling out Stories, Snapchat was still a microscopic threat (at roughly 82 million total users). TikTok is a much larger threat, soon to cross over 1 billion total users and nearing Instagram’s current scale. If time is of the essence, it would be wise to allocate a few dimes from Facebook’s $55 billion cash reserve towards a video-editing company.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Even with Instagram’s elite team of engineers working on the algorithm and influencers breaking their backs promoting the feature, Reels won’t share the same success as Stories if it doesn’t figure out how to acquire the average user. If TikTok is truly the threat most perceive it to be, Instagram will need to investigate various solutions. The Reels tab is already a time-poor tab — Stories and Feed make up most activity on Instagram, and since Reels isn’t the default tab, users exert more effort switching feeds. Instagram could run tests on super users who spend more time browsing Reels and see if defaulting from in-feed to Reels proves to be effective.

Instagram must address its content problem along with its algorithm and distribution. To solve this, Reels needs to increase the meme-ability of its content and render a more seamless creative process by unlocking touchpoints and opening creative pathways. It can seduce new users by taking a page out of the Musical.ly playbook and dangling the social capital carrot. Reels must take more rigorous actions toward upgrading its creator tools to reduce as much friction as possible. If Reels can solve its content problem, there may be a chance for Instagram to turn this content format gimmick into a successful social product.

Creative strategist and meme lord-in-training | Passionate about consumer social & e-commerce & Chinese tech ✌️