At times, it feels like Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook overlords have traded the classic, “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” for more of a “If we can’t own you, we will destroy you.”
If we rewind back to 2013, Facebook tried to buy Snapchat for a reported $3 billion and then again a few years later, but when Snap’s Evan Spiegel refused, Facebook had Instagram copy their homework word-for-word, and Stories were born.
While Snapchat still soldiers along, Instagram copying their feature set and giving it directly to their billion users cut Snap’s growth off at the knees. Had it not happened, they’d likely be the biggest social platform in the world.
But it did.
And it feels like we’re poised to see history repeat itself with Instagram having now rolled out “Reels”, another direct clone to a different rising social platform mega-star, TikTok.
While originally two different apps focused on making dancing videos to popular songs, ByteDance acquired Music.ly, rebranded as TikTok, and saw an absolute explosion in users (now close to 850M), helping launch music careers into the stratosphere like Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” or “Blinding Lights” by The Weeknd (my apologies from all the dads doing bad versions of the dance routines).
It feels like 2020 has finally pushed TikTok into mainstream culture with stories like Doggface getting a new truck from Ocean Spray from a viral tiktok cruising to some Fleetwood Mac.
Oh and all the news of Trump potentially shutting it down in the US due to privacy concerns – all press is good press, right?
While I sense that will end up getting sorted out with some kind of acquisition by a tech giant, Facebook had quietly been copying TikTok for the past year and released “Reels” as a direct competitor in August of this year.
While it may not be exactly the same, let’s just say it’ll take you all of 6 seconds to figure it out if you’ve used TikTok.
And the big question in my mind is whether Reels will do to TikTok what Stories did to Snap?
Part of the reason why Stories worked so well back in 2018 was because Instagram as a platform was starting to get a bit stale, needed a pivot, and had room to grow.
The big issue with Instagram back in 2018 when Stories launched was a lack of… “authenticity” (I cringe saying it).
But people’s IG feeds had gone from fun, spontaneous, unfiltered polaroids of people’s lives to perfectly lit, curated, majestic professional photographs of utopian lifestyle.
It became unattainable for the average joe to live the life of the IG stars, instagram husbands were getting burnt out, and “influencers” reputations were taking a beating from events like Fyre Festival.
It just wasn’t sustainable.
Enter a few extra circles at the top of your Instagram feed that gave you a real, less-serious, and more transparent window into the world of both big-time stars and friends of friends that you’ve been following for years.
Stories levelled the playing field again where you didn’t need to have someone following you around with a camera to the tippity-top of a mountain in order to catch you at sunrise posing in that perfect outfit (or risk the wrath of the algorithm punishment if you didn’t).
Everyone could just throw some personality at a 15-second story with dog ears and a voice filter and people loved it. The house didn’t need to be perfectly in order, hair could be messy, and interruptions or a slow zoom made everything better.
It brought easy vlogging to the masses and the pendulum swung back to celebrating everyday life.
And Instagram was the perfect vessel for it because of the huge user base, perfect demographics, and room in a platform that previously was just pictures.
But as we’ve seen with Facebook’s bloat trying to integrate whole new platforms like Facebook Watch, Facebook Marketplace, Facebook Gaming, and Events, Instagram is losing clarity on what it is.
Is it a photo-sharing app? Is it a marketplace for buying stuff? Should we be putting our long-form videos sideways on Instagram TV? Should we be using Messenger in Instagram (woof) instead of texting?
And now we’re supposed to do creative videos to music in there? Sheesh.
The bigger issue, though, is that this bloat means it’s tougher for Instagram to do the one thing it needs to attract TikTok talent: help them get discovered.
What’s exploded TikTok’s growth is that everyone has a shot of getting their video in the coveted “For You” feed – the first thing everyone sees when they login.
It’s a way for your content to be seen by people who don’t follow you, and the endorphin overdose of one of your videos getting thousands and thousands of views when you only have a handful of followers is intoxicating.
And it’s not like it’s a one-in-a-million chance: many, many, many people can point to a number of their videos on TikTok that have 10X-1000X more views than the number of their follower counts.
Knowing you have that kind of opportunity gets and keeps a lot of people going.
And that’s where it’s going to be tougher for Instagram: being discovered is harder.
With TikTok, people are there to watch tiktoks – yes, they want to see some from people they follow, but the first thing they see when they login is the “For You” feed of random, curated content. Scrolling here is the place where everyone starts.
While Instagram has finally moved their version of this to the third button on the bottom of the app, you still see your regular feed and stories from people you follow first when you login. For most people’s habits, they’re going to watch a bunch of stories, then scroll some posts, and then maybe they get to, “Oh yeah, I should check out some Reels” (at which point they have to accidentally not click on the new Shop button right beside).
The point is that for many watching Reels still not the reason they’re coming to Instagram. At best, it’s one of many.
Instagram is competing with itself as it tries to get all of it’s different formats of content, including, posts, stories, IGTV, and now reels, in front of it’s billion users …oh, and they need to make sure you see an ad after every 3 posts/stories so they can continue getting the $20 billion in ad revenue.
Way back when Instagram was just pictures, people were noticing that the number of their followers that were seeing, liking, or commenting on their posts was shrinking.
Stories breathed new life into it as you were seeing a lot more of your hard-earned followers spending time watching your stories and engaging with you via questions, polls, gifs (pronounced “jifs”), and fire scales.
And it was really easy to do – even if you hadn’t ever used Snapchat (which was the case for many IG users). The authentic, easy format actually fit the demographic.
With Reels, the problem is that it’s a lot of new/different tools to learn and requires more hard skills with music, dance, or editing to make it really work.
With the younger demographic, community, and easy discovery in TikTok, the adoption of learning the tools has come easier there.
So. My verdict?
There will always be people on a certain platform that CRUSH IT. They have the skills. They have the audience. They know how to make the content work.
But unless they are greeting with incredible engagement numbers from the platform (which is often times mostly out of their control), they’ll move on or do something different.
I think back to when Instagram launched IGTV. I was already following an incredible creator named Jesse Driftwood who was making high-production, fun, vertical video content that he would film, edit, then upload and chop up into back-to-back-to-back 15-second stories. He was already creating EXACTLY the IGTV content that Instagram envisioned.
He tried IGTV but no matter how good the content, he just wasn’t getting the views and engagement that he “deserved” because Instagram wasn’t pushing the content to enough of the right eyeballs.
That’s the biggest risk that Reels has.
Stories brought more engaging content for your followers, providing more meaningful interactions and depth. But it was really focused inward into your audience.
Reels needs to be outward, reaching out to new people and regularly returning multiples of your following in views.
And until it becomes second nature for the vast majority of Instagram’s users to check out that public Reels feed every time they login, I think most people are going to find more success creating great tiktoks…on TikTok.