Instagram: stop trying to make Reels happen, it's not going to happen

Whether Reels will reach a whole new Instagram audience remains to be seen

Is Instagram's TikTok rival Reels the next big thing for brands? Tamara Littleton, chief exec and founder of The Social Element doesn't think so.

TikTok is facing acquisition by Microsoft in the US or even a total ban, with President Trump having just signed an executive order banning US businesses from working with the platform. Still though, all eyes are on Instagram’s latest bid to reclaim the audience share it's at risk of losing to TikTok: Reels.

Reels is launching in more than 50 countries and allows Instagram users to create short-form videos set to music that can be shared with friends and followers and discovered while browsing the app. Or in other words, it allows them to create TikToks.

Many look at the Snapchats of the world whose original features were successfully absorbed by Facebook, leaving them struggling as the social media giant scaled and popularised these features through its audience, and assume this will be TikTok’s fate. But I would argue it won’t be - and that looking to Instagram as an easy way to access the TikTok audience is a dead-end for marketers.

Facebook appears to have a strategy of cloning almost everything, all of the time, and it kills half the clones within a year once it has the data it wanted. However, Reels is more of a feature play - like Stories - and therefore likely to remain part of the platform for the long term. Facebook has money to spare on pushing this feature out and incentive to try and replicate the successes of the younger-leaning app from Bytedance.

This is why it is a serious contender for the ‘next big thing’. The problem is, Reels is unlikely to attract what makes TikTok special - its creators - and for that reason, it cannot truly ‘replace’ TikTok, here or in the US. This boils down to one key reason: organic reach.

Instagram’s organic reach has a reputation among creators as being horrible: the platform, of course, is heavily monetised, and therefore promoting posts has become a key part of the ecosystem for big-name creators.

Part of the allure of TikTok is its massive organic reach, meaning creators can easily build huge audiences - the likes of which would take a lot longer and a lot more investment on Instagram. TikTok has propelled its creators to global stardom - just look at Sarah Cooper, the US comedian whose Trump lip-syncs have gone viral, to the point where some speculated whether he resented the platform simply for her presence. Closer to home, our Director of Strategy Michael Baggs’ 11 year old niece has built over 6,000 followers in months and reaches over one million views on a monthly basis. Not to put too fine a point on it - but scale on TikTok is literally child’s play.

As Michael pointed out when he relayed the runaway success of his niece to me, comparatively some Instagram influencers are spending thousands every month promoting their own posts in order to achieve the reach and engagement needed to keep brands interested in working with them. The motivation for creators to move back to Instagram which is now a gutted goldmine from TikTok is lukewarm, at best.

The other consideration is the fact that there are only so many hours in the day and so much content one person can consume. If we assume that most people are settled comfortably into regular use of two or three social media apps, those who have either resisted Instagram so far or have deleted it are not strong prospects to become regular Reels users. In this case, the biggest audience for it is people who already use both Instagram and TikTok. Nudging these people into spending proportionally more time on Instagram will be tricky, and only possible if incentivised by content creators moving over en masse. The only way I can see this happening is if they throw money at the problem - paying creators to move over. Facebook, of course, is well-positioned to do just this.

This could certainly win in the short-term as creators gratefully accept monetisation of their talent, but it’s not a forever solution. Long-term, we come back again to the problem around organic reach - one not faced by the rising stars of TikTok. Yes, if TikTok is banned in the US, creators will lack the alternative option. But I’d put my bets on a competitor springing up again, rather than Reels taking the place of TikTok - certainly among its current userbase.

Whether Reels will reach a whole new Instagram audience remains to be seen; it certainly could become a powerful feature that engages current users and refreshes the platform as a whole. But I doubt we will ever be able to consider it a true ‘replacement’ for TikTok - as the quirky, unique creators with their own language look for organic ways to connect with their audience, rather than pay to play.

For marketers, this means the platform is as important and as powerful as ever - so I’d suggest learning how to be a brand that works on TikTok, rather than relying on the Instagram alternative.

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