Written by Richard Conn
Since its creation in 2010 as a simple photo-sharing app, Instagram has grown to become one of the biggest video hosting sites in the world. But in just a few years, TikTok has become a cultural phenomenon factory, generating new trends, memes, celebrities, and their companies all the time.
Marketers want to capitalize on its popularity by setting up a presence there. But, for many, especially in B2B sectors, it’s been hard to figure out how to position themselves in the fast-moving and often absurd culture.
Perhaps they breathed a sigh of relief, then, when Instagram announced Reels in 2020. Reels is a competitor to TikTok on the platform where brands were already well-established and knew all the Instagram tips and tricks. With both platforms being so similar on the surface - their UIs look almost identical - teams might wonder what the key differences are and which is best for them.
Key differences between Instagram Reels and TikTok
Both Instagram Reels and TikTok are comprehensive marketing tools with many features for companies to reach audiences. Let’s look at some of the key differences you need to know about to decide which is better for your brand.
One of the biggest differences between TikTok and Instagram Reels is that TikTok’s audience skews younger. Almost half of the platform’s users are under 30, according to Statista, with a whole quarter of them being under 20.
Instagram’s userbase is more diverse. They are still young, with about 60% under the age of 35, but about half of them are spread between the ages of 25 and 55.
B2C brands in every industry are taking advantage of TikTok. But if you’re a B2B company selling business digital phone systems, should you be on the youth-oriented site? As we’ll see, B2B brands are starting to find their feet on the platform.
“People check Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter,” said TikTok executive Sandie Hawkins. “[But] they watch TikTok like Netflix or Hulu.” Why is that?
TikTok’s not-so-secret weapon is its recommendation algorithm, harvesting data from every interaction to keep people scrolling. With one billion users watching one-minute videos, TikTok learns something new every 60 nanoseconds or so.
This might explain why Instagram limited Reels to 30 seconds at first. It’s not like they were struggling for server space. By monitoring a smaller pool of users at a half the time interval than what TikTok uses, one suspects Instagram was trying to train up the Reels algorithm as fast as possible.
How these algorithms work is ultimately a mystery. Whatever TikTok or Instagram tells you, these systems are unthinkably complex “black boxes” we can’t audit in detail. What matters most for you is the difference between how those algorithms are implemented: TikTok’s For You page and Instagram Explore.
TikTok’s For You page is very highly customized towards what it thinks the user wants to see. Every single video on screen is the system’s best guess at what the user will watch in full. According to TikTok, the page is “ranking videos based on a combination of factors — starting from interests you express as a new user and adjusting for things you indicate you’re not interested in, too.”
Instagram’s Explore page, on the other hand, includes a little more human curation. Along with plenty of algorithmic curation, Reels has moderators looking for content they think will “entertain and inspire” users. If your Reel fits the bill, it could be chosen as a piece of featured content and pushed wider than your normal organic reach.
If you’re already up and running on Instagram, Reels can be an effective wide-funnel marketing tool that leads new customers to your page. There, you could funnel them towards visiting your site, browsing your IG store, or messaging you directly using chatbots.
When you think of TikTok, you think of music. The huge library of available sounds includes all the music you could think of and a world of user-generated “Original Audio,” the foundation upon which many memes and trends are built. With the option to layer different pieces of music, audio, and video with the Duet feature, the possibilities are endless.
On Instagram Reels, however, there’s much less choice for music and sound. The parent company Meta is much warier of copyright infringement than TikTok, so your options for music in the app are limited to a catalog of Meta-approved tunes and user-generated audio.
If you want to use audio from outside of Reels, you’ll have to edit the whole video outside of the app and upload it as one package. This isn’t a big deal if you have a video editor on the team, but it does reduce your options for the kind of spontaneous content TikTok is known for.
TikTok and Reels have very similar interfaces, but upon close inspection, TikTok wins out on powerful in-app editing. Features like voice effects and a silly, robotic voiceover are coming online all the time, whereas Reels provides a more limited range of effects in addition to what brands are already used to.
TikTok’s in-app editing tools make it easy to produce content on the fly. This quick tutorial from Canva was recorded and edited on a phone with no budget, but it’s a great ad.
@canva Get your video ideas moving! Here's how #PlayWithCanva #Video#Canva #TikTok #SmallBusiness ♬ original sound - Canva
What kind of content would your audience find valuable? If they’re scrolling through Instagram, they might just be checking in, but if you work with freelancers, your audience is more likely to watch something like a guide on email management for freelancers.
With In-Feed Ads, TopView, Brand Takeovers, Branded Challenges, and Branded Effects, TikTok has plenty of paid promotional offerings for businesses on the platform.
Instagram has had a head start in the ecommerce space, having added the Shopping tab in 2018, but last year TikTok made a big bet on in-app shopping by integrating Shopify into their platform.
What that means for ecommerce retailers is that they can hook their Shopify store directly into TikTok, almost using the app as a front end in its own right. If you’re a Shopify merchant, that’s a huge difference from having to reupload all your SKUs to Instagram’s own platform.
With the two companies having such deep integration, it’s no wonder Shopify has a presence on TikTok itself. Their “TikTok Effect” series is one example of a B2B company adapting its content strategy to the platform, using its retail expertise to create informative videos with fun editing. This kind of “explainer” content would be a good fit if you’re educating customers on topics like tips and tricks for your product or answering questions like “What is call center as a service?”.
@shopify The TikTok Effect: Baked Feta Pasta #bakedfetapasta #fetapasta #fetacheese #cheese #tiktokeffect #foryou #didyouknow #dyk #funfact ♬ original sound - Shopify
TikTok has plenty of features for interacting and building upon other people’s content, from the classic Duet to Reaction and Stich features. These are a fun way to interact with your audience and kick off trends if you’re able to build up a close relationship with them.
Reels are geared more towards publishing original content and lacks that level of co-creation, but you still have the usual tools for interacting with your audiences like Stories, comments, and reposts.
One unique example of a B2B company co-creating with their audience is Square, the retail payments provider that curates a feed of their customers’ own TikTok content. The bio on Square’s TikTok page simply reads: “send us your videos.” Not only are they outsourcing their content creation, but they’re also giving small businesses free promotions as thanks for using their product and engaging with the brand.
How to choose the best option
Lots of companies get use from both TikTok and Instagram Reels. Often, the same content can be repurposed across both platforms. As long as your content is engaging and well-targeted, it’ll do fine on either one. The main consideration is how the platforms fit into your existing content strategy.
If you already have a strong presence on Instagram, Reels are a no-brainer complement to that. They can entertain and engage your existing audience while getting new followers at the same time.
On TikTok, entertainment is key. Unless you’re integrating a Shopify store into the app, you should think of Tiktok as a very broad brand-awareness effort rather than a major source of traffic. With powerful in-app creation tools, publishing on TikTok isn’t a huge effort if you have creative ideas for content.
Instagram Reels take a little more time, effort, and polish. If you’re producing video content already, consider ways you can repurpose it for short but highly-targeted Reels either as part of a promotional effort or to answer questions like “What is an auto dialer?”. These can funnel new users into the rest of your Instagram page and complement your existing traffic and sales from there.
About the Author
Richard Conn is the Senior Director for Demand Generation at 8x8, a leading communication platform with integrated contact center software, voice, video, and chat functionality. Richard is an analytical & results-driven digital marketing leader with a track record of achieving major ROI improvements in fast-paced, competitive B2B environments. Check out his LinkedIn.