The world of social media is abuzz with the news that Reels, a new feature that allows you to edit and publish short videos set to music on Instagram, launched Wednesday in the US and more than 50 other countries.
Reels was first launched in November of last year in Brazil, where it is known as Cenas. Instagram used the feedback from Brazilian users to tweak and improve the feature before rolling it out more widely: Reels launched in France and Germany on 24th June, in India on 8th July, and now has been rolled out to more than 50 additional countries worldwide including the US and the UK.
To call Reels similar to TikTok would be underselling it: the resemblance is uncanny, even down to the location of the play button and view count, as the Wall Street Journal’s Senior Personal Technology Columnist and Executive Editor of Video, Joanna Stern, pointed out on Twitter. The biggest difference between the two is that Reels videos are currently limited to 15 seconds while TikTok videos can be up to a minute in length – and of course, that Reels is native to Instagram.
But beyond this very well-publicised fact, what should marketers know about Reels, a feature that some are saying could do to TikTok what Instagram Stories did to Snapchat?
1. Instagram made lucrative offers to influencers to seduce them over from TikTok
Instagram recognised that Reels would need to make a big splash with its global debut, as TikTok is already a firmly-established short video platform with influencers who have gained a viral following. So, it set out to seduce many of those same creators over to Reels by offering them lucrative exclusivity deals.
Ahead of the launch, the Wall Street Journal reported that Instagram was offering financial incentives to TikTok influencers – some in the hundreds of thousands of dollars – who promised to post to Reels, with the highest payouts going to those who post exclusively on the platform. For those who weren’t willing to exclusively publish to Reels, Instagram had asked them to post their videos to Reels ahead of TikTok. It also reportedly offered to cover the costs of producing creators’ videos.
While TikTok creators were prevented from revealing the details of these deals by non-disclosure agreements, on Reels’ launch it was evident that Instagram had managed to secure some big names, including Selena Gomez, whose debut Reel on Instagram reportedly surpassed nine million views in two hours. Miley Cyrus also released a teaser for her new ‘comeback’ single Midnight Sky exclusively on Reels, thereby making it available for Reels creators to use in videos.
Big name influencers alone can’t carry Reels to success if users aren’t interested, but they help immensely in generating buzz around the platform and encouraging users to watch videos and try it out. Many US TikTok creators are also spooked by the possibility of a ban in their country (and in India, the app has already been banned) and may be looking to hedge their bets with Reels – more on this in point four.
2. A number of brands are already seeing success on Reels
Brands haven’t wasted any time getting involved in Reels, particularly in those regions where Reels has already been available for a number of weeks or months. Louis Vuitton, for example, has been creating short videos that promote its new collections, featuring glamorous slow-motion shots that are in keeping with the brand’s high-class image. According to Later.com, its videos have been averaging five million views apiece.
Sephora France has been experimenting with a range of fun concepts for its videos, such as one that shows hands plucking its beauty products directly from the screen, and one showcasing a range of different lipstick “moods”. Just as on TikTok, the brand has an informal and irreverent feel to its content on Reels.
Red Bull France, which is notorious (as a global brand) for its high-octane video content, also wasted no time in posting some of its stunt videos to Instagram Reels – such as a point-of-view video of a dirt bike rider descending a hill at high speed that has gained more than two million views.
Three hallmarks of Red Bull’s social media content strategy
For brands that are already creating video content, particularly short video content, there’s very little to lose by publishing videos to Reels. Some may opt to wait and see what kind of a content culture develops on Instagram before establishing themselves – after all, while Reels is a duplicate of TikTok, the audience and content on Instagram is very different to TikTok – while others may take the plunge right away and start experimenting.
The launch of Reels might also encourage brands who have a strong following on Instagram, but have never used TikTok, to start creating short video content – the advantage being that they don’t have to build up their follower base from scratch on a new platform. While they will still need to have a cohesive strategy behind the videos they produce, with YouTube also testing 15-second short videos on mobile, it’s looking more and more like short video will become a mainstay of social media content – so now is the time to get to grips with it.
3. Instagram is taking a ‘creator-centric’ approach to promoting Reels, allowing for organic discovery
TikTok’s algorithm is one of the biggest secrets to its success. The ‘For You’ tab in TikTok carefully curates the most relevant content for users to enjoy based on a wide range of signals, and the addictive nature of this feed is one of the reasons why TikTok’s users spend so much time on the app.
It also gives equal billing to creators regardless of their following (TikTok has gone on-record to say that the size of a creator’s following does not affect the likelihood of a video being featured in For You) which means that an unknown user has just as much chance of going viral as a major influencer. This encourages people to keep creating content, and has allowed TikTok’s content to feel fresh and varied instead of dominated by a few big names.
Instagram appears to be trying to emulate this strategy to an extent. While creators’ Reels will still appear in their followers’ feeds, a rotating selection of videos will also be featured at the top of the Explore tab: some determined by an algorithm that is based on what you’ve liked and viewed, and others hand-picked by an Instagram team. Instagram is clearly hoping that this will entice new users to create Reels, and emulate the organic discovery of great videos that made TikTok such a success.
Vishal Shah, Instagram’s product chief, told the Wall Street Journal that Instagram was taking a “creator-centric approach to ranking [with Reels] that will hopefully result in people getting discovered and gaining a following.” Similarly, Reels product director Robby Stein told Forbes in an interview that, “Our hope with Reels is that we’re going to inspire a whole generation of creators to be discovered. We view Reels as a big part of the next chapter of entertainment on Instagram.”
Instagram might be willing to spend big on TikTok influencers, but it is also clearly hoping to cultivate its own ‘home-grown’ cadre of creators that is unique to Instagram.
4. The timing of TikTok’s potential ban in the US could prove very fortuitous for Instagram
Although Instagram parent company Facebook insists that the timing of Reels’ global launch is coincidental, it happens to be taking place at a very uncertain time for TikTok.
US president Donald Trump has been threatening a ban on TikTok amid worsening US-Chinese relations, and rumours are circulating of a possible buyout by Microsoft that would see the US arm of TikTok’s business – as well as other arms like Canada, Australia and New Zealand – run by an American company. While this could mean a major payday for TikTok, being broken up (although preferential to an outright ban) would ultimately be detrimental to the app’s surging momentum.
For example, although Microsoft has implied that it would run TikTok in a very hands-off fashion, TikTok might be reluctant to let another tech company gain control of its prized algorithm – which would mean Microsoft would need to substitute its own, potentially inferior version.
While the outcome of the talks is still very much up in the air – most recently, negotiations were brought to a halt after Donald Trump made his opposition to the deal known publicly – influencers are reportedly rattled, with many creators and influencer agencies considering migrating to Reels (or at least establishing a presence there) in case TikTok is no longer allowed to operate in the US.
The impact of this can already be seen in India, where TikTok was banned on 29th June, leaving influencers who had built careers around the app reeling from the blow. But with no end to the ban in sight, they have been forced to adapt; according to research by Indian influencer marketing agency Influencer.in, 55% of influencers in India say they will be active on Instagram following TikTok’s ban, while 20% plan to move to YouTube.
US influencers are lucky in that they have been given some warning of a potential ban, allowing them to pre-emptively build up presences on other platforms – all of which is to Instagram’s benefit. Even if TikTok survives unscathed, the confusion and uncertainty have given its rival Reels a shot in the arm, which may well mean that TikTok has to step up its game – and its appeal to creators and users – in order to compete.