November 6, 2020

A social battle: YouTube Shorts & Instagram Reels vs TikTok

Here come the big guns, ready to tackle another rival platform that is competing for users’ watch time.
Christos Constantinou
Christos Constantinou

Director of Operations

Since Snapchat’s emergence in the industry back in 2015/2016, we haven’t seen another platform that has been able to effectively compete with the existing major players. There have been lots of challenger platforms that tried and that couldn’t quite make it work, with Quibi being the most recent company failing to make its mark in a fiercely competitive space. Enter TikTok. TikTok came to change that landscape and successfully did so, becoming the fastest growing social media platform ever as it reached 805 million MAU within 4 years.

We’re not really that surprised by the popularity of the platform. It is essentially the same as its predecessor, Vine, but with the added benefit that, on TikTok, you have the ability to use any music you like, including globally popular artists and hit songs. Vine and its content was – and still is – extremely popular with users on YouTube channels like Cool Vines. This channel alone averages over 20 million monthly views, which was even the case back in 2017 and 2018 before TikTok hit the Western market (Source: SocialBlade). Vine was then shut down in January 2017 due to challenges around monetising the platform and being able to sustain the big incoming bills that come with the growth of a successful video company.

How have TikTok done it?

TikTok is backed by a Chinese tech conglomerate, which continues to pump billions of dollars into the project until it finds a way to become profitable. The app launched in 2016 in China and was instantaneously very popular in Asia, which then led to the company expanding its way into Western markets. In 2017, Bytedance bought the app to integrate into its platform, allowing it to gain its first Western users. By employing a very smart strategy that combined social influencer and traditional marketing, the app has consistently been the top downloaded app worldwide since Q1 2019, with a 96% YoY growth (Source: TikTok).

With TikTok now exceeding 1.5 billion global downloads and 805 million global MAU (Monthly Active Users) it was always inevitable that YouTube and Facebook would be watching closely and would ultimately try to retrieve the watchtime that they have lost. TikTok users spend on average 58 minutes a day on the app, which, in the eyes of rivals like YouTube and Facebook, is 58 minutes that they could get for themselves. (Source: TikTok).

And so we welcomed both YouTube Shorts and Instagram Reels. These new features were launched almost simultaneously and were arguably rushed through so as to reach users at a time when TikTok was at its most vulnerable, amidst political disagreements with the US.

YouTube and Facebook have cleared rights with big music labels very quickly to ensure their latest features hit the market with very similar functionalities as TikTok. For YouTube that proved to be much easier, as music content already existed on their platform and they simply had to come to new, extended agreements with the labels. 

YouTube Shorts will have the same feel as TikTok and will have its own place within the YouTube app. Whereas Instagram Reels, for the time being, is integrated within the normal Search function and your News Feed. That is not, however, the only significant difference between the approach that each company has taken to release these new features. The two platforms have adopted two opposing strategies to tackle TikTok, with Instagram opting for a full-scale launch and YouTube using a sample audience first, before looking to roll out globally.

What’s the approach?

Instagram’s approach is fairly simple. Open this feature up to all of its users at scale and then assess its findings to inform product development and further improve strategies going forward. We have seen the same tactic used when IGTV was launched on Instagram, back in 2018, and when Watch was launched on Facebook, in 2017. The success of IGTV is tricky to assess, as it’s still in its infancy and therefore difficult to draw accurate conclusions, but Facebook Watch is boasting a whopping 140 million Daily Active Users (Source: Sprout Social).

YouTube’s approach to this launch has been very different. 

YouTube Shorts has, to date, only launched in India and the data retrieved from this beta test is a lot smaller than that which Instagram will have been able to review following the launch of Reels. This smaller dataset allows the YouTube team to fully analyse the data and, slowly but surely, start making the necessary changes to put the feature in a better position before releasing it to a wider audience. So, even though time is of the essence in order to get ahead of TikTok, YouTube has decided that, instead of releasing at scale, they will take their time to ensure that the product they release is something useful for its users.

This is a very familiar technique from YouTube and is how it usually tends to navigate the release of a new feature on its platform; it seems to have worked really well for them in the past and so we expect it to work well again with Shorts. When handling a smaller data pool, it allows you to make changes to the feature without disturbing your audience’s user experience. Further changes will then create more data, which can contribute to your initial data pool, which in return will ensure better results to inform your next move.

So the real question is: can YouTube or Instagram beat TikTok?

That’s a very difficult question, but out of the two, if anyone can, it is probably YouTube. YouTube is – and has been for years – the platform for video content. When a user goes to YouTube it’s because they want to see and consume content. Shorts, if integrated correctly, will provide users with the style of short-form content that TikTok excels at, meaning that people will be encouraged to stay within the YouTube platform. Furthermore, YouTube can create better monetisation models for the creator/publisher using Shorts than TikTok has managed to do so far. Some creators actively prefer to work on just one platform, so as to streamline their creative process and management.

If YouTube delivers the reach and monetisation on Shorts that is predicted, creators will possibly migrate entirely onto YouTube, leaving TikTok behind, as YouTube will offer them all that they need – in one place. However, TikTok has recently partnered up with Shopify to begin the journey of monetisation for its users and ultimately keep them uploading more content. Will this be a successful venture that keeps creators uploading?

2021 is becoming a very exciting year and it remains to be seen how all this will turn out. Unless TikTok does get banned from the US, we don’t see them being significantly challenged by any rival platform. It took a long time for Instagram to develop the necessary tools to challenge Snapchat and TikTok is a much bigger beast to tame.

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