Reels vs. TikTok vs. Shorts: The Complete Guide

Reels vs. TikTok vs. Shorts: The Complete Guide

As short-form video becomes the leader in social media, we dive into which platform provides the best experiences for brands and marketers.

It seems like every platform has a TikTok-like feature these days. Whether on TikTok, Instagram Reels, YouTube Shorts, or even Snap’s Spotlight, the consumption of short-form video has taken over and is here to stay. Not only has short-form shaken up social sharing and consumption, but it has also extended to social shopping and advertising as more platforms discover the full-funnel potential of these channels. Marketers are not the only ones recognizing the benefits of building brand awareness and community via UGC (or CGE) sharing; brands are also getting more creative with lead generation and conversion campaigns. 

So you may be asking yourself, which platform is the best for my brand? When comparing Reels, TikToks, and Shorts, they may seem similar (if not identical at times), but each platform offers its own particular sets of strengths and weaknesses depending on your audience and campaign goals.

This article will take you through the ins and outs of Instagram Reels, TikTok, and YouTube Shorts to help you understand which platform is best for your brand and ad budget.

TikTok

Let’s start with the ultimate trendsetter — TikTok. Founded in 2016, TikTok has taken the world of short-form video by storm. Even with its 1.2 billion active monthly users, TikTok doesn’t consider itself a social media platform. Rather, they have labeled themselves as an “entertainment platform” not only competing with social platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and Snapchat but also coming for the likes of more traditional over-the-top (OTT) video streaming platforms such as Netflix and Hulu. In Q1 of 2022, TikTok reported the most profitable quarter of any app…ever – $840 billion in-app revenue to be exact. Though OTT streaming has three times the consumer spend of short-form mobile video, Gen Z is spending 3 times more on short-form video.

Valued at $50 billion, TikTok has set the standard for short-form video sharing and consumption. Driven by content creators and the support of Gen Z, TikTok is less about following friends and more about finding niche communities to connect with. TikTok users aren’t concerned about how many followers one has or curating the perfect aesthetically pleasing feed, rather, it rewards high-quality content by means of entertainment and value that users want to engage and interact with by liking, commenting, or even co-creating through duets and stitches. 

When TikTok first launched, users could create 15-second or 60-second videos but have more recently rolled out 3-minute and even 10-minute-long video capabilities. Upon posting, videos live on a profile feed similar to Instagram’s interface and also discoverable on the “For You Page” as well as in hashtag searches.

One of the biggest advantages of TikTok is its discoverability and top-of-funnel opportunities. Any user has the ability to go viral due to the algorithm’s focus on visual discovery, entertainment, and trending topics — whether in an organic or paid ad strategy. Branded accounts have the ability to stand out even more on TikTok due to fewer brands taking the leap from their Meta ad spend and using TikTok as a viable ads platform. 

TikTok can be for entertainment and conversion! That being said, TikTok requires a brand to break down its barriers and step out of its comfort zone. It involves having a strong pulse on culture but also gives the opportunity to humanize a brand and the individuals that make it up. It is a sound-on experience that can range from silly skits to educational bites, all with the pulse on trending topics and culture. Brands that take themselves too seriously or are not willing to create in the style of the platform may not find as much success. The best way to know if TikTok is right for you is to jump in with organic content and begin exploring all TikTok has to offer. 

Instagram Reels

Meta launched Instagram’s short-form, swipeable video feature known as Reels in August 2020 as, let’s be honest, a response to TikTok’s growing success and popularity among Gen Z users. Though seemingly a TikTok copycat, the new feature was a hail mary touchdown for Instagram — with Zuckerberg himself admitting that Reels was the biggest contributor to growth on Instagram and the platform’s fastest-growing content form.

Though Instagram may seem like they are going through an identity crisis (i.e. Adam Mosseri announcing it is not a photo-sharing platform that had social media managers shook), Reels has been a hit with its users – first starting with 15-second videos, expanding to 60-second, and most recently 90-second videos. While Reels may be Instagram’s version of TikTok, the beauty of Reels is also its flexibility on the platform. These videos have the opportunity to reach 2 billion monthly active Instagram users through discovery, a user’s feed, or on the dedicated Reels tab. 

The algorithm loves Reels and is continually pushing them in front of audiences to enjoy and encouraging users to create their own. In fact, Instagram is paying eligible creators up to $35,000 in their Reels Play Bonuses program as they incentivize users to opt-in to the new feature. Instagram pledged to invest $1 billion into creators and payments are contingent on the number of Reels plays over a 30-day period. This is one of the largest creator funds we’ve seen and validates Instagram’s dedication to their Reels platform.

Instagram is already well established, joining the short-form video space with an audience already built-in through the years as a legacy platform — building a culture of subscribing to relevant accounts. Instagram has historically established a steady cadence of rolling out new features that users are quick to adopt. With the addition of Reels, Instagram built upon its Stories features lowering the learning curve and tapping into its built-in audience.

While TikTok is an entirely new platform for brands to learn, Instagram has legacy loyalists and accounts that are already established. On TikTok, brands are left to build accounts from the ground up, discover their audience, and find their community. This can be intimidating for brands that are already familiar with Instagram’s features, have established audiences, and are familiar with Facebook’s ad capabilities.

YouTube Shorts

YouTube Shorts was first launched in India in 2020 and to much acclaim officially was rolled out to U.S. users in April 2021. With ¼ of the world’s population being a YouTube user, the traditionally long-form video platform was sure to make a splash with its new TikTok-style feature. Shorts are optimized for a mobile viewing experience, though they can be consumed via desktop as well. Similar to Instagram, YouTube has a Shorts Creator Fund of $100 million to entice creators to use their short-form video feature.

Due to Shorts being a newcomer, we don’t have much information on the feature’s stats specifically – except for the fact that Shorts champions over 5 trillion all-time views (trillion, with a T). That being said, we do know YouTube’s overall statistics and they are not to be underestimated. YouTube has 2 billion dedicated monthly active users who are already coming to the platform to consume video content. Though users may be looking for the traditional long-form and landscape style, creators can tease their longer content with up to 60-second long skits and sketches similar to the style of TikTok and Reels. During their beta test in India, Shorts had 3.5 billion views per day. Following their global launch, that number has reached 6.5 billion daily global views – a number that cannot be ignored. 

YouTube has many advantages over its short-form competitors, specifically with the YouTube audience accumulating a massive 14.3 billion site visits per month. These dedicated users are sure to back any of YouTube’s new features and Shorts has been no different. Video is already native to the app which gives users and brands an additional avenue to practice the content format for further reach. It also is still early on in YouTube’s newest feature, therefore it is a good opportunity for brands and creators alike to join and garner an even wider following and reach potential. 

TikTok vs. Reels vs. Shorts By the Numbers

Screen Time

The average human spends 40% of their waking life online at roughly 6 hours and 58 minutes per day. Social media accounts for 35% of that total at 2 hours and 27 minutes per day. So how much per day are users spending consuming content on these three short-form videos?

YouTube accounts for the most time spent per month at 23.7 hours per month, more than likely due to its legacy long-form content offerings and robust live streaming capabilities. TikTok comes in at 19.6 hours per month followed by Instagram at 11.2 hours per month. It is important to note that TikTok has fewer users, therefore their users are spending more time per day at 52 minutes globally. 

App Downloads

Not only was TikTok the top downloaded app social media app in 2021, but it was also the top downloaded app worldwide at 656 million downloads. Though this number is down 22.8% from 2020 (presumably due to the pandemic boom), it still beats out all other app categories. Though we can’t be sure if a user was downloading Instagram or YouTube for short-form video content, it is likely they used the feature at some point.

Active Monthly Users

In our research, this was of the hardest statistics to nail down. Many companies hold these stats close to their chests. Though Facebook is still the world’s most used social media platform with 2.9 billion monthly active users, YouTube is closing the gap at 2.5 billion. Instagram globally ranks #4 at 1.4 million and TikTok comes in at #6 globally with its 1 billion monthly active users.

Advertising

While Meta’s Ads Manager Platform may be more tested and established, TikTok’s Ads Manager continues to impress as they continue to roll out and optimize its features and campaign types that we haven’t seen on other ad platforms. With more brands and marketers still advertising on Meta’s platforms, brands on TikTok may see more results and higher ROAS in comparison to Instagram or Facebook. 

That being said, Meta’s Ads platform is much more robust and established than TikTok’s especially when it comes to its retargeting and lookalike audiences. However, TikTok was quietly building up its Creator Marketplace, more recently making it available to all Ads Accounts and Creators with 10K+ followers. The Creator Marketplace allows brands to find creators that align with their campaign goals in a seamless end-to-end flow from sourcing and communicating the brief to running the ad, measuring analytics, and completing payment to the creator. Creator Marketplace uses the TikTok API which gives brands transparency into creators’ content and audience analytics in ways we haven’t seen access to before. As a response to TikTok’s Creator Marketplace, Instagram recently launched its own platform and we continue to see others such as YouTube and Pinterest playing catch up to facilitating creator partnerships as well.  

Advertising on YouTube is not a new concept – in fact, 70% of consumers are open to learning about products they see through YouTube video ads. It is only a matter of time before YouTube’s full advertising capabilities will make their way over to Shorts with their plans to roll out BrandConnect, Super Chat, and shopping capabilities before the end of 2022. 

Social Shopping

Social Commerce or Social Shopping is the union of social media and eCommerce. In 2021, 35.9% of internet users in the US made at least one social commerce purchase and by 2025, over 5% of total eCommerce retail sales will come from social media. Marketers are spending more than ever on social networks, and are predicted to spend $56 billion in 2022

TikTok and Reels both already have extensive shopping capabilities with YouTube predicted to roll out their Shorts shopping capabilities later this year. YouTube currently has Live Shopping and shoppable ads on their longer-form videos so it is only a matter of time before this will become available on Shorts.

Instagram and TikTok’s shopping capabilities have proven to be quite successful. Similar to a feed post, Instagram accounts can tag products in their videos with shopping tags. Users can select the “view products” button to save, buy, or learn more about the featured product. Accounts with Instagram Checkout can even collect payment through the app so users don’t even have to leave the app.

Launched in 2021, TikTok’s shopping experience came in like a wrecking ball as users spent $2.3 billion dollars on the app, a 77% increase YoY. The interface is very similar to Instagram’s with its own Storefront shopping experience. Users can view which products are tagged in the video and by clicking on the product are taken to the product page where they can learn more or continue to the website to purchase. 

Engagement

Having a large following is good and well, but it doesn’t actually make a difference if your users aren’t engaging with your content – engaged followers mean higher intent, higher ROAS, and lower CPAs. The engagement rate is calculated by the number of engagements divided by the number of followers x 100. Engagement includes interactions such as likes, comments, saves, and sends.

Based on data from Upfluence, TikTok, and micro-influencers specifically, has the highest engagement rate across the three platforms. Designed for discoverability, the algorithm assists quality content in receiving maximum visibility and rewards videos with higher engagement to continue being pushed out to users.

Though engagement is highest on TikTok, it does not diminish the fact that engagement for growth is massive on Reels. We’ve seen first hand the number of views can vary greatly from Instagram to TikTok to Shorts. As an example, we posted the same video across all three platforms. 

On Reels, our goop breakdown video received 5,767 views. It had 167 interactions resulting in an engagement rate of 2.89%. 

On TikTok, the same video received 1,462 views, 130 interactions, and an engagement rate of 8.89%. 

On YouTube Shorts, the video on received 61 views and 2 interactions with an engagement rate of 3.27%.

Taking these analytics into consideration, engagement was highest on TikTok while views were much higher on Instagram. Depending on your KPI growth goals, different content will perform differently across all three platforms, therefore it’s important to experiment with all three to know what combination will work best for your brand.

Reels vs. TikTok vs. Shorts Final Comparison

When considering which short-form video platform to put your ad spend behind, there are a number of factors that are important to consider when choosing where to run your video campaigns. Each platform, whether that’s Instagram Reels, TikTok, or YouTube Shorts has its own set of pros and cons depending on your campaign needs. Our side-by-side comparison below is just a snapshot of the factors to consider including each app’s sound library, editing capabilities, average engagement, and core audience.

ReelsTikToksShorts
Global Users1.4B1B2.6B
Global App Downloads – 2021545M656M166M
Avg. Engagement Rate2.00%8.90%0.64%
Video EditingUsers are already familiar with editing due to Stories. Stricter music licensing Most AR filters/effects, largest licensed music library for brands.Limited in-app editing
Sound LibraryInstagram has a much more limited royalty-free sound library of about 9,000. TikTok has a dedicated Commercial Music Library of over 600,000 royalty-free sounds. Creators and personal accounts have access to even more.Third-party music that is under copyright can only be up to 15 seconds in length.
Screen Time11.2 hours/month19.6 hours/month23.7 hours/month
Social CommerceYesYesNo
Video Length> 2 minutes> 10 minutes> 60 seconds
Largest audience by age25-3418-2418-25

When it comes to video quality, legacy Instagram users are used to a more curated look and aesthetic which can put pressure on creators with the quality of their Reels. On the other hand, TikTok videos are perceived as more authentic due to their lower visual quality with a homemade feel in comparison to Instagram’s high-quality and perfect-looking feed. This makes for an interesting dichotomy when TikTok is viewed as more genuine while Instagram has more sophisticated targeting (and retargeting) options. 

Editing capabilities on Shorts still have a long way to go, but YouTube has always been driven by more professionally produced content, so the lack of AR, greenscreen, and in-app editing shouldn’t impact YouTube creators as they are used to editing outside of YouTube anyway. The Shorts editing capabilities and quite basic. There are no AR filters for users to play around with (unlike their competitors), and greenscreen capabilities are limited to photos only – an area TikTok completely dominates in through their extensive library of effects. YouTube is also known for its passive, longer-form content, not short-bites. Users may not be necessarily coming to YouTube to consume this type of short-form content, but at the same time, it may not be as difficult to convert long-form fans into short ones through teasing different types of content. Though some may see the lack of editing as a downside, content can easily be repurposed from other short-form platforms and edited down from long-form content.

The value placed on Instagram vs. TikTok quality is also reflected in the users consuming the video. Gen Z, who largely gravitates towards TikTok, places a large importance on authenticity, social proof, and values-based marketing. This is reflected in the quality of TikTok videos and UGC marketing. Whereas on Instagram, Millennials are the largest portion of its audience and value connecting (and showing off) to their peers through perfect filters and feeds. 61% of millennials are using social media to connect with family and friends versus 66% of Gen Z-ers that use it to pass the time. This is the only generation that ranks killing time on social media above connection. 

When it comes to introducing audiences to new features and brands to new platforms, Instagram and YouTube have the advantage of legacy users and advertising capabilities. Though having an established audience, developed pixels, and editing comfortability on Instagram and YouTube is all and well, it also can’t be argued that Instagram and YouTube play second fiddle to its younger competitor TikTok. TikTok was the first to roll out their full-screen, swipeable short-form video experience, therefore Reels and Shorts not only seem like a copycat but come in at second and third best as their features are not as innovative or quick to roll out as their competitor.

Similarly, as TikTok is an entirely new platform with a singular focus, Reels and Shorts compete with themselves as both Instagram and YouTube have additional in-app features including Stories, Lives, Feed, and long-form video (aka IGTV), YouTube Premium, Subscriptions, and more.. Content is created specifically for each of these features on the same account which spreads creators and resources thin as assets have to be created for each content type. But TikTok may not be a Johnny-One-Note for long as they have also joined in with their own TikTok Live and Stories features to remain competitive.

Short-form video has taken marketing by storm and as more platforms roll out their own version of the full-screen video experience, marketers and brands are having to learn the skills to keep up with the content form and ever-evolving landscape of social selling and advertising. 

Reels, TikTok, and Shorts each have their own pros and cons and these platforms continually are updating their features and introducing new campaigns and ad types for marketers to test. Our rule of thumb is experiment, experiment, experiment until you have enough data to decide where to spend your ad dollars and content creation efforts. Your organic audience engagement and interaction will help lead these decisions and be further supported by your paid targeting strategy. 

THE END.


Maura Grace
Maura is a social media manager with diverse industry experience specifically rooted in the arts for some of New York’s most well-known theaters, top jazz musicians, arts management agencies, music and theatre non-profit organizations as well as luxury retail and private education.


4 Comments

Dear Maura
Great post you have here, plenty of effort went into this.
I like the comparison between Reels, TikToks and shorts (Table).

There are so many things one can do but the real KPI here is, what are my objectives and budget. Then I should decide what to use, do and what to put on the backburner.

Thanks for sharing
Urs #DrKPIpagetracker

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