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The Battle for Audience Attention: TikTok vs Instagram

Brenda Martinez

24 October 2020

After weeks of speculation and a few deals gone awry, TikTok has been saved from its pending US ban by striking a deal with Oracle and Wal-Mart. As the app’s imminent demise loomed, platforms like Instagram and YouTube rolled out new features that replicated the endless-scrolling effect of TikTok’s For You Page. Instagram introduced Reels; YouTube introduced Shorts.

But in the sphere of influencer and branded content, the only app that truly rivals TikTok is Instagram. The app is just shy of its 10th anniversary and has been a mainstay on our phones for years. It morphed from a site where users tried their hand at photography and overused the Valencia filter, to a site that can be overproduced, overfiltered, and static.

TikTok, on the other hand, is dynamic and offers less gloss and more reality. Highly addictive and entertaining, TikTok has filled the hole left by Vine and rebranded video content. Its users are free from years’ worth of conventions that rule Instagram and have made the app their own, sharing glimpses of their everyday lives. Where Instagram can be performative and aesthetic, TikTok trends towards reality.

As we continue to think through the ways to create branded content that can stand out in a saturated social landscape, we wanted to compare the two platforms but realized we couldn’t — they offer two very different things. Read on for our analysis of TikTok and Instagram.

For audiences and creators, the appeal of TikTok lies in its freedom. Though trends definitely play a role in content, the platform is free from the limits of traditional behavior. Every video is a new take on a trend, every creator is unique, and every feed is different. Different pockets of TikTok have their own name: you can move from Cottagecore TikTok to Vegan TikTok to Fashion TikTok within three videos, or remain within one for a while. The creativity and idiosyncrasies on TikTok are endless – whatever the pocket, it’s real people doing fun things, with communities springing up around them.

There is a sense of reality on TikTok that other platforms have lost, refreshing in that it doesn’t feel forced or performative. Thus, branded content can feel like an interruption of this reality, a nuisance to scroll past rather than engage with. For partnerships to stand out, the campaign needs to be seamlessly integrated into the content, a part of the ecosystem – it requires collaboration between brand and creator. If their audience is the one you want to speak to, listen to the people who know how to speak to them as well as how to best leverage the features of the app.

As much as audiences appreciate realism — perhaps now more than ever —, there’s still a desire for polished aesthetics. As a platform, Instagram is a place to mold and demonstrate taste and style virtually. There is an element of curation on the platform that both users and creators pride themselves in; a collection of images that shows the different facets of their identity.

Unlike TikTok, partnerships on Instagram feel natural; after all, Instagram is the birthplace of the influencer. We’ve seen campaigns grow from copy & paste #ADs to strategic moments, with simple but effective storytelling at the heart. As the opportunities in influencer marketing on the app have moved away from being transactional, brands and creators have worked together to build an online identity and image which extends brand values and humanizes marketing using visual aesthetics. But to do this, brands first need to have an aesthetic ownable to them. With Instagram rolling out Reels, there will be more opportunities for brands to be a bit more playful with their aesthetic; perhaps this means Instagram will shift, rather than remaining static.

What you go to TikTok for is very different from what you like on Instagram; they have different offerings and audiences will continue to go to both. As platforms continue to learn from one another, from features to filters and everything in between, the content on each will likely continue to change, and how its users and audience engage with them will change as well.

Here the projects*, our eyes and ears are finely tuned to the changing trends and desires of audiences on each social media platform, from following the appropriation of OnlyFans to halfheartedly giving Triller and Byte a try. As social scrollers ourselves, we have first-hand experience at seeing what partnerships work successfully and which ones speak to us as audience members.

Want to continue the conversation and decide where your brand fits in this constantly-evolving ecosystem? Drop us a line.

Love, the projects*