First Snapchat, Now TikTok: Instagram Attempts to Curb Competition by Copying Key Feature
For those following the meteoric rise of viral video hub TikTok, it should come as no surprise that others in the industry are now looking for ways to replicate the app’s overnight success. In fact, the Facebook company has just recently announced its intentions to do just that with a new feature coming soon to Instagram. As has long been a strategy for Facebook, its latest feature copies the popular video format as a way to capitalize on the trend and attempt to draw more people to its own platform.
This week, Facebook unveiled “Reels.” Reels are 15-second videos that can be shared and remixed (just like TikToks) and will live within the Instagram Stories camera. The videos can contain music, which can be pulled from Facebook’s already large library of music, and will offer a range of editing options including changes to playback speed and transitions.
Instagram will also introduce a “Top Reels” section within the app to aid in discoverability and create opportunities for virality, which is a huge incentive for individual creators and brands to start incorporating the new feature.
To those of you who have been paying attention to the Facebook company’s strategy in the last few years, this story will undoubtedly sound very familiar. There’s a rising social platform with a young audience and a unique format. Then Facebook steps in and creates an almost identical product for its own platforms. If this is all giving you flashbacks to the heyday of Snapchat and the subsequent introduction of IG and FB Stories, you’re not alone.
Copycat: The Facebook Company’s Strategy for Curbing Competition
Robby Stein, Instagram’s director of product management talked to TechCrunch about the feature, saying, “I think [about] Musically before TikTok, and TikTok deserves a ton of credit for popularizing this format.”
While Stein nods to TikTok’s relevance, he also steers away from crediting TikTok with inventing or innovating on the format, instead offering a token congratulations for popularizing it. But this strategic copying tactic should come as no surprise to any who have followed Instagram’s rise.
Back in 2016, it raised a few eyebrows that Instagram so blatantly ripped off the Snapchat format by replicating the Stories feature within its own app. Since then, it has borrowed many other features from the social platform, including filters and messaging options. Today, it’s a much more common strategy for social media sites to copy ideas as a way to limit competitors’ growth.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Just because one company invents or popularizes a certain idea doesn’t mean that others can’t build on it. That’s how you push for continual growth and innovation. The problem, however, comes when social media giants like Facebook use their influence to copy a product without adding their own improvements or tailoring it to work for their users, opting instead to simply quash the competition before it’s allowed to grow and spread.
In past years, Facebook has tried and failed many times to launch competing platforms against Snapchat and TikTok. Their usual M.O. is to create a clone of a popular product then launch the product in an area where the original has yet to gain widespread popularity. In this most recent case, the Facebook company will be launching in Brazil—an area of the world where Instagram is massively popular and TikTok has yet to gain momentum.
Lasso was Facebook’s first attempt at copying TikTok. It launched late last year as a separate app. It, however, failed to gain traction and only garnered 70 thousand U.S. downloads in its first 3 months. To compare, TikTok was downloaded in the U.S. nearly 40 million times in that same time.
It looks like this time, Facebook is trying a different strategy. By integrating Reels into the Instagram app, Facebook is hoping that its 1 billion active Instagram users will help to boost its popularity and attract users away from TikTok.
The Problem with the Copycat Approach
As an established brand, Instagram has its own distinct look and feel. Basically, users have come to expect certain things when they open the app. They expect to see beautiful images—a well-edited version of reality that doesn’t really exist in the real world. Although some users have tried to push for a greater sense of authenticity on Instagram, it’s still primarily a place where people and brands go to post the highlights of their experiences, not the mundane day-to-day truth.
TikTok, however, thrives on relatability and goofiness. Its users aren’t as concerned with presenting the best version of themselves as they are about making people laugh. It is, mainly, a comedy platform.
Another thing to keep in mind is that 41% of TikTok users are between the ages of 16 and 24. The plurality of Instagram users are between 25 and 34, and while Facebook is also most popular among that same block of 24-34-year-olds, the average Facebook user is over 40 years old.
In general, the Facebook company seems increasingly worried about drawing in younger users, as its obsession with Snapchat and TikTok clearly show. However, its attempts to meld these new features into an existing brand with an existing audience may not be the way to achieve that.
The Facebook company is counting on Instagram’s large fanbase to embrace a TikTok-style format, but is that really what they want? Instagram Stories has been a undeniable success and is a great example of how Facebook’s copycat strategy can work in their favor, but as it continues to load the app down with more and more features and changes—including the still struggling IGTV—it risks diluting the aspects of the platform that people genuinely love.
As the Facebook company continues to face controversies related to privacy and advertising, it has relied more and more on its subsidiaries, especially Instagram, to attract people to the company’s products (one notable example being the soon-to-be-released Facebook Libra). We’ll soon see if the app can truly handle the strain of being all things to all people as its parent company pushes to introduce new features aimed at shifting the demographic and content style of the platform.
However, one thing is certain: Facebook views TikTok as a threat, and that’s exactly why we should be paying attention to it.