Instagram’s Flopping TikTok Knockoff, Reels, Shows That Big Companies Can’t Just Copy Their Way To Success
from the cargo-cults-and-wishful-thinking dept
For many years, we’ve written about the myth — that is still believed by many, including many policymakers and journalists — that big companies always win out by simply copying smaller more innovative companies, and just grabbing the market from them. While there are a few examples of this happening, it is much, much more common for the big companies to flop when they do so. We’ve given examples of this over and over and over and over and over and over again, going back many years.
There are many reasons for these failures, starting with the fact the initial innovator usually has a much better tacit understanding of why their products are successful and catching on, and it’s usually a lot more than what you can see on the surface. The copycats are doing cargo cult style imitation. They’re copying the stuff that they can see, but they don’t truly understand the more hidden aspects that really make a product or service successful.
Witness this recent story from the Wall Street Journal showing that Instagram’s somewhat aggressive moves to turn its service into a TikTok clone are flopping to an embarrassing level.
Instagram users cumulatively are spending 17.6 million hours a day watching Reels, less than one-tenth of the 197.8 million hours TikTok users spend each day on that platform, according to a document reviewed by The Wall Street Journal that summarizes internal Meta research.
The document, titled “Creators x Reels State of the Union 2022,” was published internally in August. It said that Reels engagement had been falling—down 13.6% over the previous four weeks—and that “most Reels users have no engagement whatsoever.”
One reason is that Instagram has struggled to recruit people to make content. Roughly 11 million creators are on the platform in the U.S., but only about 2.3 million of them, or 20.7%, post on that platform each month, the document said.
Ouch. The article also quotes a successful TikTok creator who posted videos to basically all the other popular services these days and found that these short videos just don’t work on Instagram.
This spring, Mr. Purifoy posted the same video across TikTok, YouTube Shorts, Snapchat’s Spotlight and Instagram Reels. The video received millions of views on every platform except Instagram. There, it got less than 100,000.
“Nobody’s going to make original content for Instagram,” Mr. Purifoy said. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”
The article also highlights the desperation moves from Instagram, including promising to pay creators a billion dollars by the end of this year to try to bribe people into making original content for Reels. But, of course, we’ve seen this play out as well — and so have many creators.
Sure, some are happy to take the free money, but we’ve seen how these programs don’t last, and the creators who become reliant on such funds get screwed over in the end. Because in a year or two from now we’ll see the inevitable story about how Instagram is cutting back on these payments, followed by stories of “influencers” who thought they had it made thanks to these programs now struggling to earn a living. It’s the cycle of social media life.
But it very rarely turns the copycat/follower into the leader in the space.
It’s no secret that Meta has been struggling to remain relevant over the last few years. Its main product, Facebook, has been feeling old and stuffy for a while. And while Instagram was the backstop that was keeping the overall company growing, everyone realized that TikTok was the new hotness. Now, obviously, a few years ago the same was true of Snap, and Meta did successfully co-opt Snap’s disappearing “stories” concept into both Facebook and (even more) Instagram. But, I wonder if that made the company cocky that it could do the same to TikTok as well.
Of course, none of this is over. The world keeps moving, and I imagine that Instagram will keep tweaking whether you like it or not. And perhaps that will lead to actual adoption. Or maybe Meta’s political operatives will succeed in convincing Congress to ban Tiktok.
But, on the whole, it looks like we have yet another example of how the simple narrative — e.g. “Facebook is dominant and no one can ever beat them” — is not necessarily true.