If you want to reach people who don't already follow you, which format is better: Reels or TikToks? We set out to find out.
TikTok vs. Reels is one of the great rivalries of our time, much like Coke vs. Pepsi or BetaMax vs. VHS, or pants vs. culottes.
You may be considering investing in Instagram Reels or Tiktok and wondering if you need to do both or just focus on one. But it’s so hard to pick a side when no one can seem to agree on which one is better for engagement rates.
Some in the social media marketing world believe that TikTok videos get more action because the TikTok algorithm is “better;” others claim that Reels get more attention, because the format is being pushed hard by Instagram to everyone all the time.
On the one hand, TikTok’s For You page (#fyp) is very customized to users’ interests. On the other, the Instagram Reels Explore Page is a melting pot of content. Are you better off reaching a specific, targeted audience… or getting your amazing vid in front of the most eyeballs possible?
We decided to find out which format gets the most engagement by doing what we do best here in the Hootsuite Social Media Lab: putting it to the test.
In this experiment, I posted the exact same content to Reels and to TikTok, and measured its performance over the course of the week.
Bonus:Download the free 10-Day Reels Challenge, a daily workbook of creative prompts that will help you get started with Instagram Reels, track your growth, and see results across your entire Instagram profile.
Hypothesis: Reels perform better than TikToks
There are some subtle differences between Instagram Reels and TikTok, but both apps essentially serve the same purpose: they allow users to quickly create, edit and share short-form video content. Both Reels and TikTok offer users a variety of fun filters and effects, and the ability to add in music and sound effects.
But while both offer the same basic functionality, we want to find out if one cultivates more engagement than the other… because no one really seems to know.
Even Hootsuite’s in-house experts are torn! Eileen Kwok, Social Marketing Coordinator here at Hootsuite, voted for Reels as the more powerful platform: “The competition on TikTok is high right now,” she points out.
Brayden Cohen, Social Marketing and Advocacy Lead, saw the situation as a little more nuanced. “If a brand has little to no following, I think it’s way harder for their Reel to go viral,” he says. “Whereas with TikTok, I don’t think your brand necessarily needs to have a big a following in order for your TikTok to blow up and go viral.”
Every good experiment needs a hypothesis, though (shout out to my ninth grade science teacher!), so we’ll just pick a side here.
Let’s say… Reels. Reels will probably perform better. After all, Instagram wants us to get into Reels so bad they’ll do anything to make my content go viral… maybe! Hopefully!
I decided to create and post five short videos per platform that were as identical as possible.
Importantly, I created each video fresh in-platform: these were not reposted. So there are some subtle differences between each one — like I couldn’t find a dupe of a cool pulsating TikTok filter on Instagram Reels — but they’re as close as I could get.
Oh, and one other distinction. On Instagram, you can cross-post your Reel to your main feed as well as your Reels tab, so I did that. It just felt right.
However, there was one issue with getting an even reading between platforms: I have about 1,600 followers on my Instagram account, and zero on my TikTok account because I just signed up for this experiment. (Very courageous of Hootsuite to allow a Millennial to engage in a TikTok-based project like this.)
That extreme discrepancy seemed like it would skew the engagement quite a bit, so I decided to start a new Instagram account to make sure the playing field was nice and even. It would be a pure battle of the algorithms!
Which platform would dare to push my content to the masses, even though I appeared to be totally friendless and uninteresting to everyone? And would Hootsuite stop me midway through this experiment and replace me with a cool 20-year-old? Only time would tell!
There’s no sugar-coating it: TikTok blew Reels out of the water.
I expected there to be less engagement on the Reels I posted to my burner account than I would’ve got if I’d shared them with the followers on my real account, but I was floored that they basically didn’t reach anyone.
I assumed that Reels are pushed out to non-followers and that I’d get at least a few views, even if I didn’t wind up with any likes or comments.
After all, the Reels button is right at the bottom center of the Instagram home screen, and when I tap on it, I’m fed a nonsense parade of content from accounts I’ve never heard of. I see some guy trying to walk down the stairs with the whirlpool filter on; I see cute tweens dancing; I see an Indian bride showing off her makeup. Who are these people, and how did they get in my phone… but more importantly, how am I not getting any of this action with my own top-notch content?!
It’s humiliating to share these numbers, but science is about transparency and truth above all. My Instagram Reels got a maximum of two views each. TWO.
Meanwhile, on TikTok, the exact same content practically made me a star.
I mean, I’m no Charli D’Amelio. But I’m still super impressed that my account, which had zero followers when I began this experiment, managed to garner around 450 views per video. I even got a few likes from strangers… and a follow!
What do the results mean?
From this very scientific and grueling experiment, my conclusion is that TikTok does a far better job of pushing content out into the world than Reels does… at least if you have a small (or non-existent) audience to start with.
If you’re looking to achieve reach with your content and build an audience from scratch, TikTok is probably the best choice.
However, what this experiment didn’t test was how much engagement Reels get if you have a pre-existing audience.
Would posting Reels from an account with followers have made Instagram value my content more highly in its algorithm? Maybe my followers themselves would have commented, liked or shared my content?
But until I grow my TikTok following from its current status (one kind stranger) to something rivaling my Instagram account audience, we’ll never know how they could truly compare.
While I’m waiting patiently to become TikTok-popular, why not try this experiment for yourself? It’s pretty low stakes and low effort, and you’ll quickly find out what’s the best fit for your brand and social media strategy. And if you want to follow me while you’re at it… well, that’s a win for everyone.
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