Analysis: Facebook 'Reels' in another clone as TikTok battles headwinds

Amidst the geopolitical turmoil that TikTok is facing, namely exiting the Hong Kong market, being banned in India, getting (almost) axed in the US and of course, now the potential buy over by Microsoft, rival Facebook is quickly moving into the space with the launch of a new feature called "Reels" on its Instagram platform.  Reels is Facebook's latest offering to create and discover short, entertaining videos on Instagram, which directly competes withTikTok. Similar to TikTok, Reels allow users to create their own audio, as well as various AR effects that they can use in the videos.

But boldly calling out the new product as a "copycat" last week was TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer. In a blog post, he said:

Facebook is launching another copycat product, Reels (tied to Instagram), after their other copycat Lasso failed quickly.

He added that Facebook is launching malignant attacks "disguised as patriotism", designed to put an end to TikTok's presence in the US.

To be fair, this is not the first time Facebook has copied a function unique to another social platform. Just three years ago, it copied Snapchat's stories function by integrating it into Instagram, giving birth to the now very popular Instagram Stories function. Possibly taking a page out of Facebook's handbook, is now Snapchat, which also rolled out a new feature in its app that will allow users to add music to the videos they record. This is a feature that both TikTok and Instagram currently have, and will see Snapchat will be first rolling out in New Zealand and Australia.

Speaking to Marketing on the moves competitors are now making, Hari Ramanathan, chief strategy and transformation officer, VMLY&R Asia, said given the current situation, it is a free-for-all in the industry for social apps to come in and replace it. Out of all of TikTok's competitors, the unfortunate reality is that Facebook has an added advantage in potentially being able to lure content creators over since it is already established in the social media business.

Nonetheless, success will not be a given for Facebook as consumers generally gravitate towards emerging platforms because of the newness in experiences it provides.

To be successful, Instagram Reels would need to offer a completely different experience from Instagram or Facebook; have its own ethos and be independent as a standalone platform.

Also pointing out the need for a "very different experience" is Neeraj Gulati, partner at Entropia. He added that if TikTok's US-buyout deal goes through, the impact of Instagram Reels will be minimal for the China-originated social app.

"The underlying secret sauce for TikTok's success is in its ability to make content creation as easy as content consumption. It was first a super simplified content creation platform, and then added a social layer on top," he said.  The stark difference here, said Gulati, is that while Facebook is fundamentally built around a social graph that rides on users' social connections, TikTok is an open content discovery platform which does not bind users to any social graphs and thus presents a higher opportunity to express one's creativity. 

By and large, content creators use several social media platforms with different functions for different purposes. Explaining further on the matter, Majin Mahidin, CEO of Indonesia-based creative digital agency Bounche said that while content creators may dip their toes in exploring Instagram Reels, most of them will still want to use TikTok as their main app for short videos and then share it across other social platforms. TikTok's main target audience are younger audiences who are in their teens, and so it might be difficult for other platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat to lure them over.

Sitting on the other side of the fence is Ben Chew, managing director of Malaysia, Lion & Lion, who is of the view that Instagram Reels is likely to make a strong entrance into the social media scene, especially in Malaysia. "Instagram already commands a strong following amongst Malaysians and the affinity of the target towards the platform is extremely high," he said. Before the launch of Reels, users may see the need to have two accounts because Instagram Stories does not enable them to have that level of creativity and expression that they can achieve from TikTok. According to Chew, the launch of Instagram Reels could bring Instagram to a level-play field.

Coupled with the existing affinity of Malaysians towards Instagram, TikTok might just lose that share of consumers who no longer have a reason to be on the platform.

Having said that, when asked if Facebook can win over the SEA market with Instagram Reels, Chew said he does not foresee that happening. Building on Mahidin's point that different platforms have different functions, Chew noted that users are likely to maximise their online presence by showcasing distinctive facets of their personality on various platforms. Thus, he believes that the majority of users will continue to leverage on both Instagram and TikTok platforms.

Meanwhile, VMLY&R Asia's Ramanathan said there could be a possibility of Facebook, or other competitors, winning over the market. "TikTok offered a lucrative model for brands from day one, so it makes sense that competitors offering a similar lure could see more traction," he added. However, he also notes that this is not only a sensitive time for TikTok due to its various restrictions, it is also a tough time for Facebook, which is still being boycotted by brands in the US and globally over its positioning on hate speech. 

"This could impact adoption – particularly from woke influencers and users," he said, adding that similarly, the sheer size of the big four companies (Facebook, Google, Apple and Amazon) that came under scrutiny by the US Congress this week, could see users and content creators veering away from jumping on the big tech bandwagon, in favour of supporting smaller players in the market.

On the other hand, Entropia's Gulati said it is ultimately a product game. "As much as the platforms are invested, the content creators are invested even more. TikTok as a product is a video creation software for dummies. If Facebook can radically alter its product which of course is complex as it stands, there is a fair chance to make a dent in this market," he added.

Related Articles:
Analysis: Are the synergies in place for a successful Microsoft-TikTok deal?
Analysis: Will the geopolitical developments around TikTok curb its global takeover?
TikTok 'enTRAPs' users with immersive K-drama experience
GSC Movies taps on TikTok to commemorate cinemas reopening in Malaysia