Instagram Reels vs. TikTok vs YouTube Shorts: A Vertical Video Showdown

2021 was the year of the vertical, short-form video showdown — otherwise known as the year TikTok, YouTube and Instagram vied for the attention of social media users.

Living in the age of short-form videos, the big players in the industry are competing for the attention of content creators and viewers with new features and product launches. But which platform is the best for both target audiences? Is the OG TikTok still the King of short-form, vertical videos or are Instagram and YouTube giving it a run for its money?

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How It All Began

TikTok debuted in the United States in 2018 and in a few months, the app gained millions of downloads. Initially, social media users and marketers brushed TikTok off for its “basic” viral dance trends. However, they later realized that the TikTok offered countless marketing opportunities — specifically if you want to reach younger audiences (who spend an average of 52 minutes per day on TikTok).

The platform also gave content makers a level playing field when it comes to reaching and engagement. Unlike YouTube and Instagram, TikTok accounts with a small number of followers can still get millions of views. As long as the content appeals to the audience, creators can expect engagement.

Today, TikTok has been downloaded three billion times and was the most downloaded non-game app in 2021.

With this amount of success in such a short time, Instagram and YouTube were bound to reclaim the audience that they lost to TikTok. But for them to do so, they had to get some of the other app’s secret sauce — which they did.

In 2020, Instagram launched Reels, which provided users with a platform that was similar to TikTok. In March 2021, YouTube followed suit by launching YouTube shorts. Similar to Reels and TikTok, Shorts allowed creators to record, edit and share short, vertical videos.

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Instagram Reels vs. TikTok vs YouTube Shorts: What’s The Difference?

TikTok, Reels and Shorts share many similarities when it comes to creating, viewing, sharing and discovering content. However, each platform is different. Consider the following factors:

Sticker Support

Instagram’s sticker functions have been used by businesses to encourage interactions with their target market. You can also use these stickers to drive community engagement, encourage donations and more.

TikTok took note of the sticker feature and offered it as well. Content creators can be creative with their stickers, which include hashtags, mentions, polls and donations. YouTube does not have a sticker function yet.

Video Length

Videos uploaded on YouTube shorts can be up to a minute. If you want to upload shorter videos, you can upload 15-second ones. On Instagram reels, the maximum video length is 60 seconds for both uploaded and recorded videos. TikTok, however, is going beyond the 60-second limit by introducing three-minute videos on its platform.

Special Effects

TikTok prides itself on its variety of special effects, which includes AR features and green screen options. These features enable users to be super creative with their content. Instagram Reels entices creators with its library of filters. YouTube Shorts, on the other hand, lacks in the special effects department, limiting its content creators.

Shopping Features

Instagram isn’t just a social media platform; it is also a valuable eCommerce space for small and big businesses. Its shopping features are also available on Reels. Creators and businesses can tag the products that they show on their videos.

TikTok recently experimented with shopping features, although it hasn’t reached Instagram’s levels. This includes launching the “Shop Now” button for brands, adding eCommerce links to the user’s bios and the “Hashtag Challenge Plus,” which enables users to shop for products associated with a hashtag.

YouTube Shorts falls short again in this department. While YouTube is known for its ads on its videos, it doesn’t offer monetary opportunities. However, there are discussions about YouTube testing an integrated shopping experience that enables users to make purchases on the app.

mobile video setup
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The Bottom Line

TikTok and Instagram Reels offer more features for content creators who wish to be more creative with their videos. As for YouTube Shorts, it’s great for browsing short-form videos but it doesn’t offer much for creators — yet. In terms of accessibility, however, Instagram and YouTube are available almost anywhere while TikTok is banned in many places.

But as we venture into another year of consuming digital media, all three platforms will be relevant as short-form videos reign supreme among marketers, consumers and creators. Despite the differences between the three platforms, you can’t deny their similarities.

If you have to choose between the three platforms, consider your needs, your audience and the videos you want to make.


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