The Great Debate: Instagram vs. TikTok & the Future of Social Media Marketing

“Should we be on TikTok?” It’s the question brands and companies in all industries are asking themselves as the platform continues to grow. TikTok is available in more than 150 countries, has over 1 billion users and has been downloaded at least 200 million times in the United States alone, according to Wallaroo Media.

For many marketing experts, it’s a no-brainer to give it a go.

“It’s almost imperative for brands to be on it because now is the time to capture that organic growth,” said Aliza Licht, founder and president of consultancy firm Leave Your Mark. “TikTok is ripe for the taking.”

What sets TikTok apart from other social media platforms is its overall virality, according to marketers. TikTok has a knack for connecting people around shared interests through discovery because it is not based on who you know or follow, but rather on the content. With that, users with small followings can often receive views in the hundreds of thousands to millions. User Anna DeCarlo, for instance, has a modest 9,000-person TikTok following and she received nearly 115,000 views on a video that showed off her shoe closet.


My shoe collection is my baby & this isn’t even half of It😭 if anyone wants to see the rest lmk<3 #fyp #fashion #shoecollection #demonia

♬ Space Girl – Frances Forever

It’s not just about singing and dancing either, which is a common misconception. Content is created within a variety of different categories — including fashion, which is a breakout tier that brands can capitalize on.

In 2020, the app could be credited for many of the biggest style trends during stay-at-home orders — whether it was the explosion of Nike Air Force 1s or tie-dye sweatsuits — and the fashion category is only continuing to grow on the platform, earning a whopping 17.5 billion views as of June 2020, according to a report by Statista.

“Fashion is unique in the sense that it is so dynamic and so tied to culture that everyone’s got a way to play into it,” Matt Cleary, director of Retail & Dining, Global Business Solutions at TikTok, told FN. “Fashion is such an opportunity for TikTok to be a force in itself, but also a huge channel for brands to either reinvent themselves or create new relationships.”

An estimated 60% of TikTok users are Gen Zers, which has been a key demographic for brands who are looking to tap a younger audience. What’s more, TikTok users are ageing up — with more millennials using the platform.

But beyond brand building, the question for many companies is: Is there a revenue opportunity? And the numbers show there is an appetite among users to shop: The popular #TikTokMadeMeBuyIt currently has 1.9 billion views, for instance, and features a variety of trending purchased product, including everything from Walmart sneakers to Aerie leggings.


#omg #fyp #sneakers #walmart 🤎🤍🤎🤍🤎

♬ La Maria – Anuel AA & Ozuna

The Case for Instagram

While TikTok is a fast-growing platform with a fresh take on content, Instagram remains the No. 1 tool for social media marketing. At the end of 2020, 96% of brand campaigns included Instagram influencers, for instance, compared to 6.8% TikTok influencers, as reported by Influencer Marketing Hub.

Kyle Hjelmeseth, founder of G&B Digital Management, explained that influencers have been sticking with Instagram because it is so well-established.

“Influencer talent is so ingrained in Instagram and brands are spending money there. So there’s not a lot of incentive for Instagrammers to move to TikTok,” he said. “They’re already making a lot of money. And Instagram now has Reels [videos], so we can arguably do the same thing, while keeping to your core audience.”

On the brand side, Instagram remains a safe investment: Companies already have established relationships and an understanding of how it works.

“The credibility is still there,” explained Gil Eyal, founder of influencer marketing database HYPR. “If you’re looking to build a brand reputation and you want to surround it with people who are fashion thought leaders, you’re probably going to do better on a place like Instagram. Every photo is carefully looked at before it’s posted, and your brand is going to be seen the way that you want it to be seen. If you’re looking for visibility and people talking about your brand and giving away control, TikTok is a much better place because of the nature of the platform.”

Indeed, TikTok has many advantages. Recent data from influencer marketing platform Upfluence showed much higher engagement rates on TikTok, where micro-influencers garnered engagement rates of 17.96%, compared with 3.86% on Instagram.

Eyal said, “It depends on your target audience, but if all things are equal, there’s no question that TikTok is way better than Instagram right now [when it comes to engagement]. In very straightforward terms, Facebook and Instagram have implemented algorithms that limit your viewership in an effort to get people to pay for additional exposure.”

However, Licht added that Instagram is still hugely important from a performance marketing standpoint. “When we say it’s the No. 1 platform, it is because that is what’s driving revenue,” she said. “Organic posts are tough, but paid works. So if you are an e-commerce brand, then you’re not giving up Facebook and Instagram.”

Finding a Balance

Even if Instagram is a successful platform for brands, experts say the goal is to diversify your audience, so TikTok should be part of the plan.

They suggest that brands create their own account on the platform and use organic posts as a testing ground to find what resonates. Then tap TikTok creators to make a splash for specific goals, such as a product launch.

One way TikTok is enticing brands and influencers is through it’s Creator Marketplace, which helps to establish direct collaborations and partnerships between brands and creators.

“Creators are the lifeblood of our platform” said Cleary. “When we think about how brands can participate, we generally point to creators either as a muse or as a tool for brands to leverage. They’re platform natives; they know exactly what works. They know that when they lean in to what makes them different and authentic, their content becomes very viral, and we want to make sure brands are leveraging them for that.”

Licht also advised brands new to TikTok to start small, research hashtags and not be so cautious with content. “It’s OK to make mistakes,” she said. “It’s OK not to know how to use it. It’s initiation by fire and you have to test stuff.”

But experts said one thing companies must realize is that Instagram or YouTube content doesn’t translate well on TikTok. For instance, repurposing content and cutting a fashion campaign video or runway clip into 30 seconds will not connect with TikTokers.

“We want our brands to create TikToks, not ads,” said Cleary. “They have to be comfortable taking down their traditional guardrails and testing and sourcing, listening. All the best brands, they’re listening to see how their fans are already talking about them on the platform and then leaning into those trends.”

For marketers, the success of TikTok doesn’t mean the end for Instagram. But they warn that Instagram fatigue is out there, and expectations from consumers are changing.

“It’s creating a competitive environment for other platforms to attract and maintain creators. Previously, this was less of a concern,” said Eric Dahan, CEO of Open Influence. “There’s a bigger sense of comfort with Instagram, [but] TikTok is forcing platforms to think how they cater to their influencers [and] audience.”

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