Meta Platforms Inc.
is betting the social-media giant’s near-term future on Instagram Reels, the short-video feature he is touting as the company’s answer to TikTok.
The company’s internal research shows that Meta has a lot of catching up to do.
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.
Meta spokeswoman Devi Narasimhan characterized the data about viewing hours as outdated and not global in scope, but declined to disclose other numbers. She said Reels engagement currently is up, on a month-to-month basis.
“We still have work to do,” she said. “But creators and businesses are seeing promising results, and our monetization growth is faster than we expected as more people are watching, creating and connecting through Reels than ever before.”
The shift to Reels has taken on urgency following a tough year for the social-media company. In July, Meta reported its first ever decline in revenue, in part because changes made by
to the iPhone’s operating system put a major dent in Meta’s ability to deliver personalized ads. The company also has had trouble retaining teenage users attracted to competitors such as TikTok. As of Friday, Meta’s market value had declined by more than $620 billion since peaking more than a year ago.
Meta has said that Reels, which was launched in the U.S. in August 2020, accounts for a fifth of the time people spend on Instagram, and that the time users spent engaging with Reels on Instagram and Facebook had risen more than 30% during the second quarter.
“We’re seeing good promise in the rollout of Reels, good adoption,” Instagram Chief Operating Officer Justin Osofsky said in an interview. “But with that said, we know we also have work to do.”
He said Reels make up more than half of the content that Instagram users share with each other in private messages. The ease with which users can share Reels with friends differentiates the service from others, he said.
The internal document showed that nearly one-third of Reels videos are created on another platform, usually TikTok, and include a watermark or border identifying them as such. Meta said it “downranks” these videos, meaning it shows them to smaller audiences to reduce the incentives for those that post them, but they continue to proliferate. For Reels users, the result is that often they are shown videos recycled from another, more popular platform.
“People have told us they want original high-quality content,” Mr. Osofsky said.
a 22-year-old creator in Plano, Texas, makes videos for TikTok and other platforms, mostly of him using a device called a talk box to make funny sounds and music. Many of his posts get more than a million views on TikTok.
This spring, Mr. Purifoy posted the same video across TikTok, YouTube Shorts,
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.”
To encourage users like Mr. Purifoy to post more, Meta announced last year that it was launching a fund to pay creators a total of $1 billion by the end of this year. The internal document said that Instagram Reels thus far has paid out $120 million.
“Meta’s suite of monetization product offerings is largely in-line with competitive offerings, though limited product scale results in fewer paid creators / low % of payouts,” the document said.
The Meta spokeswoman said this payout number is outdated and doesn’t include separate payments to Facebook creators that the fund also covers.
TikTok announced its own creators fund in August 2020 that it said would pay out $1 billion over the next three years.
Meta’s ad business is still a behemoth, generating far more revenue per user than TikTok. In 2021, Facebook and Instagram generated revenue in the U.S. market of $32 billion and more than $21 billion, respectively, compared with $3 billion for TikTok, according to estimates in an August report by Bernstein Research.
But Meta’s advertising operation faces headwinds, notably from the privacy-related changes from Apple rolled out last year. The company previously said it anticipated a $10 billion hit to revenue this year due to the changes.
Meta also continues to battle negative perceptions among users, documents show. Meta has long surveyed users about their perceptions of its business, converting their answers into percentage scores. The portion of Instagram users who think the company “cares about” them fell from nearly 70% in 2019 to roughly 20% earlier this summer. On the question of whether the product was “good for the world,” the score fell from more than 60% in 2019 to slightly over 45%.
The Meta spokeswoman said that didn’t reflect the company’s internal data, but declined to elaborate.
The company has also been polling users on a separate question that in many ways gets to the heart of the tech giant’s current predicament: “Would you say that Meta’s best days are ahead of it or behind it?” The company declined to disclose how users responded to that question.
At least some of the issues affecting Meta reflect shifting views about social media more broadly. TikTok and other platforms also have sparked concerns about their unhealthy aspects and effects on young users.
Other social-media companies have had their business models upended, too. Snap Inc., maker of the popular Snapchat app, said late last month it was laying off 20% of its staff, halting work on several projects and reorganizing its operations.
Meta, which essentially pioneered social media when Mr. Zuckerberg launched Facebook out of his Harvard dorm in 2004, has long been the industry’s 800-pound gorilla.
Over the years, the company has been resilient, executing several strategy shifts to address changes in the competitive landscape. In 2012, Mr. Zuckerberg made mobile-first products a priority for Facebook, which was founded for desktop users. Several years later, the company launched disappearing-posts features, starting with Instagram Stories, leading to criticism that it essentially copied one of Snapchat’s features.
While it took some time for Stories to catch on, both moves ultimately proved prescient, helping the company maintain a dominant position in social media for almost two decades and briefly reach a market value of more than $1 trillion.
TikTok’s explosion in popularity presents a big challenge. The app, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd., launched in the U.S. less than five years ago. It has drawn scrutiny and criticism related to its Chinese ownership, but that has done little to stem its popularity.
Tiktok posted an average annual gain of 67% in daily hours spent per user in the U.S. from 2018 to 2021, far exceeding that of its rivals, according to Bernstein’s August report. Facebook and Instagram posted average annual gains of 9% and 11%, respectively, during that period.
As TikTok has grown, so too has the popularity of short-form video as a format, leading Bernstein Research analysts to write: “The 2020s are the SFV decade.”
After TikTok soared in popularity amid Covid-19 lockdowns in early 2020, both Meta and YouTube, which is owned by Google, launched short-form video products of their own. Mr. Zuckerberg has touted Reels as the company’s fastest-growing content format, but TikTok has maintained its lead.
“Creators still think of TikTok as being synonymous with SFV and prioritize it for the broad discoverability it brings them,” said the internal Meta document.
Meta’s challenges with Reels are significant because the service is central to an effort to reinvent the way the company operates.
Meta’s products—first the main Facebook app, then Instagram—succeeded by showing users content from their friends, family and others they know and choose to follow. TikTok succeeded by doing the opposite, showing users content from accounts recommended by an algorithm that figures out what kind of videos users want based on what they spend time watching. It pushes a feed of content personalized to people’s interests, helping them discover new things they never knew they wanted or would enjoy.
This summer, Instagram accelerated a push to be more like TikTok by launching a service it internally called Panavision. Like TikTok, it served content, including a hefty dose of Reels, to users from accounts they don’t follow.
There was a swift backlash from users, including from celebrities
Ms. Jenner reposted a card to her Instagram story that said “Make Instagram Instagram again (stop trying to be tiktok i just want to see cute photos of my friends.) Sincerely, everyone.”
Within days, Instagram said it would reduce the amount of content shown to users from accounts that they don’t already follow, at least for now. But Mr. Zuckerberg and Instagram head
have made clear that is the direction the company is moving.
“We’ve leaned too far into video over the last couple months,” Mr. Mosseri said in a video posted to Instagram in late August. “But we still believe video is a long-term important trend.”
A big question is whether Instagram users, especially creators, will come along for the ride.
a 36-year-old creator in New York, goes by the handle @DannyLovesPasta and makes cooking content for his one million TikTok followers. He said TikTok is his main platform, but he also posts to Instagram Reels, and he thinks the two can be complementary.
He said he has noticed that more visually appealing content does better on Instagram Reels, while videos where he is talking to the camera about a certain topic might do well on TikTok.
“I do feel like different content does well on Instagram,” he said, explaining that he reposts about 30% of his TikToks to Instagram Reels, but sometimes re-edits and tweaks them slightly before he does.
In July, he posted a recipe video on TikTok that got about 440,000 views. He posted the same video on Instagram Reels, and it got one million views.
“I think it’s because that was more of a recipe video, more visual, so maybe that’s better for Instagram or for the audience,” he said.
More than 70% of Instagram’s audience is 25 or older, compared with 56% for TikTok, according to research firm Insider Intelligence. That suggests Instagram users generally have more disposable income, making them more attractive to advertisers.
said Meta charges higher rates partly because its ads spur many users to take action, such as clicking on a link and buying something. TikTok’s ads are more akin to YouTube’s, which typically merely promote the brand. Those advertisers are paying simply to reach as many people as possible, like a TV ad.
Alexis Bittar, a Brooklyn-based jewelry company, has been advertising its necklaces, bracelets and earrings on Instagram for years. The company’s chief revenue officer,
said she knows the ads bring in new customers and build a lasting relationship with them.
“Beyond just the actual sales revenue return, what we also see with paid revenue advertising is they sign up for our email list, or even if they don’t actually hit follow, they’re more likely to continue interacting with us informally,” she said.
She said the effectiveness of the company’s posts with still images has declined as Instagram emphasizes Reels.
The jewelry company doesn’t advertise on TikTok, but does have an account on the app.
“We’re still baby stepping into TikTok because we’re not really sure it’s where our resources are best focused,” she said. “It’s just a fun platform to be on.”
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