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The vertical video showdown: YouTube Shorts vs Instagram Reels vs TikTok

2021 has been an incredibly exciting year so far in the social media space, with competition amongst platforms at an all-time high. We’re in the age of the short-form video — and the big players are in the race for the attention of consumers with new product launches and features.

In 2018, TikTok made its highly anticipated US debut and in just a matter of months, the video-sharing app garnered hundreds of millions of downloads. For many marketers, first came the inquisitive scoffs at the seemingly crazy viral dance trends. But then promptly followed, was the realization of the platform’s genius marketing opportunities —  predominantly surrounding the ability to reach younger audiences around the globe (who are spending an average of 52 minutes per day on the app)  in a highly creative and playful environment.

For marketers, the brilliant thing with TikTok is that it does not require huge budgets for content creation, with spontaneous content produced on the whim having just as much chance of making noise.

The platform also gives marketers a level playing field when it comes to reach and engagement. Unlike Instagram and YouTube, TikTok accounts with even the smallest of followings can get millions of views on a new video thanks to the viral nature of the algorithm. As long as the content appeals to the audience, the engagement will follow. In fact, the platform experiences higher engagement rates than any other social media platform, meaning that for marketers, their hard work is far more likely to pay off.

Today, the app has been downloaded more than 2 billion times, taking the reign as the most downloaded app in 2020.

With all this success in such a short amount of time, it was always inevitable that YouTube and Instagram would be watching closely in a bid to try to retrieve the watch time that they have lost to the young, exuberant and wildly popular platform.

First followed Instagram Reels, launched in August 2020, providing users with a platform that looked a lot like TikTok.

Then in March this year, YouTube launched its newest feature, YouTube Shorts, competing against its fellow short-form video competitors to take out the title. Strikingly similar to its competitors, Youtube Shorts enables creators to record, edit and share short, vertical video content that connects them to YouTube’s 2 billion users.

YouTube Shorts vs Instagram Reels vs TikTok: The Differences

Instagram Reels, TikTok, and YouTube Shorts all feature many similar capabilities when it comes to creating, discovering, viewing, and sharing content. But, there are some important differences you’ll need to know – let’s take a look:

Video length: More Tok on the Clock

While videos uploaded to YouTube Shorts can be up to 60 seconds, short videos recorded on the YouTube app itself can only be a maximum of 15 seconds, whereas Instagram Reels feature a maximum video length of 60 seconds for both recorded and uploaded videos. TikTok has very recently announced it will be introducing “more Tok on the Clock”,  increasing the maximum length of videos on its platform from one minute, to three.

And when it comes to posting on the above platforms, there are many social media management tools out there that enable marketers to plan and schedule, creating the captions and previewing how each video will look in the feed. However, these tools currently do not support automatic posting to the platforms, meaning, for now, you still have to go ahead and do the manual posting… *cue groans from marketers everywhere*.

Not-so-special effects on YouTube

A pitfall of YouTube’s product is that it lacks a large catalog of special effects, unlike the wide array of AR features and green-screen options found on TikTok, which allows users to be super creative with their content. Similarly, Instagram Reels has a huge library of filters.

Sticker support

Instagram’s sticker functions have been used widely by brands across all industries to prompt interaction with their audience. From gathering direct feedback from audiences using the Questions sticker, using fun polls to drive community engagement, to donation stickers to help raise funds for the charities and causes.

Like Instagram, TikTok too offers its users the ability to get creative with stickers, including donations, polls, mentions, and hashtags.

YouTube Shorts has yet to introduce stickers, arguably missing out on a prime opportunity for brands and marketers alike to build deeper connections with audiences and gain valuable insights.

Shop til you drop… just not on YouTube Shorts

While Instagram is a social networking service first, it is also an extremely valuable e-commerce platform for big and small businesses alike. The shopping features we have become accustomed to on the platform have also been introduced to Instagram Reels, allowing content creators and online businesses to tag the products that appear in the video. Instagram has also made the recent announcement that they’re no longer a photo-sharing app, with the Head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, saying the company will be focusing more on entertainment and video after seeing the success of competitors like TikTok and YouTube. For brands and creators, this means that in order to stay competitive and gain a slice of attention on the platform, videos and Reels are going to have to take priority from now on.

To date, TikTok has experimented with shopping features, though not to the extent of Instagram. This includes allowing users to add e-commerce links to their bios, launching the “Shop Now” buttons for brands’ video ads, plus the “Hashtag Challenge Plus” e-commerce feature which allows users to shop for products associated with a sponsored hashtag.

For YouTube Shorts? Our bank account balance can take a little breather from our impulsive buys… for now anyway. While YouTube is, in many ways, already a major shopping destination (I mean, who can resist a good old unboxing video?), the platform has been slow in the adoption of monetization opportunities through commerce.

However, rumor has it that YouTube is beta testing a new integrated shopping experience that allows viewers to make in-app purchases. This could completely change the way marketers approach the platform in the future.

How?  While TikTok and Instagram host content that is much shorter-form, YouTube is known for long-form videos that explore niche topics, from gaming to fashion to arts and crafts. For marketers and brands, this presents a unique opportunity to sell their products to specific target audiences. This will mean building strong relationships with creators in their industry, ensuring optimum exposure to an engaged and invested audience.

When it comes to engagement, short-form videos are likely to trump all other content forms.

For the NBA franchise, for example, Instagram Reels has enabled them to achieve a 22% higher engagement than the average engagements they’ve had from standard Instagram posts or Instagram Stories.

Since YouTube wants its new platform to succeed and stand a chance against TikTok, they are going to be making Shorts a priority, and thus much more likely to promote your Shorts to a vast audience.


As we venture further into the year, it remains to be seen which short-form video platform will prove to be the favorite amongst both creators, marketers, and consumers. Despite the differences between the trio, it’s hard to deny the similarities. But at the rate TikTok is growing in such a short amount of time, it’s difficult to see how the platform will be significantly challenged by any rival platform.