Instagram Is Playing the Long Game Against TikTok, and It’s Winning

Estimated read time 3 min read

Instagram isn’t losing the social-media platform wars after all.

The app far outpaced TikTok in global downloads last year, according to data from market intelligence firm Sensor Tower. Instagram downloads increased by 20% in 2023 compared to the previous year, Sensor Tower estimated. TikTok saw just 4% growth over the same period, with daily-active-user growth also plateauing.

Why? The simplest explanation is that Instagram’s short-video product, reels, is pretty much just as good as TikTok at this point. Instagram also has more robust photo tools that users want. And unlike TikTok, it’s been careful lately not to shove unpopular features like shoppable videos in users’ faces.

“Instagram already has reels, and it already caters to a broader audience because it has those other social-media features,” explained Abe Yousef, a senior insights analyst at Sensor Tower. “Somebody who might not necessarily be a fan of reels could still be a fan of the main feed, which is the photo sharing, and then stories and chat, which are legacy social media features.”

TikTok, for instance, still doesn’t allow group chats — and DMs, as top Meta executives like Mark Zuckerberg or Instagram’s Adam Mosseri have stated, are where a big chunk of reels are shared.

“TikTok has slowed down on an engagement perspective as well,” Yousef said.

TikTok may have noticed that its limited photo features are hurting overall engagement. The company could be in the process of developing a dedicated photo app, per an analysis of code uncovered by the tech blog The SpAndroid.

Both TikTok and Instagram did not respond to a request for comment.

Here are three key takeaways from Sensor Tower’s analysis:

  • TikTok is still gaining users but at a slower rate. According to Sensor Tower, TikTok’s global monthly active users, MAUs for short, increased by 2% year-over-year in Q4 2023 — a small drop from its 6% increase in the same quarter in 2022 and an even bigger drop from the 47% increase in MAUs for that quarter in 2021.

  • Instagram is outpacing TikTok in downloads as the latter lost some of its new-app-on-the-block luster. And somewhere, Mark Zuckerberg is probably smiling about it. Instagram’s global downloads in 2023 surpassed 767 million, per Sensor Tower’s estimates — a 20% increase year-over-year. TikTok, however, clocked in at 733 million global downloads for the same period.

  • Even though TikTok’s growth appears to be plateauing, its users are still hooked. Sensor Tower estimates that TikTok users spent an average of 95 minutes a day on the app in Q4 2023— just over an hour and a half daily. That’s the length of a feature film (or at least, how long movies used to be before editors stopped editing). Meanwhile, users spent about an hour on Instagram and about 53 minutes each day on Facebook.