Instagram overtakes TikTok in app downloads in race for new users

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Instagram overtook TikTok in new app downloads last year, with the US photo-sharing platform’s growth powered by copying its Chinese rival’s success with short-form videos.

Instagram’s total number of app downloads grew 20 per cent in 2023 to 768mn compared with a year earlier, according to market intelligence firm Sensor Tower, making it the most downloaded app in the world.

Downloads of TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance, edged up a mere 4 per cent to 733mn over the same period.

The statistics suggest that Meta’s photo-sharing platform is having success in targeting new users, with chief executive Mark Zuckerberg having identified the growth of TikTok as among the biggest threats to his social media empire.

In 2020, Instagram introduced “reels”, a feature that allowed users to share short clips, cloning the TikTok’s viral video features that had hooked millions of Gen Z consumers.

“Instagram has outperformed TikTok in adoption over the past few years, driven by the popularity of its reels feature along with legacy social media features and functions,” said Abraham Yousef, senior insights manager at Sensor Tower.

There are also signs that TikTok’s growth has begun to plateau for the first time since it was launched in 2016.

Instagram’s monthly active users reached 1.47bn, with a rise of 13mn in the final quarter of 2023, according to Sensor Tower. TikTok’s active users reached 1.12bn, with a decline of 12mn in the final three months of last year.

However, TikTok continues to gain better engagement from its more than 1bn active users worldwide. Users spent an average of 95 minutes on TikTok in the fourth quarter of last year, compared with 62 minutes on Instagram, 30 minutes on X and 19 minutes on Snapchat.

Mark Shmulik, an analyst at Bernstein, said Instagram had successfully kept existing users on its app through its push into short-form videos, meaning that for “the next batch of potential TikTok users, there’s no incentive to switch”.

He added that influencers had also increasingly been drawn to Instagram. For these content creators, Shmulik said TikTok was a better place to achieve overnight viral success, while its US rival was a better platform to make money from a follower base.

While TikTok has grown quickly thanks to its algorithm that serves users with clips that target their preferences with other viral content, Meta has poured investment last year into artificial intelligence to bolster its recommendations system.

Meta’s chief financial officer Susan Li said last month that Instagram was “making strong progress increasing the freshness of recommended content”.

Instagram has also benefited from ByteDance’s policy of allowing users to download TikTok-watermarked videos that they can share on different social media platforms, originally designed to promote the Chinese-owned app’s visibility.

One area of growing success for ByteDance is ecommerce thanks to TikTok Shop, which enables brands and merchants to sell goods marketed through short videos.

Sensor Tower estimates that ByteDance raked in more than $4bn in revenues through in-app purchases last year, compared with $143mn for Instagram.

In 2023, TikTok Shop generated $1.1bn in gross merchandise revenue in the US, the total value of goods sold on its platform, according to internal TikTok financial statistics seen by the Financial Times. So far, in 2024, that company has already hit more than $500mn GMV in the US.

Meta and TikTok did not respond to requests for comment.

Additional reporting by Andy Lin in Hong Kong and Hannah Murphy in San Francisco

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