Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

How Reels has changed Instagram's growth trajectory

While Reels has driven a more than 40 percent increase in time spent on Instagram since its launch globally, in India it continues to boost content creation and participation from Tier II and III cities

Naini Thaker
Published: Feb 2, 2024 05:52:02 PM IST
Updated: Feb 2, 2024 06:11:39 PM IST

How Reels has changed Instagram's growth trajectory(L to R) Paras Sharma, Director and Head of Content and Community Partnerships, Meta, India; Sandhya Devanathan, Head and Vice President, Meta, India; Shivnath Thukral, Director, Public Policy, Meta, India; Image: Madhu Kapparath

Instagram is a creator’s favourite platform because of the range of features it offers,” says 23-year-old content creator Dharna Durga, who first started creating content on Instagram in May 2020. Back then, the only video feature available on Instagram was IGTV, a feature focussed mostly on long-form videos. Reach and views were limited then, but Durga wasn’t looking to take up content creation professionally. Until Instagram announced its now-popular feature: Reels.

“Reels was the real game-changer,” Durga says. Meta launched Reels on Instagram in 2020—betting big on the short video format—soon after TikTok was banned in India. Reels was an instant hit, with Instagram’s existing popularity along with TikTok users moving to Reels. According to Meta, globally Facebook and Instagram are seeing close to 200 billion reel plays per day.

Currently, Instagram has close to 2 billion accounts globally and there are close to 400-500 million users in India, according to news reports. Sandhya Devanathan, head and vice president, Meta, India says, “A lot of it [the 2 billion accounts] is driven by India, given the kind of following Indian celebrities and influencers have. We are buoyed by the growth, size and potential that we see for Instagram in the country.” 

Instagram riding on the short-video wave

According to Statista, India has over 900 million internet users and is the second largest online market in the world, after China. By 2025, three in four Internet users will consume short-form videos with active users spending up to 55 to 60 minutes per day on them, according to a Bain & Company report. Evidently, there is a huge demand for short format video.

India was one of the first countries where Reels was tested. “Reels has changed the way content creation works in our country,” adds Devanathan. In fact, Meta stated that Reels has driven a more than 40 percent increase in time spent on Instagram since its launch. Creator Raj Grover started by creating short videos on TikTok and later moved to Reels. “The boom of reels is what helped me the most, it was the first platform where I really became popular,” he says.

The company has been seeing sustained growth in Reels and video overall as daily watch time across all video types grew over 25 percent year-over-year in Q4, driven by ongoing ranking improvements. During the Q4 2023 earnings call, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO, Meta said, “Reels continues to do very well across both Instagram and Facebook. People reshare Reels 3.5 billion times every day. Reels is now contributing to our net revenue across our apps.” He further added, “The biggest opportunity going forward is unifying our recommendations systems across Reels and other types of video. That will help people discover the best content across our systems no matter what format it’s in.”

Growing the creator economy

While Reels is the favourite, it is only one of the many features that make Instagram a creator’s top choice. “This one application lets you balance your content—personal and professional. You can upload ‘stories’ showing your personal life, ‘static posts’ for photos, fun content on ‘Reels’ and now there is ‘Broadcast channels’,” adds Durga. The Instagram broadcast channel, which was launched in February 2023, was built for creators to build a “super fan community” and engage with them personally.

“Given how vast India is, we knew that there was not one single voice or demographic group that could represent India,” says Paras Sharma, director and head of content and community partnerships, Meta, India. “But when Reels came along, it democratised content creation.”

But the question remained: How can one supercharge this budding creator economy? To address this, Sharma says, “we wanted to find a way to enable more people to become a better creator on Instagram. While we always had this programme called ‘Born on Instagram’, we made that into a self-learning programme in seven different languages so anybody can login and take up the course through various modules.”

Through their programmes, the team claims they are trying to ensure that these creators have the right kind of tools to create content, reach the right audience and monetise. Through this programme, creators get to know about the influencer guidelines via bodies like ASCI, and how they can monetise content. “It’s like having a badge of authority for when a brand or agency approaches these ‘Born on Instagram’ certified creators,” says Sharma.

In terms of languages, though a majority of the population speaks Hindi, regional languages are equally strong. Through programmes like Born on Instagram Meta has also enabled creators to make content in languages like Tamil, Odia, Kannada, Marathi among many others. On Instagram, among the 100 most followed pages with up to 2M followers in India, more than 50 percent were from non-metro cities. Additionally, even in terms of genre of content, Sharma adds, “Our goal was to expand to new genres outside of entertainment content, such as education, tech, auto and more.”

Over time, as reels started taking off, Meta started building on features and tools to help influencers create content faster. For instance, a robust music library with songs across languages, reel templates, scheduling options, tools that help with managing trolls and negative comments and many more. “We are committed to making sure that we are giving creators the right tools for them to create content and unleash their creativity,” Devanathan says.

However, one big issue, highlights Grover, “is their algorithm, which restricts our content reach.” Earlier this year, Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri had released a video to explain how there are multiple algorithms and processes that work in tandem to personalise the content we see on our feed, stories and explore section. “The purpose of the algorithm is to curate content that is in line with a user’s interests and maximise the time spent on the platform, hence it accounts for signals such as likeliness to like, share, comment, save, the history of interactions with the account or the type of content, and the popularity/initial traction on the post,” says Hitesh Rajwani, CEO, Social Samosa. He adds, “Creators and marketers feel the pinch of low reach despite the following they have amassed. In a way the algorithm nudges them to create user agnostic content and evolve with the changing times.” 

The platform aims to continue growing locally in India—be it on the users front or on the creator front. Over a decade ago, when Instagram was first launched it was, “a metro cities focussed social media platform. That is no longer the case, since we are finding so many users and creators from Tier II and Tier III cities joining the platform,” says Devanathan. Currently, there are 750,000 plus registered users in India on Born on Instagram, and over 50 percent of them come from Tier II and Tier III towns. 

Also read: India's Top 100 Digital Stars 2023

Brands and Monetisation

According to reports, 70 percent people who have seen creator-led content with a certain brand tagged have started following it. And a similar percentage of people have bought something if they have connected with it. Sharma adds, “Reports also suggest that 60 percent people find a creator voice far more authentic than the brand’s voice.”

The platform plays a pivotal role in echoing voices shaping culture and consumer behaviour, and hence it commands utmost importance for brands and businesses across the spectrum. “From automobile to beauty, entertainment, finance, fashion, travel or tech, brands are leveraging Instagram to build a loyal community of followers which in turn serves as a high engagement touch point to achieve business objectives,” says Rajwani.

Around March 2023, Meta announced a programme called ‘Made on Reels’ which connected brands with creators to improve reels monetisation. Brands across sectors, from Amazon and Tanishq to Maruti and Cadbury are working on innovating and building content for the format. Brands have adapted well to the format of reels, says Devanathan. “The thought process is no longer cutting an existing television advertisement and posting it on Instagram. Seeing the kind of reach and views they are getting, brands are putting in effort to create content for the platform.” As stated during Meta’s Q2 2023 earnings call, Reels has been seeing good progress on its monetisation, “with the annual revenue run-rate across our apps now exceeding $10 billion, up from $3 billion last fall”. 

Outside of creators and brands monetising reels, Devanathan says, “There are businesses that are being set up on Instagram.” Across its bouquet of applications—WhatsApp, Facebook and Instagram—Meta has included multiple features to help small businesses. “Instagram is playing a pivotal role in connecting Indians and helping both large and small businesses grow,” she adds. Instagram sees a huge opportunity in working with SMEs and MSMEs, and wants to keep up the momentum.

Also read: The great Indian influencer burnout

AI-led innovation

Meta had been using artificial intelligence (AI) for all its applications long before it became a buzzword. However, during Meta Connect 2023 in September 2023, Zuckerberg announced a flurry of AI-focussed features for WhatsApp and Instagram. Some such features include Meta AI assistant, which is built on the company’s Llama 2 large language model. The assistant will be able to answer questions, generate text, and translate languages. It will also be able to access real-time information from Microsoft's Bing search engine. AI-powered chatbots will interact with users on all Meta platforms. Additionally, Zuckerberg also mentioned that Meta is using AI to develop new AR, VR, and MR experiences. AI-driven feed recommendations continue to grow their impact on incremental engagement. This year alone, we've seen a 7 percent increase in time spent on Facebook and a 6 percent increase on Instagram as result of recommendation improvements, claims the company. 

Also listen: Meta's new AI tools for WhatsApp, Instagram, could make anyone a creator

As per Devanathan, Meta will also be looking at AI image editing soon, and other such tools to help creators produce content faster and in a more creative manner. “The idea is if you make it easy for them, they can really focus on what they want to say by creating on our platform,” she says. 

Instagram has made product tweaks that keep user safety at the centre. For instance, features that allow users to take action against trollers and abusers; features that allow users to take a break; restricting certain words in comments, among many others. Even for safety features, Meta has been making significant investments in artificial intelligence. “Our AI catches a lot of problematic content even before users see it. While our AI models might not be perfect, it has attained high levels of accuracy to implement the provisions of our community standards,” says Shivnath Thukral, director, public policy, Meta, India.

From a regulatory standpoint, Instagram, like most other social media platforms, is also primarily governed by the Information Technology (IT) Act and the Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023, that the Indian Parliament passed in early August 2023. The new law is the first cross-sectoral law on personal data protection in India and has been enacted after more than half a decade of deliberations. “We find the Digital Personal Data Protection Act extremely progressive—balancing innovation and regulation together. The pro-innovation approach goes to show that Indian regulators realise how the data economy works,” says Thukral.

Meta has been working with regulators across the globe. “Regulations help put a guardrail to the sector, to make sure that the opportunities are leveraged in a manner which is in line with ours and the government’s agenda, which is to keep the internet safe for our users,” he says.

India is a key market for Instagram, says Devanathan. “Multiple product teams have spent time in India trying to understand the nuances of the market, what the users, businesses and creators want. So I expect to see that momentum continue.”