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What Gen Z and Millennials Want on Instagram vs. TikTok

Recent reports show that approximately 40% of younger consumers now use TikTok and Instagram for their searches, increasing pressure on brands to reach Gen Z and Millennials on social media. But are all social platforms created equal when it comes to capturing this pivotal audience?  Heather Dretsch, assistant professor of marketing, explains how important it is for brands to understand the consumer psychology driving current social media behavior when planning a social media presence and content.

Gen Z and millennial behavior

To help brands peek behind the eyes of Millennial and Gen Z consumers as they use social media to interact with brands, Dretsch conducted market research with hundreds of these users in the Poole College of Management’s Consumer Behavior Lab. She notes that brands believe Gen Zers are switching away from Instagram to TikTok. However, her data suggests this is not the case. Dretsch observed that 90% use Instagram daily and, of those, 68% use TikTok in addition to Instagram (only 2% use TikTok and not Instagram). Only 41% use Facebook, though less frequently than the other two. 

“What this means is that Gen Zers are choosing to layer their social media time. They are intentional about where and when they choose to engage,” said Dretsch.

Dretsch found that while the majority of these users estimate they spend approximately one hour of their day on Instagram, they also spend additional one-and-a-half hours a day on TikTok. Incidentally, 68% spend no time at all on Facebook on a daily basis. Dretsch notes that Gen Zers are cognizant of how much time they spend on these apps, “TikTok has the perception they spend way too much time on it and it’s just for their amusement. It’s an escape for them.”

“Yet, they seem to value their Instagram time more because it informs them and is more personal.” According to Dretsch, this intentional dichotomy is what leads Gen Zers to state that Instagram feels more glaring and disruptive when it shows ads as reels from brands and random people a user does not follow.

Key to this is the insight that younger generations recognize that each social platform has its own specialty that continues to evolve. As one user articulates, “TikTok, for example, was first based on people dancing, Instagram was to post pictures and Facebook has been made for multipurpose reasons such as businesses.”

Understanding the platforms

Nowadays, they believe TikTok revolves around bite-sized entertainment whereas Instagram is viewed as their hub of social media. Facebook enables groups and events. They’re very aware of content differences as well: TikTok shows only videos, while Instagram and Facebook also allow singular images. Millennials prefer Facebook for blog-like posts that invite opinions, and Instagram to be a photo diary.

As one Gen Zer explains, “Instagram is a small snippet of your life. It is usually more formal, although Instagram is becoming more casual again with people being able to post 10 photos at a time. Up until recently, Instagram was how you represented yourself. Facebook is more of updating people with your life. The posts are longer and more personal and there are also communities on Facebook that are very popular. I personally love using Facebook invite to make events for my friends. TikTok is the most similar to Twitter to me, because it isn’t as much of a social media where you’re seeing people’s photos. It’s random videos people make that follow the trends.”

“To understand Gen Z and Millennial users’ social media preferences, it’s important to understand their values and what they gain from their time on these platforms,” said Dretsch.

Gen Zers value connection and view content through this lens on social platforms. They embrace that social platforms connect people inclined toward their likes and what they find interesting and expect for-you algorithms to work for them. They like that all three apps allow them to connect with others, whether they be friends, family, coworkers or internet friends – or brands, now viewed more like people than ever. Each platform has expanded to enable more in-depth connections and conversations. They actually view the amount of time they spend on social media as a time-saver because while on social media, they are keeping connected without having to reach out individually. Gen Zers feel like they have a social life by spending time on these apps.

Social platforms give a voice to both people and brands. Brands have become a big part of the promotion that happens on social platforms, and Gen Zers welcome that because they use brands for self-exploration. Gen Zers recognize that brands are trying to express themselves creatively on social media.

Gen Zers and Millennials alike view social platforms as an outlet for creativity. According to Dretsch, “The creative aspect that younger generations seek of social media is very cool. They actually view themselves as more creative when they follow content that reflects their own aspirations, colors they like, high-quality imagery and wit.”

Gen Zers believe they can better themselves through the content they consume. Younger generations also view those who post as trying to make it in the world, as they are, and they support that endeavor. Social allows them to better understand their world and those they share it with (both those users know in real life and those in other parts of the world). It is how they keep updated about their world and things going on that are relevant to them. They liken keeping up with world events to watching makeup tutorials of finding newly on sale items, and value all types of learning through the platforms. They are cognizant that there is “no end to the feed”.

In turn, Gen Z consumers are becoming particularly savvy at navigating the platforms and staying on top of the algorithms to tailor their time. In her research, Dretsch found that 37% of users prefer Instagram, 34% prefer TikTok, 14% prefer Twitter, 12% prefer other social platforms (mostly LinkedIn, Snapchat) and 3% prefer Facebook.

What young users want

Brands face the temptation to produce more reels on Instagram akin to TikTok videos or even build a TikTok feed for the brand. Not so fast. Younger generations of consumers don’t necessarily want it. Surprised? 

Moreover, these younger generations would prefer that Instagram contain fewer videos period. Dretsch says this key finding from her research has important implications for brands. Opines one user about Instagram, “I want to see posts. Not stories or reels but posts. I think using the original purpose of instagram is much more impactful than trying to copy TikTok and their video platform.“

Counterintuitively, the similarity of short-form videos now appearing on Instagram has Gen Zers pining for the days when their Instagram feed showed them only pretty pictures. While they acknowledge that short form content can grab their attention, Gen Zers report wanting the videos to stay on TikTok. Dretsch says that users have seen some of same TikTok reels on Instagram, and it seems to them platforms may be merging – which they don’t like; users want brands to make funny videos for TikTok but not to post the same videos on Instagram or Facebook.

One user puts it plainly, “Instagram I feel like is for pictures and promotions alone but the videos need to stay on TikTok. I like TikTok because the video format is unique to them and I never go to Instagram wanting to see videos and frankly get annoyed.”

Another user weighs in, “TikTok is funny and real and not put together like Instagram where it would feel cringey. Instagram trying to incorporate videos is just against the entire appeal of why people have Instagram.”­

Gen Zers also expect to view TikTok videos with sound. They usually scroll Instagram feeds in settings they do not wish to have sound on, so they appreciate videos without sound, soothing voices, or more demure musical backgrounds, or, ideally, just plain posts.

Gen Z provides this advice to brands in general: Give us more behind-the-scenes to gain better insight into the brand; feedback polls and other interaction opportunities; and brand ambassadors modeling purchases in real life and showing various combinations. Millennials love to see how others style products or what they choose and how they consume it.

This advice comes with a big caveat about how and where brands do this. One user puts it simply, “I really like for social media to be unique and not so much like each other.” Gen Zers and Millennials offer the following advice to brands about how they can optimize content on each unique social media platform. In sum, Tiktok should be entertaining but Instagram should be informational (and beautiful).

On TikTok, brands should use aesthetic videos of the place and day in the life content. “Show us the work environment!,” begs Gen Z. “What does it look like? Show us who works for this brand and create a relationship between the consumers and brand.” And because it’s viewed as current, more tie-ins to current TikTok trends are desired. For brands, Gen Zers prefer high-quality enticing content, pointing to the success of @crumblcookies with its strong TikTok profile.

Advice from the younger generation

Many Gen Zers encourage their favorite brands to add a TikTok feed, Dretsch says. They believe TikTok would be best used to spread awareness of a business whereas Facebook would be best for a developed business. For example, brands might want to use TikTok because the content can show up on anyone’s page even if they are not following the account, hence building awareness. 

Gen Zers are excited by the potential for a brand’s videos to go viral and to “gain traction” with consumers. However, some users also warm that the platform is unprofessional and brands may want to steer clear. And they say it does not feel local and content easily gets lost in the chaos of your page. Most try to skip over ad videos that pop into their feed. One exception: secret ad videos! Gen Zers believe those to be more interesting.

Even though brands can geo-target locally on TikTok, in the eyes of Gen Z, Facebook and Instagram content feels more localized as they follow more local brands and events on those platforms. They also encourage brands to use location tags on Facebook and Instagram and themselves filter by location or use local hashtags. As Dretsch emphasizes, “It comes down to the consumer mindset at the time their eyeballs see the content, so it’s likely that users feel closer to the brands they interact with on Facebook and Instagram because they are viewed under the guise of local shopping and information-gathering goals.” 

On Instagram, users beg for a beautiful but quiet learning experience. Brand posts could include “fun facts” about the brand, its history, purpose, values, behind-the-scenes, as well as insider deals that are exclusive to the platform. Users also hope for ways to style/use the product. One Millennial advises brands to show, “What makes this product worth the investment? Showcase the value of the product/service in multiple ways so the consumer is able to see how far their purchase can go.” Users also cite more lives and try-on hauls from retailers.

Most agree that Instagram can be effective for maintaining image but makes it casual and accessible to customers. Gen Z uses the term casual to signal that approachability and authenticity are what they crave. They like that Instagram is easy to interact with and shop from. In the words of one Gen Zer: “The most ads I have interacted with are from Instagram. You can also tag products on posts and see prices as well as just buying them directly from your home page. You can, on the app., easily compare different items and easily access shopping websites, sending you to the page with the exact product you want.”

Gen Zers sing Instagram’s praises when it comes to brands. They enjoy that Instagram provides so many ways to connect with users on Instagram such as stories, reels, posts, ads, etc. that it’s almost an endless amount of opportunities for business owners to promote their businesses to people. The stories and Reels features can be updated daily to showcase events, the brand can connect with customers that comment, like and tag the brand in posts and can answer messages easily through the app, whereas with Facebook, users recognize hey would have to download the second messenger app to keep up with the conversation. Convenience is key for Gen Z so they prefer the all-in-one of Instagram, complete with easy ability to shop and purchase through the app.

Perhaps surprisingly, Gen Zers say that Facebook is also a boon to brands. Gen Z knows that Facebook makes it easy for brands to open a business page, post videos and images, join local groups or start their own, as well as track analytics, and that knowledge comes with trust in brands that maintain Facebook accounts for users. Gen Z also likes that Facebook offers no-fuss access to hours, websites, contact information, event details and updates. On Facebook, younger generations would like to see brands go back to original posts with just information typed. They also value events.

Gen Zers offer a caveat about Facebook, though. They believe it reaches out directly to consumers who actually drive to businesses and purchase things there, being ‘parents’ or consumers who have the ability to drive to and support these places. Whereas Instagram feels like a site where you make online purchases the majority of the time, so it appeals to the younger crowd who may not have access to driving.

Still, Gen Z maintains that TikTok has potential. Gen Z believes seeing the action of how things are made and having owners give testimonials to how the brand has grown are very powerful.

TikTok also allows people to understand more about the company as a person can answer questions with videos. When searching for brand information or new products to try, social proof is key. This may be decades-old wisdom by the father of advertising, David Ogilvy, but has never been more important to brands. Gen Zers are more likely to try something if it’s been reviewed by hundreds of people (hence the rise of the widely circulated #Tiktokmademebuyit hashtag). TikTok offers confirmation of what they should be considering and how it enables them to live their best life.

Because of its spontaneous nature, TikTok would allow for those behind-the-scenes views that Gen Z and Millennials crave. Ironically, on TikTok such authentic content is unfiltered and less edited. On Instagram authentic can mean the opposite, with the expectation to reveal something awe-inspiring about how the brand creates its experience through a beautiful aesthetic. The key is understanding that authenticity is what younger generations want and how brands give it to them may look very different.

Interested in a career in marketing analytics? Click here to learn more about the Master of Management, Marketing Analytics (MMA) program at NC State’s Poole College of Management.

This post was originally published on Poole Thought Leadership here.