Instagram vs. Snapchat vs. TikTok: Which is better to reach teenagers?

Trying to reach teenagers? The general recommendation is that the top three social media platforms to consider are Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, but which is best?

As with everything social media and audience targeting, it can depend.

Instagram is a visual-first social media platform owned by Facebook. According to a Facebook survey, the most popular topics on Instagram among young adults are food, fashion and beauty, hobbies, music, and TV and films. Users tend to follow celebrities and look at travel photos.

Of the three social media apps, Instagram is definitely the largest overall. About 1 billion people use Instagram every month, while 63 percent of users log in at least once a day. In addition, about 67 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds use Instagram.

Snapchat is a multimedia messaging app where pictures and messages are usually only available for a short time before they disappear.

About 71% of Snapchat users use it only or mostly for peer-to-peer messaging, and about 60% of the interactions on the platform are between close friends. Snapchat has about 382 million monthly active users. As far as reaching a young audience, about 73% of 18- to 24-year-olds use Snapchat.

On TikTok, users create and post short, looping videos set to the app’s library of music and sound bites. Humor and talent are often the themes. You’ll see a lot of choreographed dances, lip-syncing, hashtag challenges, reaction videos and cringe-worthy content.

Originally created in 2017, it is the youngest of the three platforms and also potentially the most viral right now. Tiktok boasts 800 million monthly active users, and about 69 percent of TikTok users are 13- to 24-year-olds.

When you consider which platform is best, consider your brand and your goals. Below are the pros and cons of each platform so that you can decide for yourself.

Instagram: Pros and Cons

PRO: Preferred for brand engagement. According to a 2019 survey, 70 percent of Gen Z respondents “overwhelmingly prefer” Instagram for brand engagement, meaning that they prefer brands to contact them on Instagram rather than through other social media platforms.

CON: The augmented reality filters don’t stack up. Although Instagram has copied many of Snapchat’s filters for Instagram Stories, Snapchat’s are still unbeatable. For example, if you use the dog filter on Snapchat, you don’t just look like a dog, you also move like one. If you stick out your tongue, it wags like a dog’s tongue.

PRO: Discoverability. Instagram has a Search & Explore feature within the app that features curated content for each user based on your previous hashtags and search terms. The more you use the app, the more customized and interesting to you the content becomes. Because your content doesn’t disappear (like on Snapchat), users can find it organically and then also visit your website if linked in your profile.

CON: Advertising campaign reach. Snapchat might be more expensive than Instagram, but it could be a better use of your money. For example, Gatorade created a lens filter during Super Bowl 50, so NFL fans could pretend they were showering themselves in Gatorade. That lens got 165 million views and triggered an 8 percent increase in purchase intent. Snapchat ads also get 1.5 times more visual attention than Instagram.

PRO: Engagement. A report from TechCrunch suggested that businesses see higher engagement rates with Instagram Stories than Snapchat Stories. The report analyzed 21,500 Snapchat Stories found that the average unique viewers per Snapchat Stories fell about 40% in 2016 after Instagram launched their Stories.

CON: Popularity isn’t always best. With more than 95 million photos shared on Instagram daily, many posts are never seen. That’s definitely a risk to putting all your eggs in Instagram’s basket.

PRO: Advertising pairs with Facebook. There is a strength to Instagram that comes from being owned by Facebook. Ad campaigns can cross both platforms as you desire, and ads can be created in Facebook’s more advanced ad manager.

CON: Pressure to look as professional as possible. Instagram has a high aesthetic standard for news feed content. Images are typically edited and filtered to appear more professional, and to compete with other content, the bar is always high. More raw and authentic content does appear in Instagram Stories, though, but this overall high aesthetic standard can be right for some brands but a little much for others.

PRO: Analytics capabilities. Instagram natively provides professional profiles with an in-app analytics platform for posts, Stories, ads, and followers, called Instagram Insights. There also are third-party tools and free Instagram analytics options, such as Union Metrics, Keyhole, and Websta.

Snapchat: Pros and Cons

PRO: Native checkout. Like Instagram, Snapchat’s shoppable and native checkout features can be a big draw for retail brands. According to a 2019 Snapchat report, Snapchat users involve the app in their buyer’s journey 35% more than Twitter, 46% more than Instagram and 58% more than Facebook.

CON: Global reach. Snapchat is popular among teens in the U.S., but compared with Instagram and TikTok, Snapchat’s popularity is predominantly in the U.S.

PRO: Creativity. Brands are able to get creative with Snapchat’s AR and Lens capabilities while still offering built-in (“swipe-up”) features for a more immersive user experience and directing traffic to their sites.

CON: Discoverability. There is a Discover function in the Snapchat app, but it’s not as user friendly as the Search & Explore feature on Instagram. Because Snapchat stories are temporary, the depth of content only goes so far. There also is a “For You” section, which features content largely from celebrities and large national brands, like ESPN. In addition, only people who have added you can view your profile on Snapchat. That barrier could prevent users from adding you since they can’t preview your content beforehand and have a sense of what they’re signing up for.

PRO: Building one-on-one relationships. On the flipside of discoverability, many brands can prefer the privacy of Snapchat because it allows them to build more meaningful one-on-one relationships with their followers.

CON: Advertising cost. The cost for Snap Ads campaigns start at $3,000/month in ad spend, which is fairly prohibitive for small businesses. The cost for Sponsored Lenses varies but largely runs as:

  • $450,000 per day Sunday through Thursday
  • $500,000 for Fridays and Saturdays
  • At least $700,000 for holidays or special events (like the Super Bowl)

Snapchat Discover ads, which get premium placement (at the top of the app), start at $50,000 per day and are usually reserved for publishers or big brands. However, Snapchat ads do allow you to link to your website or online store, while only a few content creators on TikTok are permitted to place links in their content. 

PRO: Unique audience. Because about 46 percent of Snapchat users aren’t on Instagram, according to recent research, being on Snapchat could be the only way to reach them. 

CON: Lack of analytics. Snapchat does not provide any analytics data except for ads, and many brands have had to track their Snapchat marketing activity manually. There are Snapchat analytics tools, but there are not many and the ones that are out there aren’t free. Snaplytics, for example, costs $19 per month per Snapchat account for metrics like completion rate, screenshots and views.

PRO: Temporary content isn’t always a bad thing. Brands can take advantage of the 24-hour limit by posting last-minute contests, deals or free giveaways. This is the type of content that doesn’t need to hang around after the promotion is over.

TikTok: Pros and Cons

PRO: It’s hot right now. According to analytics site Sensor Tower, TikTok has reached more than 1.5 billion total downloads on App Store and Google Play combined, and the app’s growth rate continues to grow.

CON: Advertising not fully set and reportedly expensive. TikTok’s ad product is still in its early days. For now, advertising is only offered on a CPM basis (cost per thousand impressions) as TikTok’s self-service ad platform is still in beta. Reports suggest that, like Snapchat, advertising on TikTok is incredibly expensive and requires a large budget, which makes it hard for smaller brands to jump into.

PRO: User-generated content embraced. TikTok can be effective for driving brand awareness with user-generated content (UGC) in the form of brand challenges, reactions, or filters. It’s all about the organic content creation process.

CON: Not right for all brands. TikTok’s users value humor and fleeting trends, which might not work for all brands.

PRO: Discoverability. TikTok is very much the youngest app compared with Instagram and Snapchat, but it still features more discoverability than Snapchat. It has a feed where users can see the content from who they’re following. They also can see content from others that TikTok’s algorithm thinks the user will be interested in. Users also have access to a Search page that includes a list of trending topics on the app. TikTok also allows users to instantly publish public videos, which is great for both branded and non-branded content.

CON: Website traffic not a feature. If you’re looking for website traffic, remember that the platform is still highly experimental and only allows certain brands to link their videos to web content.

PRO: Low budget not a deterrent. TikTok can work for brands with a very limited budget. Because of the format of the app, users can more easily find your company page and follow you. Users also can search for your content. This is the place where brands can really experiment with organic content. Right now, TikTok is like the Wild West of Gen Z-centric apps.

The key to remember comes down to what is right for your brand and what your goals are. Resource-wise, it’s typically best to start with one platform and get comfortable with your strategy there. Then, go ahead and add in another platform and spread your wings.