TikTok vs Instagram: which is best for paid media advertising?

Unless you have a ludicrously fun job at an outrageously successful company, your budget for paid media is unlikely to be infinite. That means you need to spend in a way that’s accountable – with the greatest likelihood of generating positive returns. So what’s better for paid media advertising: TikTok or Instagram?

Apologies. There’s no quick answer. The decision is multifactorial. Of course it is. Finding the optimum platform for your paid social activities depends on your product or service, your audience, your wider marketing strategy and a thousand other moving parts.

Yet, there are certain comparisons we can make, certain conclusions we can draw, that will make it easier to reach a decision that’s right for your brand, your budget and your ambitions.

Before we dive in…

At Adbetter we help brands get big, really big, returns from their digital media spend. We know which levers to pull. We know when to pull them. And we only partner with a client when we know we can drive positive returns. Could you be next? It’s completely free to find out.

“The digital strategy the Adbetter team created for us immediately started paying for itself several times over in just the first month, by delivering significant new customer revenue. It also has allowed us to open up our customer base to new audiences that I never thought would be our target audience.”

Kiana Djazeb, Director & Founder, Snatch & Glow

TikTok vs Instagram: Torn? Choose both.

Why agonise over it? It doesn’t have to be either/or. Ideally you would experiment across both platforms and optimise your output accordingly. But if you do only have the budget or time for one channel, there’s a strong case for focusing your efforts on TikTok.

For the moment, returns on Instagram tend to trump those of TikTok. But TikTok is growing fast. Really fast. It’s becoming almost inevitable that it’s the future of paid media advertising. Now is the time to experiment with what works for your brand. So you can double down on your efforts in the near future. Before your competitors arrive.

That’s the broad view. Now let’s look at some nuances.

TikTok and Instagram: The duel of the dashboards

Let’s be clear. With a bit of practice and know-how, both channels are easy to use in terms of getting your ads set up and monitoring performance. If we’re splitting hairs? TikTok edges it. Being the newer platform, TikTok has been able to bootstrap the knowledge that Instagram took years to iterate. But whichever platform you plump for, you can expect an intuitive experience.

We’ve written about posting your first lead gen ad on TikTok here:

>> Is TikTok good for lead generation?

TikTok and Instagram: The fight for ad formats

Both platforms offer a variety of ad types. Here’s a quick explainer on each of them.

TikTok

  • In-feed ads: In-feed ads appear as the user is scrolling through their For You Page. It’s the most organic way of displaying an ad, minimally disruptive and typically gets good engagement. Ads are skippable and can include a CTA button to a form or webpage.
  • Spark ads: With a Spark ad you can reuse existing organic content as your ad creative – whether it’s your own or someone else’s (you’ll need to ask them for permission). Again, these ads appear in the feed and can be skipped.
  • TopView ads: These ads appear right at the top of a user’s feed, before they begin scrolling. They are full screen and autoplay with sound.
  • Brand takeover ads: A five-second, full screen video displayed immediately after a user opens the app. Only one brand can be showcased in this space per day – meaning there is no competition. And your ad will be served to literally every user who opens TikTok that day. Prime real estate, with a price tag to match.
  • Branded effects: Create your own shareable stickers, filters and special effects for the TikTok masses to get creative with. Ideal for encouraging user generated content.
  • Branded hashtag challenges: Create a hashtag, own it and challenge TikTokers to get creative. Clicking a branded hashtag will take the user to a page describing the rules of the challenge. Again, it’s a great way to build the noise around your brand and generate a stack of user generated content. However, branded hashtags can be hijacked by people creating unrelated content.

Instagram

  • Photo ads: Single image ads that appear in a user’s feed. You can add a CTA to direct traffic to your profile or website.
  • Video ads: Again, video ads appear in a user’s feed and can be up to 60 minutes in length.
  • Carousel ads: Another ad that appears in a user’s feed. Showcase multiple images and/or videos in a carousel format. Swipey, swipey.
  • Collection ads: Appear in the feed and include a cover image or video followed by three product images. When a user taps the ad, they are served a full-screen landing page with a data capture element.
  • Shopping ads: Designed for ecommerce businesses, shopping ads take users directly to a product description page within the app – where they can complete purchases without leaving the platform.
  • Explore ads: These ads appear in the Explore section. Set your ads to appear here and your content will be shown to customers who already have similar interests and are within your target demographic.
  • Stories ads: Full-screen ads – typically videos – that are displayed while a user is browsing Stories.
  • Reels ads: Similar to Stories, these ads are usually videos – shown between Reels – and can be up to 60 seconds long.

TikTok and Instagram: The competition for creative

TikTok and Instagram are very different beasts. You can’t simply reuse content from one to the other. Well, you can. But it’s unlikely to garner the results you crave. Polished content is not the norm on TikTok. A rough-and-ready approach is the order of the day. Users want to see a brand’s human side. They want to be taken behind the curtain.

Think of it this way. If you were a fashion brand running a photoshoot, you’d put the finished images on Instagram, while on TikTok you’d have snippets of behind-the-scenes content – showing the setup, quickfire Q&As with the models, showcasing makeup techniques and so on. This approach draws the user in – and breaks down the traditional boundaries between the customer and the corporation.

This isn’t just a hunch. Or an educated guess. It’s a fact that’s backed up by research.  

  • TikTok users feel closer to brands that publish unpolished content featuring everyday people (source).
  • 74% of Gen Z and 72% of audiences over the age of 26 say that they most want to see funny content from brands (source).

If Instagram is polished, TikTok is candidly authentic. If Instagram is straight-laced, TikTok is humorous and light-hearted. Grab your phone, hit record and shoot vertically. Use movement, music and captions to hold the viewer’s attention. Embrace the opportunity to experiment.

For comprehensive ideas on how to nail your TikTok creative, take a look at our article:

>> What type of ads work best on TikTok?

TikTok and Instagram: The battle for the budgets

How much do TikTok ads cost?

How much do Instagram ads cost?

Those questions aren’t easy to answer. Not least because neither platforma have made their exact pricing policy public knowledge.

In short: cost varies based on:

  • The type of ad you are publishing.
  • The type of audience you are targeting.
  • The size of the audience you are targeting.
  • The timespan that your ad will run for.

Across both platforms you will be asked to set a budget for the standard in-feed ads. The platform will then tell you how many impressions, clicks or audience members you are likely to reach with that budget. Both platforms offer features to help you control your budget: setting a daily limit or pausing your campaign after a set budget is spent, for example.

The major difference with TikTok is that they have some seriously premium ad offerings. For Brand Takeover Ads or TopView Ads, for example, you are looking at tens of thousands of pounds for your campaign.

Paid media advertising can be a minefield. Let us help.

Knowing which platforms to use – and when – isn’t easy. Handing the reins to an expert like us can help. We consistently drive high ROI for our clients – with clear strategies, transparent reporting and predictable costs. If it isn’t cost negative for you to work with us, then we’re not doing our job properly. Take a look at our case studies.