In 2022, Instagram made big changes to the platform and pushed video content to the forefront. Suddenly, Reels were everywhere (and earning massive engagement and reach boosts), so users began to adapt their social media strategies accordingly. That is, until earlier this year.
That’s when Instagram head Adam Mosseri announced that the platform would reprioritize photos. Soon after, Instagram users started noticing that their Reels weren’t performing like they used to.
instagram aggressively deprioritizing reels overnight after making every brand completely pivot their social strategy will be my villain story 🥲
— Ashni Mehta (@ashnimehta_) February 13, 2023
That’s a lot of changes, so if you’re struggling to keep up with the Instagram algorithm these days, you’re not alone. As your friendly local social media scientists, we wanted to find out: is it true? Are photos really back?
To test this, we decided to pit carousels against Reels to find out if carousels are still the top-performing format on Instagram or if Reels displaced them for good.
Hypothesis: Instagram carousels still earn more reach and engagement than Reels.
We chose carousels as the photo format to test against Reels since they are traditionally considered the most engaging post type on Instagram. Carousels are more interactive than single photos, so people tend to spend more time engaging with them.
In fact, as recently as October 2022, carousels had the highest average engagement rate of all types of Instagram posts (0.62%). At the time, video posts (aka Reels) were right on their heels with an average engagement rate of 0.61%.
Hootsuite’s own social team finds that their carousel posts get 3.1x more engagement, on average, than their regular posts. But did the Great Reels Push of 2022 finally dethrone the champions, or have carousels managed to hang onto their position at the top of the heap?
For this experiment, we’re measuring two types of metrics: reach and engagement.
Reach tells you the number of people who have seen your post. Engagement includes likes, comments, saves and shares. They help you see what resonates with your audience.
My experiment spanned three weeks, from mid-February to early March 2023.
Here’s what I did:
- Every week, I would create two sets of posts for my vintage home decor business account, Dwelling on the Past
- Each set would include one carousel and one Reel with similar content and captions (six carousels and six Reels in total)
- My first set of the week would be educational, while my second set would be sales-focused
- I would post each set at the same time (Wednesday or Friday at 9am ET) and pull the results from each post after 48 hours
- At the end of each week, I would award 2 points: 1 point to the format with the highest total reach for that week, and 1 point to the format with the highest total engagement for that week
Armed with my theory and a plan, I jumped into my experiment.
My educational post this week was a recap of a magazine article about my shop:
My second post highlighted some available items. I’ve used this content type for a while, though I had yet to turn it into a Reel.
After each post had been live for 48 hours, I captured the results.
Week 1 results
In week 1, my carousels received more likes and saves than the Reels. However, my Reels had a broader reach than my carousels.
To be fair, I hadn’t posted a Reel in several weeks before starting this experiment. My followers were probably excited to see some video content and gave my Reels extra love and attention.
Week 1 results: Reels 1, Carousels 1
In Week 2’s educational post, I shared some favorite thrifting tips:
My “available items” recap post followed the exact same format as in Week 1. I used a trending audio clip for the Reel.
Week 2 results
In Week 2, carousels received WAY more likes and also saw more reach than my Reels.
Week 2 results: Reels 0, Carousels 2
My Week 3 educational post was a quick look at an interior decor trend. I tagged my favorite maximalist account, Jungalow (1.6M followers), in the Reel and the carousel to see if user-generated content (UGC) yielded any additional traction.
My “available items” recap post followed the exact same format as in Weeks 1-2:
Week 3 results
Once again, carousels received significantly more likes and reached more people than my Reels.
My UGC didn’t yield any direct results (the brand liked my post but didn’t share it), but hey, no harm done.
Week 3 results: Reels 0, Carousels 2
Bonus experiment: boosting a post
As my experiment came to an end, I wanted to take a look at how content format affects ad performance on Instagram.
For this bonus experiment, I boosted post #5 because the content of these posts is quite broad, and my Reel uses non-copyrighted music. (Instagram doesn’t allow users to boost a post with copyrighted music.)
My goal for this ad was to increase profile activity. I allocated the same dollar amount to the carousel and the Reel and let both ads run for 48 hours before pulling the results.
Post #5 results – Before & after ad
|Carousel 5 before ad||56||6||6||657||N/A||N/A|
|Carousel 5 after ad||72||7||8||1,711||N/A||27|
|Reel 5 before ad||23||6||2||324||466||N/A|
|Reel 5 after ad||45||6||4||1,398||1,709||42|
The post-ad results are split between the carousel and the Reel. The carousel ad had better reach, but the Reels ad yielded more profile activity, which was my goal.
Ultimately, both ads got more eyes on my content.
In the weekly tests, carousels earned 5 points, while Reels squeaked in with only 1 point. But here are the final numbers at the end of my experiment:
Note: I didn’t include ad results here to make sure the comparison is as fair as possible.
Overall, it seems like carousels are still the top-performing post type on Instagram.
If we look at the likes throughout my experiment, the carousels outperform the Reels every single time. While Reels earned more comments than carousels, carousels did better on every other engagement metric.
And if we look at reach, carousels perform slightly better than Reels.
I also had a look at how the past three weeks had affected my follower count and engagement rate:
After three weeks, I gained 53 new followers, and my post interactions are up by 32.6%. Not bad!
What’s better: Instagram carousels or Reels?
So, are Instagram carousels still outperforming Reels? In our admittedly limited study, yes: Instagram carousels continue to earn more engagement and reach than Reels do.
Still, whether carousels are better than Reels depends on your content type and audience.
I run a small business selling vintage items, so photos are key. A carousel allows me to post multiple photos so prospective buyers can inspect items before purchasing. This is how I sell, so carousels will always be more valuable to me than Reels.
Judging by the results of my experiment, carousels perform better for my account overall.
Different content types lend themselves more readily to video, so think about the kind of content you’re creating and how your audience will consume it. If videos make more sense for your account, then do that. But don’t post videos just for the sake of it! My data shows that this doesn’t necessarily pay off.
Keep your audience in mind when creating content. If you have a business account, follow these steps to see how your audience breaks down:
- Go to your Instagram profile
- Click the menu in the top right-hand corner (three horizontal bars)
- Click Insights
- Click Followers
- Scroll through to see various stats, including Top Locations, Age Range, Gender, and Most Active Times
In my case, over 90% of my followers are women, and most are millennials. As I continue to grow my business, I need to prioritize this demographic when developing future content.
To do this, I’ll continue experimenting with my content mix and check the metrics regularly to see what resonates with my audience. When in doubt, iterate!
Make content you like
Reels are a great way to give followers a glimpse into your daily life and show your personality, so create content that makes you happy!
Silly Reels that I filmed and edited together in just a few minutes did better than Reels that took a lot of time and energy. I love making off-the-cuff content, and it seems to resonate with my audience.
Don’t spend tons of time on a Reel
Viewers look at your content for a minute or two, so don’t spend hours putting it together! Make it interesting and fun, but don’t get too particular with exact synching or flawless transitions (unless that’s your whole thing) — a posted Reel is better than a perfect Reel.
Think of your own content as user-generated content (UGC)
If your Reel or carousel is relevant to a larger account or brand, tag them in your caption — social managers are always looking for UGC, and they might repost your content, which opens up a whole new audience!
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