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You can’t go anywhere on social media without seeing the Stories format being used.
If that statement was said a year ago, when it was exclusively being used by Snap in its flagship app, it would have been followed by statements proclaiming that the company has crossed the chasm and will undoubtedly be the third digital marketing megapower behind Facebook and Google.
Life can come at you fast though, especially when you're in the consumer tech space.
In less than 12 months, the Stories format is now prevalent on the Instagram, Messenger, WhatsApp and Facebook apps, thus making the intentions of the largest aggregator of human attention abundantly obvious.
However, Facebook is not the only entity to have taken inspiration. Medium’s version of the format, “Series”, is less than a month old. Clips, announced just last week, is Apple’s attempt to also get involved in the space.
With the proliferation of mobile storytelling heading fast towards visual content overlaid with filters and emojis, it begs the question, how should brands respond?
From Feature to Format
There is no doubt that what was once an exclusive part of Snapchat is now a part of a growing numbers of apps and platforms where consumers spend the bulk of their time.
Whether or not Facebook / Instagram were underhand in imitating the feature is now irrelevant; it's now a format that hundreds of millions are going to be exposed to in the coming months. With that change should follow a change of tack for marketers and others interested in getting the attention of consumers.
It no longer makes sense to avoid Stories because your customer is not on Snapchat. Stories is going to be a commonplace feature, with consumers likely trying it out on multiple platforms and, more importantly, seeing how others use the format too.
It is already being described as the new news feed, which may not be far from the truth if users flock to the format on Facebook in the same way users have done on Instagram (There are now as many people using Stories on Instagram as there are using the entire Snapchat app).
If this is truly the case, marketers that are not experienced in the format, should start building the expertise, lest they get left behind.
Stories is now a language marketers need to learn
The nuts and bolts of a Story are mostly the same, regardless of which app you are using:
- Video and picture content presented (mostly) vertically, completely natural in a smartphone-driven world.
- Stories are told in chronological order, rather than the reverse chronology of the old Twitter timeline / Instagram feed, or the algorithmic feed made popular by Facebook.
- Images are normally overlaid with text, music, filters, emojis and other things. The assortment of options is unique to each platform for the time being, but whether that changes or not remains to be seen.
This combination of elements, in particular the camera function, is uniquely enabled by smartphones, which the creators and imitators of the formats have more than embraced.
Snap CEO Evan Spiegel:
In the way that the flashing cursor became the starting point for most products on desktop computers, we believe that the camera screen will be the starting point for most products on smartphones.
Messenger Day product manager, Tony Leach:
We like to think of the camera as the new keyboard.
This marks a significant change from the content currently being posted on social feeds. Most of this content is strictly one format: Links, text, pictures, videos, that stand side by side in contained units.
What the format of Stories has created is a mobile-friendly canvas for users to create experiences where pictures, videos, sounds, words and more can come together. This will require even more creativity from marketers on a more frequent basis, if they are going to use Stories as a format effectively.
Yet another format to add to the mix
However, just because Stories is “the new news feed”, that doesn’t mean the feed format is obsolete.
While Stories is currently being used to tie together the in-between moments that make up a user’s daily narrative, the feed / timeline is just as important in its role of showing off the best moments a user has to offer; hero content, if you will.
On top of this, despite Zuckerberg’s clear eye for products and features that garner consumer attention, to date his company has only created significant revenue from feed-based products.
As social platforms continuously seek to find the optimal balance between showing users content from friends and family vs. brands vs. professional content producers, it is probably safe to assume that marketers will still need to continue creating engaging content for the feed, as well as content for their Stories.
Consequently, as the Stories format gains adoption, brands will have to make real decisions about how to distribute resources among the different formats and platforms they use for social media.
Don’t forget to think about ads too
It goes without saying that at some point, marketers will need to take the ad formats that go in between each story seriously, probably sooner rather than later.
Thus far, such ads on Snapchat can only be executed through the use of a Snapchat partner, while Instagram only made global advertising for Stories available at the beginning of March. As the format increases in popularity, you can guarantee Facebook will switch on ads for its other properties too.
Advertising creative in this format will be markably different to ads for other formats, which only adds to the learning curve marketers will need to go through.
Marketers will be best served to start experimenting on this in small pockets on Instagram as soon as possible (and Snapchat if you have the budget), to ensure that their brand will be in the best position to capitalise when the time is right.
While Stories being copied may be problematic for Snapchat, it also puts the onus on marketers to get to grips with yet another format.
It may take some time for the format to take off, but every second that your brand is not making these stories, it’s another second your competitor could be gaining valuable experience and marketshare at your expense.
That said, as Facebook has clearly shown, sometimes there is nothing wrong with waiting to see how things go, before having the audacity to copy well.