What was the most significant announcement from the tech giant keynotes in recent weeks? It’s not the ability to now find your significant other on Facebook or get a robot to call a hair salon, but it has everything to do with user behaviour on social platforms.
Facebook’s reveal that next year Stories updates will overtake content shared to news feeds is worth paying attention to as, if nothing else, it shows a fundamental change in user behaviour and has implications that go beyond leaping on a popular feature because everybody else is doing the same and well into media planning and measurement.
The user numbers mentioned in Techcrunch’s original reporting on the matter are not insignificant. Instagram Stories has 300m daily users. Facebook’s much-maligned Stories feature has hit 150m daily users and will soon have an ad format available. WhatsApp Stories, which rarely get much attention, has 450m daily users. Outside of Facebook, Snapchat has around 150m users of Stories, while YouTube, Netflix, and Google all have their own versions of the ephemeral feature.
So, why do these numbers matter? Think of it as social media’s version of “more searches on mobile than desktop” moment. The behaviour shift won’t suddenly cause a mass abandonment of the newsfeed, but will start to impact gradually over time. SEO
professionals who’ve seen clients late to grasp the implications of mobile on search will appreciate this. Put simply, more time spent viewing and creating Stories means less time spent viewing and sharing to the newsfeed.
Stories present a more unfiltered view of the world. There’s less polish, less finesse, more in-the-moment. They’re designed to work best with people (or companies, if we must) who you have a closer relationship to. They’re fleeting, with no posterity. If you miss it, you miss it and if an update doesn’t grab you, it’s easier than ever to skip. You have one chance to make an impression.
For those who rely on social media as part of their business model, it raises some interesting questions. Influencer are probably least as risk, partly because it’s a natural extension of their work and partly because they’re already relative heavy users. Move out of the platform to brands and publishers that’s not necessarily the case.
For publishers, it means a different way of telling a story - one that’s more visual and broke up into digestible chunks. In some ways, it encourages journalism to be made clearer, which is no bad thing, as storytelling often benefits from a less-is-more approach. And if you think this format leads to the dumbing down of journalism, two of the best proponents of Stories storytelling are The Economist and Financial Times.
The Stories format is fascinating as it’s also emerging as a traffic driver from a platform that has been notoriously difficult to get people out of the app. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, where teasing and driving to an own-channel platform can often be an inelegant user experience, Stories naturally encourages a user to discover more.
It’s not just traffic driving, but actual conversion as well. Digiday has already noted that the likes of Quartz and National Geographic are using the format to drive newsletter sign ups. So a format designed to be quick consumption actually lends itself nicely to a push for more to anyone craving extra depth.
For brands, though, it requires a slight rethink. In a world of tightly controlled algorithms, a need for paid to achieve anything meaningful, and a focus towards conversion-based metrics, Stories is more organic, engagement-driven and dependent on followers. For brands that have pivoted away from engagement, it presents an interesting dilemma whether or not to prioritise building an audience to reach through Stories.
At this stage, it would be custom to write a paragraph about the balance between paid, owned and earned, but I’m very circumspect about advertising through Stories, notwithstanding the majority of these formats don’t allow advertising yet. In a digital word that makes it easier-than-ever to ignore advertising, Instagram Stories and Snapchat are probably the simplest format ever created to skip. One thumb tap completed in half a second or less.
Facebook’s research house, IQ, has released best practice guidelines for Stories, which reinforces much of their general advice for news feed adverts: keep it short, put your brand and message in the first frame, and keep it snappy. What they haven’t released is any data around skipping rates or average view, and while there’s a few case studies on Instagram’s site, there’s precious little detail.
One of Instagram’s featured studies from Danone attributes an impressive 22 point increase in ad recall and a 6 point rise in purchase intent from Stories but is light on detail and doesn’t dive into any methodology, although I’ve no doubt those involved were impressed with the results.
But trying to find non-Instagram supplied case studies with meaningful metrics is much like searching for Winnie The Pooh’ Heffalumps. One example I did find was through Social Media Examiner, where the Story achieved an expectation-exceeding video completion rate of 24%, which by my maths equates to about 3.5 seconds if they use the full 15 seconds or less if they don’t. You can see why I remain a little skeptical.
If this sounds a bit pessimistic on Stories advertising, consider a US study from customer acquisition firm Fluent, which suggested 69% of Americans always or often skip adverts on Snapchat, a figure that rises to 80% for the 18-24 audience. It may also explain why Snapchat is making a non-skippable format available to advertisers.
This doesn’t mean we should all be rushing out to pivot our activities to Stories, although it certainly doesn’t hurt to understand what pushes people’s buttons creatively and experimenting with the functionality of the format. But fundamentally it shouldn’t change a brand’s strategic approach.
If any of the Stories platforms are an important channel for your audience then fill your boots. If you’ve run your audience planning and there’s no benefit, then divert your money and efforts to a platform that will hit your goals. And if you’d like to play around a bit and work out what works, then at least be clear what you’re looking to measure and test if you are creating Stories. And above all, follow The Economist’s lead and make it interesting.
Of course, there is one even bigger format than Stories, if Facebook is to be believed, which already has more visual sharing than the News Feed and Stories combined. But then private messaging isn’t exactly a brand or advertiser friendly environment, unless you have a sophisticated social media customer service program.
And if you’re creating a coherent, long lasting strategy for the likes of Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram direct messages and Snapchat’s core messaging facility that doesn’t involve a quirky chatbot then I suspect you’re about to make yourself the toast of the boardroom.
Mercerbell managing editor Gary Andrews