In an age of declining trust, are “Stories” social media’s saviour?

Photo credit: Marco Verch | Flickr

Back in 2006, Facebook unveiled a new feature so radical — and so controversial — that it provoked mass outrage and widespread calls for a boycott. They called it the News Feed.

In place of a static profile, users logging in were instead greeted by a constantly updated list of their friends’ posts and activities. And, despite the initial backlash, it caught on. As the network raced past 1 billion users, then 2 billion, the News Feed was there every step of the way — virtually synonymous with the platform itself.

But that may all be about to change. A multitude of new stats point to one, slightly shocking conclusion: the news feed is old news. And not just on Facebook. Across multiple social platforms, there’s a new format on the block. And according to the latest research, it’s growing 15 times faster than old-fashioned feeds.

I’m talking about Stories — the vertical, ephemeral slideshows typically comprised of a mix of pics, videos and graphics shot and made by users over the course of a day. Debuted by Snapchat way back in 2013, Stories have since gone on to quietly eat the social media universe. Originally embraced mainly by Snapchat’s teen users, Stories were copied by Facebook and introduced to a much wider audience on Instagram in 2016. Facebook itself, as well as its messaging platforms WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, rolled out Stories in 2017.

Today, there are some 300 million daily users of Stories on Instagram, on top of 450 million daily users on WhatsApp and 150 million daily users on Facebook itself. Add in Snapchat (150 million daily Story users) and Facebook Messenger (70 million), and more than 1 billion social accounts are hooked on the format.

In fact, Facebook’s own chief product officer, Chris Cox, has pretty much hitched the company wagon to Stories as the format of the future. Earlier this year, he shared a chart showing how “the Stories format is on a path to surpass feeds as the primary way people share things with their friends sometime next year.” Already, Facebook is testing a new composer for its News Feed that shows an active camera, to further incentivize users to create Stories. And the Messenger app has moved its camera to a more prominent position in the top corner, while also showcasing Stories shared from Facebook and Instagram.

The ascent of Stories

It’s easy to understand Stories’ appeal. For starters, the news feed concept is largely a hold-over from Facebook’s origins in the desktop era. Users tethered to their computers were limited to sharing short text bursts — blurbs about breakfast, interesting links, etc. — so a scrolling feed of updates made sense. But the widespread adoption of smartphones, each generation armed with ever more powerful cameras, changed the kind of content that could be captured and shared. Stories — a happy meld of video, images and graphics shot and made on the fly — are much better suited to users’ mobile-first lifestyles, offering a 360-degree view of an experience that an ordinary status update just can’t match.

The popularity of Stories also reflects an increasing demand for privacy — or, at least, intimacy — among users, especially in the era of Cambridge Analytica, cyber trolls and fake news. In contrast to traditional updates, Stories are generally designed to disappear from networks forever after 24 hours, leaving little personal data to be mined afterward (though it’s always possible to take a screenshot). Meanwhile, Stories aren’t necessarily meant to be “shared” or “liked” in the same way as a traditional post, offering a reprieve from the vanity metrics that rule other social formats. For many users, this translates to a medium that’s less serious, more spontaneous and often far more fun that traditional posting.

Zooming out, Stories may be serving an even more critical role for social media: restoring user confidence and reactivating interest. In the wake of years of controversy and aggressive data collection, trust in social media has plunged to record lows, with some research indicating that Facebook use actually declined this year. As the name suggests, Stories manage to put the human story — what made social media so compelling to begin with — front and center once more. Users flock to a format where creativity, spontaneity and real drama finally trump clickbait and mass-produced recipe videos.

Stories for companies?

For companies who rely on social media to reach their customers, this presents both brand new opportunities and challenges. As noted by TechCrunch’s Josh Constine, “advertisers must rethink their message not as a headline, body text, and link, but as a background, overlays, and a feeling that lingers even if viewers don’t click through.” In other words, firing off a Tweet, sharing a link to the latest company blog post or blasting out a static ad no longer cuts it in the Stories era.

Businesses finding success are pairing ad money with an equivalent investment of time and creativity. Brands like Spotify and Netflix have seen substantial rewards in doubling down on highly personalized, highly entertaining Stories. And new Story-first social archetypes have already emerged in different industries: make-up tutorials among models and cosmetics companies; athlete warm-ups and pre-game rituals for sports teams; in-depth photojournalism pieces among traditional media outlets.

Not surprisingly, executing great Stories is putting extra demands on the skill set of social media teams. Specialists once tasked with writing pithy updates are now being asked to incorporate videography, photography, graphic design and scriptwriting, not to mention more advanced skills like motion graphics and augmented reality. Another challenge: finding the right balance between production value and authenticity. Users expect a certain degree of polish from brands, but too much editing can rob a Story of its authenticity (not to mention require an outlay of time and money hard to justify for content that often disappears).

For large consumer brands used to churning out dozens of social media updates a day, figuring out ways to scale time-intensive Stories — while maintaining a personal touch — is also a work in progress. The absence of a robust API for Instagram Stories, i.e. the data firehose that powers third-party apps, makes scheduling and measuring engagement and ROI exceedingly hard, at least for the moment.

But what’s becoming clear is that Stories aren’t going away, In fact, for a new wave of digital natives, Stories are largely synonymous with social media itself, while the newsfeed is slowly becoming a thing of the past. Indeed, the ability for users to “highlight” their Stories — and preserve them as long as they like — already hints at the evolution of the format into something more central and durable.

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