Blame it on Snapchat. Back in 2013, the upstart social network debuted Stories–vertical, ephemeral slideshows made of a mix of pics and videos shot by users over the course of a day. Snapchat’s teen users loved the format, though the rest of the social media universe took little notice . . . at least, not at first.
But then 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.
Now, a multitude of indicators point to a surprising conclusion: Stories are quietly eating the social world, fundamentally changing how we share and consume content on social media. For companies that rely on social media to reach their customers, this presents brand new opportunities—and some real challenges.
Stories represent yet another platform requiring attention–perhaps not welcome news for businesses already straining to manage content across multiple social channels. And while the old-fashioned newsfeed, a holdover from the desktop era, is well suited to short bursts of text or single images, Stories demand a mix of more time-intensive video, pics, and graphics.
But it’s difficult to ignore the power–and potential ROI–of the Stories format. According to the latest research, Stories are growing 15 times faster than newsfeeds. More than 1 billion users are already hooked on the format. In fact, Facebook’s own chief product officer, Chris Cox, has pretty much hitched the company wagon to Stories, noting, “The Stories format is on a path to surpass feeds as the primary way people share things with their friends sometime next year.”
In other words, embracing the Story format may no longer be an option for businesses, but a requirement. Indeed, it’s estimated that four of five major brands have already gotten onboard. Getting it right, however, isn’t easy.
Millennials and gen-Zers have grown up saturated with digital marketing and “content.” (Some 293,000 status updates are now posted on Facebook every minute.) They’ve learned to tune out banner ads and can smell a sales pitch a mile away. Companies hoping to reach them with Stories need to provide true value: to entertain, inform, or educate, not just sell. Far from a direct marketing or sales play, Stories are a branding opportunity, with little place for a heavy-handed call to action.
Here’s a quick survey of some effective early Stories adopters, revealing key principles that can help companies looking to ride the next social wave.
Invest in creativity
Stories work best when they integrate video, text, images, and more. Though they might look “off the cuff,” they often have higher production value and require greater technical expertise than a typical Tweet or Facebook post. 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.” Narrative and storytelling–those buzzwords of content marketing–are table stakes.
Juice brand Tropicana immediately recognized the potential of higher production-value Instagram Stories to boost awareness and sales among young adults. In an especially successful campaign, they combined mouthwatering pour shots of juice being mixed into festive drinks like Sangria. Hand-draw text and arrows offered mixing instructions, and users were invited to “Swipe Up” for the full recipe. The result: an 18-point lift in ad recall and measurable boost in purchase intent.
Use the multimedia format to show products in action
The traditional packshot–a sterile image of a product sealed tightly in its packaging–has little place in the realm of Stories. Successful brands are instead using the multimedia format to show how products fit into the context of customers’ lives. Tapping into influencers–users with loyal followings of their own–to create and share product Stories enables companies to extend their reach and access an already bought-in audience.
Case in point: Skincare company Dr. Brandt has used Instagram Stories to boost its following from 30,000 at the end of 2016 to more than 80,000 today. Its Stories integrate professional images and videos of its cosmetics products, like the popular “mattifying hydrator,” with before-and-after demonstrations and tutorials on how to apply the product. Shoppers can even swipe up when viewing a Story to initiate checkout. By enabling shopping functionality on their Instagram Stories, Dr. Brandt was able to achieve a 500% increase in direct sales.
Balance production value with 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). Finding this balance isn’t necessarily easy, and even some of the world’s leading media brands have had to experiment.
After tracking its Instagram performance, the Guardian made an interesting discovery: Highly scripted Stories were not providing the expected return on investment. In contrast, their more spontaneous, less polished Stories–like their “explainer” videos–performed much better. These low-fi Stories also feature young presenters and use more casual language (like emojis) that has resonated much better with their digital audience. On the strength of their Stories efforts, the Guardian grew their Instagram followers from 860,000 to 1 million in just four months.
Let users take center stage
Effective Stories capitalize on a fundamental attribute of many millennial and gen-Z users: The desire to share their own pics and videos and literally see themselves on screen, rather than just watch others. Brands finding success with Stories have found ways to elicit high-quality, user-generated content from fans, then incorporate that into their own efforts, streamlining production while at the same time cashing in on users’ “social capital” to enhance their own credibility.
Coworking company WeWork has built its brand on the idea of community, and their “behind-the-scenes” Instagram Story content exemplifies that. Whether it’s celebrating a book launch in London or Pride Month in Mexico City, their Stories feel raw and real because they feature the actual experiences of customers using their work spaces. WeWork also allows members to host Story takeovers to show a day-in-the-life at their offices. The ephemeral nature of Story content allows them to play around with quick, insider peeks into the company, while the “Highlight” feature allows them to permanently display high-performing Stories.
Though the format continues to evolve, Stories aren’t going away. 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. Meanwhile, each passing month brings innovations that add versatility, from ever more sophisticated stickers and face filters to the integration of advanced AR functionality that lets users create their own interactive doodles. What’s increasingly clear is that for a new wave of digital natives, Stories are largely synonymous with social media itself, while the newsfeed–once Facebook’s defining innovation–may be receding in prominence.