When Snapchat launched Stories in October 2013, no one could have anticipated the ripple effect this would have across the software ecosystem. In the 7-years since its launch, every major consumer internet company has adopted its own flavor of Stories to give its users that familiar, lean back content consumption experience that they’ve grown accustomed to. Even though there’s no singular app that has monopolized consumer attention, it’s clear that the Story content format is the real winner of the mobile-first world.
The way companies with an ads-based business model make more money is relatively straightforward: get users to spend more time consuming relevant content and seeing more ads. For over a decade, consumer internet companies have been tweaking and improving upon the traditional feed-based content consumption model. First there was Google’s paginated results, followed by Facebook’s infinite scroll and Pinterest’s masonry grid. Each is designed to balance exploiting what the app already knows about its users with exploration of new topics adjacent to the user’s current preferences.
Stories were the first new discovery paradigm that completely changed the way social apps began to think about engaging with their users. Beyond just how users consume content, Stories also changed the way people thought about creating content. By making Stories temporal, the quality bar was lowered so users don’t have to overthink whether something they share should be a part of their permanent record on the internet. Suddenly, users weren’t worried about polluting their own self image (or their friends’ feeds) which made it a lot easier to create content at a much higher volume than they did with feed posts.
From a metrics perspective, it makes sense why this new paradigm is so attractive: Stories users end up spending more time in-app across more frequent sessions and end up direct messaging each other more, creating a virtuous feedback loop of engagement. In early 2019 Instagram reported that they had 500 Million daily active users of Stories, with 1 Billion monthly active users of the app overall! That DAU-to-MAU ratio is astounding, and something that’s understandably envious to the rest of the consumer app ecosystem.
While the cat’s out of the bag that Stories are the winning format for mobile, marketers are left scratching their heads about how to handle supporting all of these new native formats. Depending on a marketer’s type of business and target audience, they now has to deal with Instagram (Grid, Stories, Reels, IGTV), Snapchat, TikTok, Google (SEO, AMP Stories), Pinterest (Pins, Stories), Facebook (Posts, Stories), Twitter (Tweets, Fleets) and LinkedIn (Posts, Stories).
The proliferation of at-scale social networks presents a massive opportunity for marketers to reach their audience unlike ever before, but it comes with a very real cost. Each channel has its own rules, best practices and creative sizes which means a “one size fits all” approach just simply doesn’t work. Practically speaking this means that if a marketer wants to cross-promote a blog post across social networks today, they have to produce 4+ creative formats and publish it to 5+ channels. This leads to a meaningful decrease in velocity and increase in the time between publishing a blog post and actually being able to promote it. When combined with the fact that all of this hard work goes away after 24 hours, it’s clear that this is a very real challenge today.
Almost overnight, the bottleneck for marketers has become creating all of the design assets they need to maximize their reach and maintain their quality bar. Companies like the New York Times have dedicated 20+ person design teams just focused on solving this problem, but for the average company this isn’t even a distant possibility. More likely, the marketer has a shared design resource with other parts of the company, and is relegated to jump into design tools themselves to try and make ends meet.
Stories are the straw that broke the marketer’s back, and with their recent widespread adoption will come a new wave of products that are meant to make the process of generating stories and other social content dramatically easier. Today marketers have 3 choices for producing stories: native creation tools, templated design tools, or pro design tools.
We’re at the beginning of a new era of design tooling that generates beautiful, on-brand social content automatically. This fourth type of tool will let marketers remix their existing content into all of the relevant formats to power their social strategies. These tools won’t automate the role of the designer or marketer, but instead elevate their position from being the executor to the strategist.