The Magic of Stories & how Instagram took it further
Stories is one of the most innovative digital consumer products in the last decade, maybe even the most innovative. It debuted on Snap in October of 2013 originally as a collection of snaps with sight sound & motion, all taken in the last 24 hours. Stories became so pervasive that when Instagram borrowed inspiration from Snap, the product format and brand largely became commoditized. Later every company from Twitter to LinkedIn to Slack ended up building their own version of a Story product. Stories at this point have undergone “product genericization”.
Dialing back to Snap circa 2014 - 2015, the impact of Stories was undeniable and for two primary reasons. Stories made the content “cheap” to produce, and “cheap” to consume. Stories as a product offering effectively lowered the bar on both sides of the supply and demand curve.
Lowering the Barrier to Create & Consume
On the creator side, Stories lowered the barrier to entry for publishing. Every phone had a good enough camera by that time, and the camera had clearly become the dominant publishing mechanism for mobile devices. So it was easy to take a collection of snaps or a short video; far more so than publishing a text based status update on Twitter or Facebook. Instead of pigeon pecking away on a small digital keyboard, the author could just hold their thumb down and release, then publish.
Also important for creators was the fact that these Stories disappeared in 24 hours. This move to ephemeral content was huge as more people were becoming concerned with the consequences of long-lived content coming back to haunt the author at a future date. So the commitment to publish was small, and the potential consequences of preserved content were no longer something to worry about.
The bar was also heavily lowered on the consumption side. For the viewer, a 10 second clip is extremely easy to digest. And with the content disappearing in just 24 hours, there was a real sense of fomo that turned Story consumption into a daily habit. Viewers didn’t want to miss out - so they came back the next day, and the day after that, to view more Stories. Probably the most clever approach to converting WAU to DAU this side of the Facebook News Feed.
Instagram’s Embrace & Extend
Fast forward just a few short years later, and Instagram launched their flavor of Stories. While they certainly borrowed inspiration from Snap, Insta also deserves credit for successfully grafting a new product experience onto an existing app. Most apps typically do one thing really well (in Insta’s case: photos), and these behavioral patterns tend to calcify with time. But Instagram did some very unique things with their product integration of Stories that gave it a competitive edge, and these approaches are missing from Reels - a reason I believe that product hasn’t taken off for Instagram. Let’s look at some of the innovative approaches that Instagram took with their Stories offering.
There are several things that Instagram has done to take Stories further, particularly around placement in the app. When Insta bundled Stories directly into the product, they put it at the very top of the feed - this was a critical information architecture decision that immediately set the product up for success.
Not every user is going to hit the explore tab, or any other tab for that matter - in fact, most of them won’t. But every daily active user is going to hit the home tab upon launching the app, and there are Stories just waiting for them. By merchandising Stories at the top of the feed in the home tab, users would inevitably & repeatedly be exposed to the Stories product at the beginning of every single session.
Multiple Entry Points
Unlike Reels, which has a separate tab and is mildly sprinkled through the explore tab, the moment that a user opens Instagram they immediately have 3 to 4 tap targets readily available to start their consumption journey. And with a simple swipe of the thumb, that user can quickly traverse the carousel of Stories to see many more entry points. This level of accessibility & top level diversity of content makes starting down the consumption path so much easier. By the time the user has arrived at this stage, they have a very simple binary choice to make: tap on one of the many Story entry points, or scroll down into the feed.
No cognitive load with auto advance
Should the user decide to go down the consumption path, there is no further cognitive load for that user. Simply tapping an entry point enables Stories to continue auto playing forward. There are literally no additional choices for the user to make after that: they can continue to consume Story content freely and without interruption. This auto advance of the media stream removes the burden of choice, and that lack of friction enables them to continue going down the Story rabbit hole until they initiate an exit.
Snap deserves a ton of credit for actually inventing the Story format. But Instagram deserves an equal amount of credit for meaningfully integrating the product into an overarching system, far better than any other app has done. This was key to the growth, usage, and ultimately success of Stories on Insta. Instagram took Stories to the next level because of how they integrated the offering: by making it extremely accessible, creating playful entry patterns, and removing cognitive friction to facilitate sustained engagement.
The integration of Stories into Instagram is a case study in great product thinking, and one worth studying in depth. Particularly if you’re a product manager or designer trying to graft a new behavioral pattern into an existing service, or if you’re just trying to think through how adoption happens after the product launch. In other words, how do you build a new usage pattern into the system to best set your feature up for success? Instagram did this masterfully with Stories, and would benefit from thinking through similar adoption approaches with products such as Reels.