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Instagram co-founder and CEO Kevin Systrom
Instagram co-founder and CEO Kevin Systrom
Dimitrios Kambouris / Getty

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‘Stories’ was Instagram’s smartest move yet

Can it become Facebook’s next big business?

Two years ago, Instagram did something that felt a little desperate: It copied the best product from a direct competitor, and even gave it the same name. Snapchat Stories were suddenly Instagram Stories.

It was a bold move. Silicon Valley is full of copycats, and Facebook, which owns Instagram, is one of the most shameless. But this felt particularly blatant.

Copying Snapchat wasn’t just about kneecapping Snapchat, still seen by many as Facebook’s greatest threat — and one that had rejected its overtures, even with billions of dollars attached to them.

It was also public acknowledgment that Instagram had a problem: The glamorous photos and videos that the app had become known for were now too glamorous. The bar for what was “Instagram-worthy” was so high that its users were starting to get intimidated. People don’t climb mountains, eat at fancy restaurants or take beautiful beach vacation photos every day. That meant people weren’t posting to Instagram every day, either.

“The biggest problem [people had] with Instagram is feeling the pressure of sharing really amazing photos,” CEO Kevin Systrom told Recode last summer. “People want to actually share a lot more, but they don’t want it to hang on the gallery wall.”

Stories, which disappear after 24 hours and are easily shot and decorated right in the Instagram app, represented a low-pressure alternative to Instagram’s high-pressure photo feed.

Two years later, it’s clear that launching Stories was the best decision Instagram ever made — and more broadly, one of the best things to come out of Facebook.

Stories didn’t save Instagram — it didn’t need saving — but there’s no doubt it super-charged it. Instagram Stories has attracted more than 400 million daily users and changed the way people share and consume things online.

And it seems to have taken real momentum away from Snapchat, which saw its user growth rate slow soon after Instagram Stories launched. Yesterday, Snap announced it lost three million users last quarter — its first decline ever.

There isn’t just one reason why Instagram Stories worked. There are a lot of them.

Perhaps the most important is that Stories alleviated some of the pressure that users felt when posting to their Instagram account.

Stories are supposed to be spontaneous, realistic and fun — a simple slice of real life, or a daily video journal. Most Stories content is shot casually and quickly through the Instagram app’s camera. And because viewers control playback — it’s easy to advance through a story at the pace you desire or skip it entirely — time-consuming video editing isn’t required.

Videos can be shaky or blurry. They can feel raw and unpolished. They can sometimes get tedious. But because they’re full-screen in the mobile-native vertical format, they’re instantly engaging, especially on larger smartphones.

Instagram makes it easy to add things like text, captions, stickers and GIFs to photos and videos. And it regularly introduces new features for Stories, such as face filters — another blatant Snapchat clone — and polls. These make Stories more sophisticated and interactive, but also keep them feeling fresh.

What resulted was a rethinking of what belonged on Instagram. Company execs said at the time that Instagram had become a place for the “highlights” in your life — the picture-perfect meal you ate or the ski trip you took. Stories, former Instagram product boss Kevin Weil explained, gave people a chance to share “everyday moments that make up your life between those highlights.”

Stories also benefited immensely from Instagram’s built-in network of users.

Unlike Snapchat, which always felt more intimate — private photo and video messaging is still its top use case — Instagram Stories took advantage of the fact that hundreds of millions of people had already created an enjoyable Instagram feed, following friends, family, local businesses, celebrities and influencers. So there was a built-in audience from day one, and a healthy supply of Stories to watch.

Instagram also put Stories right at the top of its app, making it the first thing everyone saw when they opened Instagram. It remains there.

One thing missing from Instagram Stories was a re-posting feature — it was hard for something to go viral in Stories. But users quickly improvised, re-posting screenshots from others’ Stories on their own, often with annotations or comments.

An example is the impromptu community that sprang up on Instagram Stories this past winter around a cookie — sorry, the cookie: Alison Roman’s salted chocolate chunk shortbread cookies from her debut cookbook, Dining In.

The cookies are very good; interesting enough on their own to become wildly popular. But as Roman’s fans and followers tried the recipe, posting the baking process, finished cookies and even baking questions to their Instagram Stories, Roman smartly screen-grabbed, captioned and re-posted a handful at a time. This created a feedback loop, and let Roman’s followers — she now has 132,000 — feel like they were in on something together.

“The point in showcasing that other people were making it — and, like, a lot of people — was that, yes, people are making it, people are cooking it,” Roman told Recode. “And that inspired other people to do it. And then that inspired more people to do it. It was kind of this snowball effect, and it was really cool.”

(Bonus: “It was this really, pretty much exclusively positive thing, and the internet can be this really dark and shitty place,” she said. “And the fact that people were baking cookies, and I was showing that — it was a really nice thing.”)

Instagram added an instant re-posting feature for Stories in June.

How big is Instagram stories?

Its 400 million daily users is more than twice the number of users Snapchat has for its entire app. It is arguably the fastest-growing media format ever. Some 31 percent of Instagram users post a Story every month, according to a recent survey from RBC Capital, up from 21 percent a year prior. And 47 percent of users watch them at least weekly, up from 32 percent a year ago.

And while Instagram has gently guided its algorithms toward highlighting your real-life friends, personalities can still amass very large audiences.

WE Day California To Celebrate Young People Changing The World
Lele Pons had Instagram’s most-watched Stories last year.
Photo by Jesse Grant/Getty Images for WE

Lele Pons, the wildly popular actress and comedian who first gained fame on Vine, generated more views on Instagram Stories last year than anybody else in the world, including Kim Kardashian and Brazilian soccer star Neymar. She gets four million viewers on average per Story, says John Shahidi, CEO of Shots Studios, who manages Pons and a number of other rising internet stars.

People are also spending more time inside Instagram than ever before. Instagram’s Android users in the U.S. spent more than 53 minutes per day using Instagram in June, according to data from SimilarWeb. That’s almost double the 28 minutes per day those users were logging a year earlier. We can’t tie that growth directly to Stories, though it’s likely a big factor.

In an interview, Systrom wouldn’t specify how much time users spend on Stories, but did say that Stories had become “almost just as important” as Instagram’s main feed.

“Instagram Stories has kind of become the world’s greatest cure for boredom,” said BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield, who covers Facebook and the rest of the media industry. “It’s incredible. It’s an addictive format — the full screen, that it blends pictures and video — it’s just a great experience.”

Stories also has the potential of becoming Instagram’s — and therefore Facebook’s — next big business. Full-screen, engaging video ads seem like an easy sell to advertisers once they figure out the format. Internet companies have long tried to win advertising budgets that were earmarked for television, and Facebook’s efforts around video advertising have been underwhelming so far. If Instagram Stories are the new TV, will TV ad dollars follow?

On that front, it is very early. On Facebook’s last earnings call, Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said that people are spending so much time in Stories — a place where the company sells ads, but not at the rate it sells them in the Facebook News Feed — that it will even contribute to slower revenue growth for the company.

“Will this monetize at the same rate as News Feed?” Sandberg asked. “We honestly don’t know.” But, she said, “there are good reasons to be very optimistic.”

Facebook and Instagram’s issues right now have nothing to do with a lack of advertiser demand, Greenfield says. Vertical video is still a relatively new format, and there just aren’t enough advertisers creating vertical video ads yet to fill all the inventory Facebook and Instagram are offering. (Facebook is trying to help automate that process.)

“From a purely financial perspective this is certainly a cause for concern,” Stratechery author Ben Thompson recently wrote, “but from a strategic perspective it means that Instagram is in an even stronger position than it was previously. Remember, revenue and profit are lagging indicators, and the explosion in Instagram Stories is an extreme example of why that is such an important fact to keep in mind.”

Stories are now so popular and mainstream that Instagram has moved to professionalize the format. Instagram thinks its users — young people in particular — might watch vertical videos that are up to an hour long, the way that people have historically watched television.

Instagram’s version of this “new TV” is called IGTV. And despite a nagging electric banner at the top of the app to promote new videos, it seemingly hasn’t caught fire in the immediate way Stories did.

Some have criticized it as a feature that’s been added to Instagram because it’s a corporate priority — not something users want or need.

A recent visit to IGTV featured YouTube star iJustine testing a “Naked 3D Body Scanner!” (about 140,000 views), a NASA Mars helicopter video (86,000 views) and a San Francisco Giants compilation of Barry Bonds home runs (5,000 views).

“The IGTV product approach is very focused on helping people connect with creators in a mobile-native vertical video format,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on the company’s recent earnings call, “and helping people not only see content that they love from people that they want to follow but build a community around those creators, which is what we see people are trying to do.”

Will it work? We’ll see.

Either way, Instagram has turned a stolen idea into a massive hit. And Systrom doesn’t want that success to go down in history with an asterisk next to it.

“Did we in fact try to make it our own over time?” Systrom asked — reflecting on when Instagram first launched Stories and everyone compared it to Snapchat. “Two years later, I think we have a track record of doing that.”

“My point is, yes it worked,” Systrom said. “And two, yes we were able to make it our own.”

This article originally appeared on

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