Instagram Direct one-ups Snapchat with replay privacy controls

Messaging is the heart of Snapchat, so after cloning and augmenting Stories, Instagram is hoping to boost intimate usage of Direct with privacy controls not found elsewhere. Now when you send an ephemeral photo or video from the Instagram Direct camera, you can decide whether recipients can only view it once, replay it temporarily, or will see a permanent thumbnail of it in the chat log.

Previously, all messages could be replayed temporarily but then would completely disappear. Snapchat always lets you temporarily replay a photo or video message, with no way for senders to deactivate the option.

The replay controls could encourage Instagrammers to send more sensitive imagery by allowing them to prevent replays that can give people time to take a photo of their screen with another camera without triggering a screenshot alert to the sender. Whether it’s silly or sexy, some messages are only meant to be seen once. Meanwhile, non-sensitive messages can be set to permanent so it’s easy to look back and reminisce, or prevent a conversation from losing context if someone forgets or misses what was in a visual message.

Instagram tells me it rolled out the new “Keep in chat” option last month after introducing “allow replay”, or “view once” options in November. Ken Schillinger first tweeted about the change. Remember, you can only replay a message right after you watch it the first time before closing the app or moving to a different screen. And senders are able to see if you replay a message.

Battle for chat beyond Stories

Snapchat’s private messaging was proved to be its most resilient feature after a leak saw The Daily Beast’s Taylor Lorenz dump a ton of the company’s usage data. In August, Snapchat users were 64 percent more likely to send a private snap to a friend than broadcast to Stories. While the number of daily users who post to Stories stagnated during Q3 last year in the face of Instagram’s competition, the number of users sending messages continues to rise.

That’s why now that Instagram Stories and WhatsApp Status both have over 300 million daily active users, dwarfing the 187 million total daily users on Snapchat, Facebook trying to revamp its ephemeral messaging options. Instagram combined ephemeral and permanent Direct messaging last April, and in December began testing a standalone Direct app. Snapchat has managed to turn around its business and revive growth, so Instagram could use some momentum.

Snapchat’s number of users posting to Stories stagnated last year…

…while daily users sending Snapchat messages kept growing

Instagram and Snapchat continue to see distinct behavior patterns despite the former’s attempt to become the latter. Instagram Stories was supposed to let you share more than the permanent feed highlights of your life. But users still seem to prefer to share private, provocative, and ridiculous Stories and messages on Snapchat, while Instagram gets more polished and posed posts and re-sharing of memes.

Being able to block replays or keep messages from entirely disappearing could let Direct encompass a wider range of visual communication.

Why Google Stories will save, not screw, Snapchat Discover

Snapchat has a new ally or enemy depending on how you look at Google’s new mobile magazine format, but the social app is welcoming the search giant. Google’s clone of Snapchat Discover called AMP Stories officially launched today, allowing news outlets to create photo/video slideshows that appear in mobile search results and on their site. 

Suddenly, Snapchat isn’t the only place to show off Discover-style content.

In response to Google’s launch, Snapchat’s VP of content Nick Bell told TechCrunch, “Our ambition at Snapchat is to empower great storytelling, and we think we have pioneered the best format for doing that on mobile. We’re delighted to see that an industry is starting to form around that, and hope that it will encourage more newsrooms to invest in teams that focus on made for mobile content.”

Snapchat refused to detail whether it demands exclusivity from Discover publishers and forbids them from reusing the content elsewhere. A spokesperson said the company is still considering how to handle the situation. But Bell’s quote implies that Snapchat sees the opportunity for more publishers to adopt the format if they can reuse content from Discover and port in content from AMP Stories.

There are still a lot of big questions, like how prominently Google will feature AMP Stories in search, whether Google will offer powerful tools for creating them, and how advertising revenue splits will be handled. There are no ads in AMP Stories yet even though the format has been in testing since August. But the biggest question is how publishers and advertisers will react to having multiple places to show their animated ‘zines.

There are two ways I see this going. The reality is it will likely be a mix of both, though I think the opportunities outweigh the threats for Snapchat.

The threat: Google steals content and ads from Snapchat

Having the world’s most popular advertising and information platform barge into your business should be at least a little unnerving.

On the content side, Snapchat won’t have a monopoly on placement of Discover-style content. That weakens its negotiating position when striking deals with publishers. Previously, after building up a team to create the visual articles, publishers didn’t have anywhere to go so they were largely stuck with Snapchat’s revenue split terms unless they were willing to fire or reassign the staff.

Snapchat now won’t necessarily have exclusivity on content created for Discover, as publishers might seek to host it on their sites and promote it in search through Google AMP Stories. This comes at a time when Snapchat’s peer-to-peer Stories have been copied by Facebook’s apps and Discover remains one of its most differentiated features.

If Snapchat refuses to let publishers reuse Discover content on AMP Stories, it could piss off news outlets, disincentivize investment in producing top-notch content, or push them to pick Google over Snapchat.

Meanwhile, advertisers will have more inventory to exploit for vertical video ads, potentially reducing the rates of Snapchat’s ads. Google’s scale and relationships with advertisers could allow it to lure dollars away from Snapchat Discover.

But but but…the fact is that Google and Snapchat have very different audiences. Snapchat’s users skew much younger than Google’s. Most advertisers would want to reach one demographic or the other or both. So it’s unlikely that Google AMP Stories would directly cannibalize Snapchat Discover ad revenue. That’s why I think Google’s arrival looks more like…

The opportunity: Google recruits more publishers to Discover’s format

Think of it like Google building its own brand of VCR in the early days of videotapes. Snapchat might not want competition for its own VCR, but if Google convinces more movie studios to make videotapes, the rising tide of the format could lift all boats.

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Publishers have had to put a lot of trust in Snapchat Discover until now. If they built up a content creation team, and then Snapchat lost popularity or buried the Discover feature or monetization didn’t go well, the news outlet had no alternative. And once they made the content, there was nowhere else to put it.

Now, publishers have a hedge in case Snapchat stumbles. They’ll still be able to show their Discover content elsewhere. And with more viewing opportunities and chances to earn ad money to recoup their investment, publishers could pour more resources into creating high quality visual articles.

The opportunity to sell ad against the content twice could convince more publishers to dive into the format. Snapchat earned over $100 million for its content partners in 2017, but Google AMP could grow the ads pie for the whole format.

Exploiting this opportunity might require Snapchat to loosen its grip on publishers, and officially allow them to reuse content on AMP Stories. If it wanted a compromise, it could window Discover content, requiring it to stay exclusive to its platform for 24 hours or longer. Snapchat could still tout its high performance native mobile apps as a better way to consume the content than the mobile web.

The whole equation could change if Facebook and Instagram develop their own version of Discover. Snapchat might have to clamp down and insist on exclusivity then since Instagram offers a similar demographic of audience, though that would risk publishers choosing Facebook’s apps over it.

But for now, Snapchat could view Google as an ally against Facebook and Instagram. If they can popularize the vertical slideshow mobile magazine format together, publishers might envision the dollar signs necessary to staff up Discover/AMP Stories content teams.

Facebook won’t retreat from Stories as it adds desktop posting

Facebook Stories might feel redundant since 300 million people use its other Snapchat clones on Instagram and WhatsApp. But Facebook is convinced that the narrative, ephemeral, camera-first format is the future of sharing…and advertising.

So despite criticism and a slow start for traction, Facebook is doubling down on Stories by testing the ability to create them from desktop, and a much more prominent placement for viewing Stories atop the News Feed instead of in the sidebar.

“We are always working to ensure people can easily navigate and enjoy Facebook, regardless of how they connect” a Facebook spokesperson tells me. “We are testing the option to create and share Stories from Facebook on desktop and are also testing moving the Stories tray from the top right corner to above News Feed, just like on mobile.” Previously you could only consume Stories on web that had to be created on mobile.

All Aboard The Stories Train

Brands, Event promoters, and Group admins who manage their Facebook presence from desktop might embrace Stories more now that they can post from their too. Collaborative Stories where Group members and Event attendees can all contribute are one of the most exciting opportunities for Facebook Stories.

But the company has to be careful that brands don’t drown out friends’ Stories, but that’s one of the advantages of algorithmically filtering the slideshows that disappear in 24 hours. Expect Facebook not to make the same mistake it made allowing professional publishers to overwhelm the News Feed, which it’s now walking back in a massive change to its content ranking strategy.

Advertisers might also be more comfortable getting aboard Stories thanks to desktop access. Digiday reports Facebook is building an augmented reality team in London to help it pitch sponsored AR filters to advertisers, similar to how Snapchat monetizes beyond injecting traditional display ads between Stories as Facebook does on Instagram.

Facebook users will be able to upload photos or videos, or shoot them with their webcam to post from desktop. That could attract the monologue-style YouTube vloggers who have trained themselves to talk into their computer.

By showing Stories above the News Feed instead of the to the side, Facebook clearly thinks the content deserves more attention, and is even willing to push down its status update composer and News Feed posts to make room. That’s a bold shift, considering Facebook hesitated until August to show Stories on desktop after their January launch and March rollout on mobile.

Stories Are Critical To Facebook’s AR Future

CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said that while eyeglass computers might be the future of augmented reality, Facebook won’t wait for it, and the smartphone is already a capable AR device. But for Facebook to have a functioning AR strategy — whether for keeping people coming back to play with AR face masks, watch friends jazz up their lives, or giving advertisers creative tools — it has to get people watching Stories en masse.

That’s why it started syncing Facebook Stories across Facebook and Messenger so posts on one show up in both. It’s why it’s allowing people to syndicate their Instagram Stories to Facebook Stories. It’s why it’s recruiting an army of outside developers to build AR tools for Story-tellers. And it’s why Facebook’s desktop site now fully adopting Stories.

Whether users warm up to them is another question. Facebook’s social graph has bloated to include distant acquaintances and family you might not want to be able to see a raw view into your day-to-day adventures. That’s the advantage of Snapchat’s closer-friends network, and something Facebook may need a better privacy solution for to get people to share.

But remember that people protested the News Feed when it first arrived on Facebook. And the younger generation that’s addicted to Snapchat shows how users can pour a half hour a day into sending, posting, and watching camera-based content. If that’s any portent, Facebook might just be early to delivering mainstream users the shift from text to Stories. And if you give people a prominent space to show off for friends, vanity and narcissism may eventually compel them to fill that space with snippets of their life.

What is Snapchat, now Story sharing has stopped growing?

In a betrayal of loyalty signaling poor morale, a massive dump of Snapchat’s usage stats has leaked. The most worrisome is that the number of users posting Stories has shown zero growth, an even worse performance than Snapchat’s total user growth that was sluggish this year. It appears Instagram’s Stories clone has stopped Snapchat’s most monetizable feature dead in its tracks.

This explains why Snapchat’s redesign moves friends Stories into the chat inbox, since visual messaging on the app is growing slightly faster than total users. Messaging is tough to interrupt with ads without being annoying, so combining messages and Stories might be Snap’s best shot at reinvigorating revenue.

Yet the leak as a whole paints a picture of an app that’s falling short of living up to its reputation  as a communication sensation. And with weak morale, a sagging share price, and losses mounting, Snap might not have the momentum it needs to recruit top talent or lure more big acquisitions.

Snapchat’s Soggy Numbers

The leak was scored by The Daily Beast’s Taylor Lorenz, who is quickly making a name for herself as a top reporter on social networks and teen tech culture. She managed to obtain usage data for a wide range of Snapchat’s feature from the end of April to mid-September 2017. You can see the full set of charts at the bottom of this story.

As Lorenz reports, the Snap Map live location sharing and geo-tagged content search feature has sunk from a high of 35 million daily unique viewers after its June launch to just 19 million and falling — just 11 percent of Snapchat’s users. The Discover section where professional publishers post magazine-esque daily editions spiked to 38 million in July, and then has languished at around 34 million daily users — about 19 percent of all users. And usage could fall further as Discover is less prominent in the redesign that’s yet to roll out to most users.

Snapchat’s new redesign

Snap should get credit for soaking up a ton of time from those who do use it, with the app growing average minutes of usage from around 32.7 to 34.8 during the April to September time period.

And the brightest point in the data was that the number of daily Snaps viewed rose from around 3.9 billion to 4.6 billion, or 17.9 percent, which vastly outstrips the roughly 7 percent total user growth in the same time period.

Daily Snaps sent grew from around 2.08 billion to 2.21 billion, in line with total user growth. In August, Lorenz reports that users were 64 percent more likely to send a private snap to a friend than to broadcast to Stories.

Stories Stuck In A Rut

Here’s whre the Facebook competition is really hurting Snapchat. Back in Q2 2016 before Instagram Stories came out, Snapchat grew its user base 17.2 percent. Last quarter, it grew just 2.9 percent, as many users find they can just stick with Instagram and share Stories to their existing social graph where they already post permanent imagery rather than building a new graph on Snapchat.

The number of daily users posting to Snapchat Stories held flat at around 51 million users from April to September despite total user growth. That signals that while people may be sticking with or coming to Snapchat to send disappearing messages to friends, they don’t necessarily need to post to Snapchat Stories.

Daily Snapchat Story unique viewers grew 4.37 percent from 137 million to 143 million during the time period — significantly slower than total user growth. Users who do broadcast to Snapchat Stories are posting more often, at least, and are using more Geofilters. But advertisers want scale, and the lack of total Stories sharers is troubling.

With messaging remaining by far its most popular feature, Snapchat may have to massively increase its augmented reality Sponsored Lens and static Sponsored Geofilter sales to make up for the lack of ads in the feature. Otherwise, it will have to risk pissing off teens by jamming more scalable display ads into the messaging experience.

Influence ≠ Business

Overall, Snap has a rocky road ahead. New features like Snap Map and professional content in Discover don’t appear able to change its fate. The company’s best hope for now is that users grow addicted to algorithmic sorting of Stories to show best friends first, which back in April we recommended it adopt. That’s now finally coming in the redesign, and could make it easier to open Snapchat and quickly see the most relevant stuff from the people you care about.

Beyond that, Snapchat might need another blockbuster acquisition to restore growth. Bitmoji’s personalized avatars and Looksery’s AR lenses gave Snapchat mainstream appeal outside of its ephemerality. But with tales of CEO Evan Spiegel’s iron grip on product, a share price down 50 percent from its post-IPO high, and Facebook’s copying machine running at full-tilt, Snap isn’t as attractive of a place to work as it was when it made those acquisitions.

Snapchat has been incredibly impactful on culture. From impermanent content to vertical video, popularizing augmented reality and bringing on the age of visual communication, Speigel’s ideas have redefined the way we share. Unfortunately, Snapchat hasn’t been able to capture much of the monetary benefits of those inventions as they get cloned elsewhere.

The popularity of Snapchat messaging amongst western teenagers means it won’t disappear overnight. But it may be time for it and the world to face the fact that Snapchat could be world-changing product without ever becoming a world-dominating business.

Instagram Stories adds no-frills photo-only posting from mobile web

Instagram really wants the developing world on Stories.

They won’t be able to use Instagram’s augmented reality masks or share videos, but starting today mobile web users can post to Instagram Stories. Previously, mobile web users could only view Stories, which have to be created in Instagram’s native apps. But now users can snap photos, overlay text captions, and share them with friends from mobile web, as well as Save posts they find in the feed and want to revisit later.

Coming to everyone in the next few weeks, users will see a camera icon in the top left corner they can tap to shoot or upload a photo for their Story. Captions in different colors can then be laid on top. But videos and the rest of Instagram’s creative tools like doodling, stickers, location tags, polls, and more are still just in the native apps.

Meanwhile, tapping the bookmark icon on feed posts sends them to the Saved folder that’s accessible from the top right of the screen. No word on whether posting will come to desktop web, but it might be awkward posting vertical portrait images from a landscape computer screen.

The mobile web features could give Instagram Stories a boost in the developing world, where some users don’t have new enough phones or cheap enough data to download native apps. That’s a region where competitor and Stories originator Snapchat has struggled but is finally focusing on. If Instagram can get its Stories institutionalized worldwide before Snapchat gets there, it could lock in a long-standing audience.

Featured Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Facebook Stories replaces Messenger Day with synced cross-posting

Facebook is cleaning up the redundancy in its Snapchat Stories clones. Today Facebook is killing off the Messenger Day stories feature and replacing it with Facebook Stories inside Messenger. Now, Facebook Stories posts in either Facebook or Messenger will appear in both apps, and viewing will be synced too so you won’t see a Story in one app if you already watched it in the other.

“We needed to make it easier for people to share Stories across different apps” Facebook product manager Connor Hayes tells me. “Some people actually thought these experiences were already connected. We feel like it would make sense.” However, the cameras in Facebook and Messenger will remain distinct, with Facebook’s focused on augmented reality masks and effects, while Messenger focuses on adding captions and stylized text inviting friends to hang out.

Simplifying the Stories offering and giving posts more exposure across the apps without manual cross-posting could boost usage of Facebook Stories, which hasn’t exploded with popularity like Instagram Stories. As we first reported last month, Instagram has been rolling out a “cross-post to Facebook Stories” feature that will now populate to Messenger too, though there’s no current plan to allow Facebook Stories to be pushed to Instagram.

Facebook hasn’t given guidance on the popularity of Facebook Stories but it said Messenger Day had 70 million daily active users in September, versus 300 million on Instagram Stories and WhatsApp Status, and 178 million on Snapchat’s whole app.

Ditching Facebook Direct Ephemeral Messaging

Meanwhile, Facebook is also getting rid of its Facebook Direct feature for private ephemeral messaging, and instead will route all Stories replies and Facebook Camera messages through Messenger. For now, that means there’s no longer a disappearing messaging option on Facebook, as Direct used to delete photos and videos after they were watched and the conversation around them had died out.

Facebook is making the change after doing research on users. “They prefer Story replies to land inside Messenger” says Messenger product manager Paulina Bozek.

At face value, the end of Facebook Direct could appear to be a win for Snapchat, which sees ephemeral messaging as its primary use case and differentiator after all of Facebook’s apps cloned its Stories feature.

But it could foreshadow Facebook launching a more legitimate ephemeral messaging feature inside Messenger, which already has 1.3 billion monthly users. Direct was building a userbase from scratch and never seemed to catch on, so putting disappearing messages in Messenger could be a much bigger threat to Snapchat. For now though, Facebook tells me ephemeral messaging is not an option in Messenger and it doesn’t have anything to share on future plans here.

Also announced today, Facebook is launching collaborative Facebook Stories for Groups and Events where members can contribute posts that the rest can see, which could be great for parties, weddings, and meetups.

Plus, looking to boost usage of Facebook Stories in the developing world which Snapchat hasn’t prioritized, Facebook is allowing users of its stripped-down low-data-usage Facebook Lite app to view Stories. The ability to post will come to Facebook Lite soon. You can read our full write-up about Facebook Stories for Groups, Events, and Lite here.

Beyond cross-posting and synced viewing, Facebook is also implementing new privacy controls for Stories that run across both its main app and Messenger. You’ll be able to make Stories visible to to the public, friends only, friends and connections (which includes non-friends you’ve ‘added’ on Messenger, or a custom list of specific friends.

If there was any doubt that Facebook is in it to win it in the Stories war against Snapchat, that should be laid to rest now. Facebook isn’t retreating from Stories, even as it cleans up the product line. Though usage may be slim to date, the company is betting that it’s not just US teens that want to share ephemeral slideshows of photos and videos. Even if it takes years, the prominent placement across its apps could slowly lure in older users to share their daily lives, not just the big highlights.