Instagram have today announced their first major update for Stories, their Snapchat-cloning narrative feature added back in August. And the changes definitely give people - and brands - more to consider when choosing between the two.
Here's what they've added.
Links in Stories
First off, Instagram - which is notoriously opposed to links on individual images - is giving some users the ability to add links within stories.
At the bottom of the image above you can see a 'See More' prompt - click on that link and you'll be taken to whichever URL the creator desires, which will open in Instagram's in-app browser. The 'See More' prompt is not intrusive, similar to how their approaching their new product tags option, which provides the ability to link to another URL without ruining the image-focus of the app by overlaying whole links on the content.
This is a major step for the Stories format, and as noted, for Instagram itself. One of the key criticisms of Instagram, particularly from brand profiles, is that there's no way to link visitors back to your site, with the only active link you can use embedded within your profile (which has lead to the dreaded "link in bio" workaround used in literally millions of posts).
Snapchat has also been criticized for the same - on Snapchat, there's no way to link to anything, your viewers are stuck within Snapchat, which makes it difficult for publishers and brands as there's no way to attribute direct traffic from their on-platform efforts. The advantage of this for Snapchat, and Instagram, is that brands and publishers need to create more platform-specific content. Adding the ability to link out to alternate sources could reduce this requirement - which could be good or bad, depending on how it plays out.
Either way, the new option will no doubt make Stories a more appealing proposition for brands - in fact, an Instagram product manager told The Verge that they've added the feature in direct response to requests from brands already using the option. Add to this the fact that Stories also now show up in the Explore tab, add to this the fact that most businesses have more followers on Instagram than they do on Snapchat, add to this Instagram is used by more people overall. You get the idea. The functionality further enhances the appeal of Stories from this perspective.
But there is a catch: At launch, only verified profiles will be able to add links to their Stories.
There's currently no way for users to request verification on Instagram, the option's limited to public figures and brands chosen by Instagram to receive a checkmark. Instagram won't confirm if, or when, the functionality will be made available more broadly, though they do note that this initial roll-out is part of a 'test', which suggests it could be coming to everyone soon.
Linking to Other Users
The second addition announced by Instagram is the ability to link to other Instagram users from within your Stories content.
As you can see in the above image, when you bring up the type tool and use the @ symbol, Instagram will now bring up a list of your most frequent contacts, enabling you to mention them within your Story. You can either type in their full handle or click on the direct link to auto-complete. Their profile name will then be embedded into your Story image - tap on it once and it'll bring up a profile preview (like in the first image above), tap again and you'll be taken through to their full profile. Any user you include will also get a notification that they were mentioned (if that user doesn't follow you, it will show up in their 'Requests' folder).
It's another way for Instagram to boost discovery and engagement within Stories, and again, pushes the Stories concept beyond its Snapchat-copy roots. Discovery has long been a point of contention within the Snapchat community, leading users to refer to third-party apps and tools in order to find relevant Snap users to follow. The combination of in-Stories links, along with the addition of Stories to Explore, boosts Instagram in this regard, and will no doubt lead to more cross-connection, adding to the sense of community within the app. It'll also be helpful for those conducting account takeovers or influencer marketing integrations, enabling users to better cross-promote their channels and supporters.
Of course, there are ways to do this on Snapchat - you can include a picture of your Snapcode within your Story, for example - but this change takes that workaround element out of the process, making it a much easier, smoother transition.
One proviso to note: Profile links in Stories will only work if the name is moderately sized. If you make the mention too big or small, it will lose its link ability.
And the final element of Instagram's Stories announcement is the addition of Boomerang functionality within Stories content.
As explained by Instagram:
"Swipe right from your feed to open the stories camera. A new format picker under the record button lets you select "Boomerang" mode. Tap record and the camera will stitch together a burst of photos into a mini video that plays forward and backward. Then share it to your story."
Boomerang, for those who don't recall, is a separate video app which was launched by Instagram last year, enabling users to create looping videos like this:
This is the first time Boomerang functionality has been made available within Instagram itself. And while it's no 'World Lenses' - Snapchat's latest augmented realty addition which they released earlier this week - it's another way for creators to add something new and fresh to their Stories content, and no doubt people will find new ways to create by incorporating Boomerang content into their process (and worth noting, Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom has also today confirmed that live-streaming is coming to Instagram soon).
It's been a big 12 months for Instagram, with the addition of an algorithm, their evolving ad options and, of course, the release of Stories. In fact, it's the most significant period of change the platform has ever seen, and it'll be interesting to see how all these changes and shifts are reflected in the relative user growth moving forward. Instagram had been the fastest growing social app in the world over the last couple of years, but more recent stats have shown that engagement figures are declining, most likely due to the impacts of the algorithm. And while the data on Stories has been mostly positive - 100 million people are using the option every day - there are also, no doubt, some users who are turned off by the changing face of the platform and its move away from being a more photography-focused, gallery-type tool.
And then there's the potential impact on Snapchat - Facebook's tactic of replicating Snapchat's functions in order to slow the growth of the app will likely hurt Evan Spiegel and Co in the long run, though early numbers have shown Snapchat usage is still going strong, despite Stories' arrival. The next stage is what's important - if Facebook can produce more innovative, interesting creative options within Stories, or even within Facebook itself via their new camera options, that may be the thing that really impacts on Snapchat's growth. That, in combination with their strategy of attacking markets where Snapchat take-up is low, could slow Snapchat and push Instagram and Facebook ahead among that key Millennial user group.
These latest additions are the next step, but there's still a long way to go in the Snapchat vs Facebook battle.