There’s a secret Facebook app called Blink. Built for employees only, it’s how the company tests new video formats it’s hoping will become the next Boomerang or SuperZoom. They range from artsy Blur effects to a way even old Android phones can use Slo-Mo. One exciting format in development offers audio beat detection that syncs visual embellishments to songs playing in the background or added via the Music feature for adding licensed songs as soundtracks that is coming to Facebook Stories after debuting on Instagram.
“When we first formed the team . . . we brought in film makers and cinematographers to help the broader team understand the tropes around storytelling and film making,” says Dantley Davis, Facebook Stories’ director of design. He knows those tropes himself, having spent seven years at Netflix leading the design of its apps and absorbing creative tricks from countless movies. He wants to democratize those effects once trapped inside expensive desktop editing software. “We’re working on formats to enable people to take the video they have and turn it into something special.”
For all the jabs about Facebook stealing Stories from Snapchat, it’s working hard to differentiate. That’s in part because there’s not much left to copy, and because it’s largely succeeded in conquering the prodigal startup that refused to be acquired. Snapchat’s user count shrank last quarter to 188 million daily users.
Meanwhile, Facebook’s versions continue to grow. The Messenger Day brand was retired a year ago and now Stories posts to either the chat app or Facebook sync to both. After announcing in May that Facebook Stories had 150 million users, with Messenger citing 70 million last September, today the company revealed they have a combined 300 million daily users. The Middle East, Central Latin America and Southeast Asia, where people already use Facebook and Messenger most, are driving that rapid growth.
With the success of any product comes the mandate to monetize it. That push ended up pushing out the founders of Facebook acquisition WhatsApp, and encroachment on product decision-making did the same to Instagram’s founders who this week announced they were resigning.
Now the mandate has reached Facebook Stories, which today opened up to advertisers globally, and also started syndicating those ads into Stories within Messenger. Facebook is even running “Stories School” programs to teach ad execs the visual language of ephemerality since all four of its family of apps will monetize Stories with ads. WhatsApp will start to show ads in its Status version of Stories starting next year now that its founders that hated ads have left.
As sharing to Stories is predicted to surpass feed sharing in 2019, Facebook is counting on the ephemeral slideshows to sustain its ad revenue. Fears they wouldn’t lopped $120 billion off Facebook’s market cap this summer.
But to run ads you need viewers, and that will require responses to questions that have dogged Facebook Stories since its debut in early 2017: “Why do I need Stories here too when I already have Instagram Stories and WhatsApp Status?” Many find it annoying that Stories have infected every one of Facebook’s products.
The answer may be creativity. However, Facebook is taking a scientific approach to determining which creative tools to build. Liz Keneski is a user experience research manager at Facebook. She leads the investigative trips, internal testing and focus groups that shape Facebook’s products. Keneski laid out the different types of research Facebook employs to go from vague idea to polished launch:
- Foundational Research – “This is the really future-looking research. It’s not necessarily about any specific products but trying to understand people’s needs.”
- Contextual Inquiry – “People are kind enough to invite us into their homes and talk with us about how they use technology.” Sometimes Facebook does “street intercepts” where they find people in public and spend five minutes watching and discussing how they use their phone. It also conducts “diary studies” where people journal about how they spend their time with tech.
- Descriptive Research – “When we’re exploring a defined product space,” this lets Facebook get feedback on exactly what users would want a new feature to do.
- Participatory Design – “It’s kind of like research arts and crafts. We give people different artifacts and design elements and actually ask them to a deign what an experience that would be ideal for them might look like.”
- Product Research – “Seeing how people interact with a specific product, the things they’re like or don’t like, the things they might want to change” lets Facebook figure out how to tweak features it’s built so they’re ready to launch.
Last year Facebook went on a foundational research expedition to India. Devanshi Bhandari, who works on the globalization, discovered that even in emerging markets where Snapchat never got popular, people already knew how to use Stories. “We’ve been kind of surprised to learn . . . Ephemeral sharing wasn’t as new to some people as we expected,” she tells me. It turns out there are regional Stories copycats around the globe.