What we learned from our first week using Instagram Stories

Mexico City, Jerusalem, and an MSF rescue vessel off the coast of Libya were featured on our Instagram Stories.

Instagram Stories has been out for a week and whatever your views on it borrowing so heavily from Snapchat, it’s here. We decided to test the waters with our main Instagram account, Aljazeera, and produced four stories of varying lengths from three continents. Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

It’s really easy to use.

It should go without saying that anyone who knows how to use Snapchat will know how to use Instagram Stories. The only difference we noticed between producing an Instagram Story and a Snapchat Story is which app you tell someone to log into.

The interface is largely the same, the concept is largely the same, and nobody needed to be retrained. This made it easy to produce so many stories so quickly.

Because our reporters are located across the globe and do stories at different times, training all of them on how to use Snapchat took months. It was a huge relief not to have to re-train them to use Instagram Stories.

More than one person can be in the account at once.

On more than one occasion, someone here at AJE (usually me) has logged into Snapchat only to find that the reporter wasn’t done with their story.

Best case scenario: their pending Snaps are lost. 
Worst case scenario: their pending Snaps are lost and they can’t log back into the account because of weak connectivity.

Now a reporter can be working on a story at the same time that a producer is monitoring messages or downloading videos from the story to promote on another platform. This is a godsend.

We’re getting a ton of comments — and no trolls yet!

If you have a large number of followers on Instagram your message requests are probably a mess. Regardless, it has been great to get so much (overwhelmingly positive) feedback on each story.

As with Snapchat, user feedback plays a large role in how we evolve our content strategy. After so many people responded to our correspondent tour of Mexico City with Adam Raney, we planned one for the following week in Jerusalem with Imtiaz Tyab.

Videos are higher resolution.

Videos downloaded from Instagram Stories are 639 x 1136. Videos downloaded from Snapchat are 360 x 640. Comparing videos in both apps, the difference is clear. Instagram Stories look much more crisp and vibrant. But that quality boost comes with a trade-off.

Viewer retention is appalling.

Part of the reason that Snapchat videos are lower resolution is so that you can go from Snap to Snap to Snap seamlessly. It may take a few seconds to load someone’s Snapchat Story initially, but once you do you usually breeze through it. That’s not the case with Instagram Stories. I often experienced load times several seconds long between the first and second shots. And between the second and the third. And the third and fourth. And so on.

What affect does that have? Let me show you.

View counts were taken when Shot 1 had been up for 23 hours.

Shocking, right?

In an Instagram Story, you consistently lose 40% of your viewers by the second shot.

In a Snapchat Story, you would need to post around 10 Snaps to get to that point. Viewer retention in Snapchat will vary from story to story, but for the most part it’s pretty consistent: you can expect 50 to 75% of viewers to watch to the end of your Snapchat Story, even the long ones.

Low viewer retention is hands down the biggest turn-off for me as a publisher. We begrudgingly accept low viewer retention for videos on Facebook and Twitter, but when I could do the same story on Snapchat and have people actually watch most of it, it’s hard to accept this from Instagram.

Views are higher. Much higher.

If you want to root out corruption, follow the money. If you want to bet on which platforms publishers will adopt, follow the views.

Many publishers already have large Instagram followings. They know how to grow them and users know how to find them. You can work tirelessly to grow a Snapchat account inch-by-inch, or hey, you can do nothing on Instagram and easily get tens of thousands of views.

The view rate is still low though.

Our Instagram account, Aljazeera, has 438,000 followers as of writing this. Fewer than 10% of them watched any of our Stories. As more people update their Instagram apps and gain access to Stories I hope this number will rise, but for now it’s all across the board.

Driving traffic to Stories is inefficient.

If I want to promote an Instagram Story within Instagram itself, this is the process from me posting to a user seeing it:

  1. Publisher posts photo/video related to the story
  2. Publisher asks people to watch the story
  3. User swipes out of photo
  4. User goes to top of main feed
  5. User pulls down to refresh Stories feed
  6. User swipes along to find my icon among dozens or hundreds of others

Yes, there are far more serious problems in the world, but this is still pretty bad. Instagram could harness the combined power of Facebook, their own home feed, and WhatsApp to help people drive traffic to their stories. This feels like a missed opportunity.

It doesn’t seem like the place for spontaneous news.

Something about Instagram Stories as a place to tell the news as it happens just isn’t clicking yet. Snapchat has a gritty, spontaneous feel to it that Instagram falls short on. You see something happen and it’s two taps from your home screen to recording a video.

I’m also not sure that the people who followed our account to see gorgeous photos and emotional stories want to see shaky, spur-of-the-moment stories about elections in Uganda or protests at the Republican National Convention.

It does seem like the place for weekly series content.

Snapchat is so spontaneous that we have never been able to have programmatic content. Our stories are rarely planned more than a week in advance on Snapchat because the world is a messed up place and anything could happen. Plans get upended all the time.

However, I’m already planning several weekly series for Instagram. It’s exciting and focusing on programmatic content opens up a whole new world of storytelling possibilities that we didn’t have before.

In conclusion…

Instagram Stories has a lot of potential. Yes, they need to address low viewer retention. Yes, they need to address low view rates. Yes, they need to make it easier to drive viewers to your story. But it’s really, really, really early days.

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Ziad Ramley works on the social team at Al Jazeera English. You can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat.