What is the appeal of this fleeting medium and how is it shaping our online personas?
As Instagram is something that I personally enjoy and use every day, it was inevitable that I would eventually write about their feature ‘Stories.’ For me Stories is a convenient way to show my friends and family at home in Ireland what my life in LA is like on a daily basis. But how are brands using this exploding medium and why?
These evanescent snapshots last a mere twenty-four hours and fall under the term ‘ephemeral content’. Ephemeral content is any material that is impermanent. Traditionally, most marketing exercises concern themselves with creating timeless content that maintains engagement over extended periods of time, whereas ephemeral content is as short-lived as it comes. Snapchat paved the way with their own 'Stories' feature allowing other apps like Instagram to follow suit (and rip off the name too), but what is it that has made this fleeting material so religiously followed?
If we take Instagram before it introduced its ‘live’ and ‘story’ features, the main aim for its users was to create a collection of visually arresting, curated images. Following its meteoric rise in popularity, companies and brands invested huge funding in creating content solely for their Instagram feed. Each post was meticulously thought out to fit the motifs and aesthetic theme that the company had originally set forth. Success was measured on the audiences’ opinion of the finished product and the ongoing level of exposure it received through likes and shares.
However, ephemeral content has changed all of this. The Instagram stories feature has been grasped by companies as a way through which to document company culture, their processes and ‘behind the scenes’ footage. The ‘concept’ is the day to day, the journey. Fortunately, this disappearing content is extremely inexpensive, if not free. It is never expected to be of a high quality but a more personable and entertaining way of engaging their followers. Essentially, it is material that is worthy of sharing but not necessarily preserving. Curated content creates a memory and ephemeral content shares an experience.
So why is it so popular? One possibility is that because these posts disappear after twenty-four hours, there is a sense of exclusivity. As with any exclusivity, this then creates demand. Once the narrative of the company has been established (which can be achieved through their Instagram feed), they can then go ahead and produce posts on their story that do not necessarily have a clear context. The only thing that matters is that they understand why their users are there. Part of the beauty of Instagram stories is that they become part of the user’s routine. By creating this ‘exclusive’ content that has an expiration date, companies and individuals, whether ’insta-famous’ or not, are fostering a ‘fear of missing out’ amongst their audience. This ‘FOMO’ has always been an aspect of human existence, but never has it been so purposefully harnessed to create a hunger for content.
Speaking personally, I wake up every morning and tap through my feed of Instagram stories. Not only am I looking through my friends’ content but also through that of the brands I follow. Over time I have come to know the personalities of these brands and often await their next installment. In my opinion, this level of engagement is more valuable than anything money can buy. These brands are consistently winning my attention, building a habit and leading my eye to where they need it to be. In a way, they have created a sense of intimacy by making me feel privy to something that is usually private. The tone is informal and seems off-the-cuff.
Even though I’m not hugely into fashion, Topshop is a brand that I consistently return to for their stories on Instagram. They have perfected the art of informality. They often ask influencers to ‘take-over’ their Instagram for a day which is testament to the fact they can trust someone with this mode of content for their brand. Allowing influencers to do this almost certainly appeals to a younger generation of consumers. Topshop also presents their affordable high-street looks on an approachable, non-model-type every day. It is so friendly and unintimidating that I never swipe past. I always watch until the end. They then offer links through their story or shortened clips of their longer form content. They essentially use the feature as a teaser.
There are many other ways in which companies are using stories to drive traffic and sales. Another technique is simply counting down to an event or a sale. A countdown builds hype towards a big day and piques the interest of your followers. By the time the day rolls around, an audience specific to that event has formed. Companies are using the stories feature to mention other brands, create hype around an up and coming live video, linking back to their websites, and most successfully, offering behind the scenes footage – the ‘off-script’ content.
In fact, this sensibility carries throughout digital culture -- not only from companies and brands but also individuals. Although this content may seem spontaneous, it is often not. Anything that an individual decides to post online is indeed somewhat curated. I think that this is an interesting comment upon how we decipher each other as humans in this digital age. The version of ourselves that lives online is a curated, biased, digital being. I often think about what ‘Instagram Kate’ would be like if I met her in person. She would be eternally, if not, painfully chirpy. She would never have spots or bad skin. She would never be sad or not fun. The reality, however, for most of us is that this is not an accurate portrayal of our day-to-day lives. But outside of having met someone in real life and consequently following their social media accounts, this is the only method by which we perceive many people.
In my opinion, with our online ‘selves’ curated, biased, manipulated, edited and often somewhat incongruent with the rest of our lives, we have created a portfolio of our ideal aesthetic and personality that lives in the digital sphere. When we add someone on social media platforms we often look through their posts and photos and make a judgement about their lives. We are judging their presentation of themselves in the same way we would walk around an art gallery and observe an artist’s body of work. We are perceiving humans through their own curated exhibition of themselves, not necessarily on the impression we receive in person; the impression which we usually rely on our own brain to create for itself.
Ephemeral Content is allowing this portfolio to extend into the processes of our day as individuals whether genuine or not. There’s an odd role swapping here. Ephemeral content allows brands, which previously were often faceless corporations, to develop a personality that is more human, fallible and intimate. And at the same time, it allows normal human beings to be, oddly, less human.
Ironically, despite the fugacious nature of ephemeral content, I think it’s here to stay.