At the same time as Facebook and Snapchat are stocking up on original shows, media companies are independently producing episodic series for Facebook-owned Instagram.
Sometime last year, Bustle Editor in Chief Kate Ward saw a tweet from someone asking whether watching Snapchat Stories had replaced TV as a before-bed ritual for anyone else.
“It kind of got us thinking about the experience of Snapchat Stories and eventually Instagram Stories, where it’s just a place where you share something with your friends but also a place where you can really program something and take advantage of the platform itself to come up with these fun, little, brief storytelling elements,” said Ward.
Within a week of Instagram launching Stories in August 2016, Bustle premiered what would become the first of seven episodic series it currently produces for the ephemeral format where each slide, or post, within a Story evaporates after 24 hours. And it’s not the only media company to see Instagram Stories as an outlet for TV-like programming.
New Form Digital, a production studio backed by Hollywood heavyweights Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, also saw Stories as an opportunity to produce a new type of entertainment for audiences whose attentions were focused on their phones. But initially, New Form Digital had its eye on the other original Stories.
“We honestly were thinking about Snap, but then Insta Stories launched and we were like, ‘Oh, we can put it here, and this is a little different, and there’s an engaged audience,’” said New Form Digital CEO Kathleen Grace. “But the initial instinct was let’s experiment and make something for Snap.”
Instead, New Form Digital made something for Instagram. Through a deal with Time Inc.’s Instant, it produced a pilot episode of “@TheRealAssistant,” a scripted comedy centered on the personal assistant to a social media diva. New Form Digital opted to air the pilot in May 2017 on Instagram, through Instant’s account, because of the sizeable audience already established there.
But producing a show for Instagram Stories’s vertical-only format isn’t as easy as filming a series for TV or YouTube and cutting off the sides. That would look terrible, like watching a Christopher Nolan movie squared to standard definition. Stories’ vertical format may be an imposition, but it also forces creativity.
“It opens up this whole new visual language that the audience accepts,” said Grace. “You can have your wide shot on top of the split screen and your close-up in the bottom of the split screen and use that to drive the story and the comedy.”
Another curveball is the way that Stories must be cut up. The only way to upload a minutes-long video to a Story is to edit it into 15-second chunks that are posted piecemeal. As a result, Bustle’s shows average three to four minutes in length but appear as 15 to 20 slides, said its deputy editor of social, Hayley Saltzman.
People can tap through slides in Stories pretty easily, which is also something producers have to consider for their shows. “People aren’t going to take the thumb off the screen,” said Grace.
Therefore, each slide in a Story has to work as a scene, and a quick one. But that quickness can’t compromise the plot, so New Form Digital used tricks like the split-screen to compound the narrative. “Because people are clicking through the pieces, it makes you have to tell a story faster. You have to get the information out a lot more quickly. So the split screen gives you that efficiency and allows potentially for a joke within a joke,” Grace said. The studio also front-loaded the first few seconds of each slide so that a person could tap through and still be able to follow the storyline.
“We paced it with the pacing of these Stories in mind, that people are going to feel that urgency to click next,” said Grace. The fast pace and short shelf life of people’s Story feeds are also why both New Form Digital and Bustle have opted to upload every slide of an episode at once, rather than spacing them out over the course of the day. “These are like episodes of a TV show. If we were to get one slide and then two hours later get another upload, I think the story would be lost in a lot of ways,” said Saltzman.
WeBuyGold used people’s predilection to click to its advantage when producing Stories to supplement its animated show, “The Year 2100.” The show was primarily distributed through traditional, or main-feed, Instagram posts because WeBuyGold didn’t think airing episodes “just on Stories” would help to grow its audience, according to CEO Dan Altmann. But with 70 percent of its followers (on average) viewing its Stories, WeBuyGold was able to use Stories to flesh out parts of an episode without episode-only viewers feeling like they missed much, like how “Game of Thrones” fans don’t necessarily need to have read the books (but definitely should).
For example, in one episode the show’s main character, an animated version of the rapper 21 Savage, enters and exits a forest. The main-feed version of the episode doesn’t deal with what happens when he’s in the forest, but people viewing the Story version can tap through each slide to move him through the forest and see what that journey looked like.
“If you want to just move [the plot] forward, then you can watch the post. If you want a full, comprehensive, interactive experience, you watch the Story and post,” said Altmann.
WeBuyGold also wrestled with how it would balance episodic content in Stories with more typical one-off slides. As a news outlet, Bustle has likewise had to deal with this balancing act. That’s part of the reason why the publication schedules new episodes of its shows to premiere on particular days. “Wake Up With Bustle,” which documents Bustle employees’ morning routines, airs every Monday, and movie review series “The Reel Deal” airs every other Thursday.
The scheduling helps to build up the shows’ audiences because people know when to look out for new episodes. “It’s also easier for planning purposes. We are a news website, so when news breaks, we make room for other conversations that need to happen,” said Saltzman. Bustle has had to diverge from its programming schedule at times because of breaking news, “and people definitely noticed,” she said.
People also notice when an episode does air. That’s because Bustle bookends each episode of its seven shows with intro and outro slides, complete with custom looks from Bustle’s design team and music. “They are produced, but not overly produced, and look different from what the average user would post. Those help us stand out,” said Saltzman. “I think they help remind the viewers it’s a new episode, and also it’s a good way to cap the series.”
New Form Digital also developed a strategy to ensure its show would stand out in viewers’ Story feeds. While it designed the pilot episode of “@TheRealAssistant” for people to tap through, it needed to make sure people wouldn’t tap too quickly through the opening slide to miss the point of the show and swipe past it altogether.
“One thing we thought a lot about was the opening and how we would catch people’s eyes and what the hook would be. And by the hook, literally the first two seconds,” said Grace. She continued, “the best things out there throw you into the action. So we were like, ‘Let’s throw them into the action, the middle of one of [the main character’s] pranks. We are seeing her exactly as she is within the first few seconds and it’s really intense and eye-catching.”
Episodic shows on Instagram Stories have not only caught viewers’ eyes but also marketers’. Bustle has signed several deals with brands, including McDonald’s, MTV, Rimmel and Sephora, to produce entire shows for a sponsor or to incorporate a brand into an episode. To promote this year’s “MTV Movie and TV Awards” in May, Bustle aired an episode of “The Reel Deal” on the same day as the awards show that was labeled as “presented by” the MTV event and had the show’s host pick award winners. By taking advantage of Instagram allowing verified accounts to attach links to Story slides, Bustle capped the episode with a link to the awards show on MTV’s site.