Category Archives: Mobile

Why IGTV should go premium

It’s been four months since Facebook launched IGTV, with the goal of creating a destination for longer-form Instagram videos. Is it shaping up to be a high-profile flop, or could this be the company’s next multi-billion dollar business?

IGTV, which features videos up to 60 minutes versus Instagram’s normal 60-second limit, hasn’t made much of a splash yet. Since there are no ads yet, it hasn’t made a dollar either. But, it offers Facebook the opportunity to dominate a new category of premium video, and to develop a subscription business that better aligns with high-quality content.

Facebook worked with numerous media brands and celebrities to shoot high-quality, vertical videos for IGTV’s launch on June 20, as both a dedicated app and a section within the main Instagram app. But IGTV has been quiet since. I’ve heard repeatedly in conversations with media executives that almost no one is creating content specifically for IGTV and that the audience on IGTV remains small relative to the distribution of videos on Snapchat or Facebook. Most videos on it are repurposed from a brand’s or influencer’s Snapchat account (at best) or YouTube channel (more common). Digiday heard the same feedback.

Instagram announced IGTV on June 20 as a way for users to post videos up to 1 hour long in a dedicated section of the app (and separate app).

Facebook’s goal should be to make IGTV a major property in its own right, distinct from the Instagram feed. To do that, the company should follow the concept embodied in the “IGTV” name and re-envision what television shows native to the format of an Instagram user would look like.

Its team should leverage the playbook of top TV streaming services like Netflix and Hulu in developing original series with top talent in Hollywood to anchor their own subscription service, but do in it a new format of shows produced specifically for the vertically-oriented, distraction-filled screen of a smartphone.

Mobile video is going premium

Of the 6+ hours per day that Americans spend on digital media, the majority on that is now on their phone (most of it on social and entertainment activities) and video viewing has grown with it. In addition to the decline in linear television viewing and rise of  “over-the-top” streaming services like Netflix and Hulu, we’ve seen the creation of a whole new category of video: mobile native video.

Starting at its most basic iteration with everyday users’ recordings for Snapchat Stories, Instagram Stories, and YouTube vlogs, mobile video is a very different viewing environment with a lot more competition for attention. Mobile video is watched as people are going about their day. They might commit a few minutes at a time, but not hour-long blocks, and there are distracting text messages and push notifications overlaid on the screen as they watch.

“Stories” on the major social apps have advanced vertically-oriented, mobile native videos as their own content format.

When I spoke recently with Jesús Chavez, CEO of the mobile-focused production company Vertical Networks in Los Angeles, he emphasized that successful episodic videos on mobile aren’t just normal TV clips with changes to the “packaging” (cropped for vertical, thumbnails selected to get clicks, etc.). The way episodes are written and shot has to be completely different to succeed. Chavez put it in terms of the higher “density” of mobile-native videos: packing more activity into a short time window, with faster dialogue, fewer setup shots, split screens, and other tactics.

With the growing amount of time people spend watching videos on their social apps each day—and the flood of subpar videos chasing view counts—it makes sense that they would desire a premium content option. We have seen this scenario before as ad-dependent radio gave rise to subscription satellite radio like SiriusXM and ad-dependent network TV gave rise to pay-TV channels like HBO. What that looks like in this context is a trusted service with the same high bar for riveting storytelling of popular films and TV series—and often featuring famous talent from those—but native to the vertical, smartphone environment.

If IGTV pursues this path, it would compete most directly with Quibi, the new venture that Jeffrey Katzenberg and Meg Whitman are raising $2 billion to launch (and was temporarily called NewTV until their announcement at Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit last Wednesday). They are developing a big library of exclusive shows by iconic directors like Guillermo del Toro and Jason Blum crafted specifically for smartphones through their upcoming subscription-based app.

Quibi’s funding is coming from the world’s largest studios (Disney, Fox, Sony, Lionsgate, MGM, NBCU, Viacom, Alibaba, etc.) whose executives see substantial enough opportunity in such a platform—which they could then produce content for—to write nine-figure checks.

TechCrunch’s Josh Constine argued last year Snapchat should go in a similar “HBO of mobile” direction as well, albeit ad-supported rather than a subscription model. The company indeed seems to be stepping further in this direction with last week’s announcement of Snapchat Originals, although it has announced and then canceled original content plans before.

Snapchat announced its Snap Originals last week.

Facebook is the best positioned to win

Facebook is the best positioned to seize this opportunity, and IGTV is the vehicle for doing so. Without even considering integrations with the Facebook, Messenger, or WhatsApp apps, Facebook is starting with a base of over 1 billion monthly active users on Instagram alone. That’s an enormous audience to expose these original shows to, and an audience who don’t need to create or sign into a separate account to explore what’s playing on IGTV. Broader distribution is also a selling point for creative talent: they want their shows to be seen by large audiences.

The user data that makes Facebook rivaled only by Google in targeted advertising would give IGTV’s recommendation algorithms a distinct advantage in pushing users to the IGTV shows most relevant to their interests and most popular among their friends.

The social nature of Instagram is an advantage in driving awareness and engagement around IGTV shows: Instagram users could see when someone they follow watches or “likes” a show (pending their privacy settings). An obvious feature would be to allow users to discuss or review a show by sharing it to their main Instagram feed with a comment; their followers would see a clip or trailer then be able to click-through to the full show in IGTV with one tap.

Developing and acquiring a library of must-see, high-quality original productions is massively capital intensive—just ask Netflix about the $13 billion it’s spending this year. Targeting premium quality mobile video will be no different. That’s why Katzenberg and Whitman are raising a $2 billion war chest for Quibi and budgeting production costs of $100,000-150,000 per minute on par with top TV shows. Facebook has $42 billion in cash and equivalents on its balance sheet. It can easily outspend Quibi and Snap in financing and marketing original shows by a mix of newcomers and Hollywood icons.

Snap can’t afford (financially) to compete head-on and doesn’t have the same scale of distribution. It is at 188 million daily active users and no longer growing rapidly (up 8% over the last year but DAUs actually shrunk by 3 million last quarter). Snapchat is also a much more private interface: it doesn’t enable users to see each others’ activity like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, YouTube, Spotify, and others do to encourage content discovery. Snap is more likely to create a hub for ad-supported mobile-first shows for teens and early-twentysomethings rather than rival Quibi or IGTV in creating a more broadly popular Netflix or Hulu of mobile-native shows.

It’s time to go freemium

Investing substantial capital upfront is especially necessary for a company launching a subscription tier: consumers must see enough compelling content behind the paywall from the start, and enough new content regularly added, to find an ongoing subscription worthwhile.

There is currently no monetization of IGTV. It is sitting in experimentation mode as Facebook watches how people use it. If any company can drive enough ad revenue solely from short commercials to still profit on high-cost, high-quality episodic shows on mobile, it’s Facebook. But a freemium subscription model makes more sense for IGTV. From a financial standpoint, building IGTV into its own profitable P&L while making substantial content investments likely demands more revenue than ads alone will generate.

Of equal importance is incentive alignment. Subscriptions are defined by “time well spent” rather time spent and clicks made: quality over quantity. This is the environment in which premium content of other formats has thrived too; SiriusXM as the breakout on radio, HBO on linear TV, Netflix in OTT originals. The type of content IGTV will incentivize, and the creative talent they’ll attract, will be much higher quality when the incentives are to create must-see shows that drive new subscribers than when the incentives are to create videos that optimize for views.

Could there be a “Netflix for mobile native video” with shows shot in vertical format specifically for viewing on smartphone?

The optimization for views (to drive ad revenue) have been the model that media companies creating content for Facebook have operated on for the last decade. The toxicity of this has been a top news story over the last year with Facebook acknowledging many of the issues with clickbait and sensationalism and vowing changes.

Over the years, Facebook has dragged media companies up and down with changes to its newsfeed algorithm that forced them to make dramatic changes to their content strategies (often with layoffs and restructuring). It has burned bridges with media companies in the process; especially after last January, how to reduce dependence on Facebook platforms has become a common discussion point among digital content executives. If Facebook wants to get top producers, directors, and production companies investing their time and resources in developing a new format of high-quality video series for IGTV, it needs an incentives-aligned business model they can trust to stay consistent.

Imagine a free, ad-supported tier for videos by influencers and media partners (plus select “IGTV Originals”) to draw in Instagram users, then a $3-8/month subscription tier for access to all IGTV Originals and an ad-free viewing experience. (By comparison, Quibi plans to charge a $5/month subscription with ads with the option of $8/month for its ad-free tier.)

Looking at the growth of Netflix in traditional TV streaming, a subscription-based business should be a welcome addition to Facebook’s portfolio of leading content-sharing platforms. This wouldn’t be its first expansion beyond ad revenue: the newest major division of Facebook, Oculus, generates revenue from hardware sales and a 30% cut of the revenue to VR apps in the Oculus app store (similar to Apple’s cut of iOS app revenue). Facebook is also testing a dating app which—based on the freemium business model Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, and other leading dating apps have proven to work—would be natural to add a subscription tier to.

Facebook is facing more public scrutiny (and government regulation) on data privacy and its ad targeting than ever before. Incorporating subscriptions and transaction fees as revenue streams benefits the company financially, creates a healthier alignment of incentives with users, and eases the public criticism of how Facebook is using people’s data. Facebook is already testing subscriptions to Facebook Groups and has even explored offering a subscription alternative to advertising across its core social platforms. It is quite unlikely to do the latter, but developing revenue streams beyond ads is clearly something the company’s leadership is contemplating.

The path forward

IGTV needs to make product changes if it heads in this direction. Right now videos can’t link together to form a series (i.e. one show with multiple episodes) and discoverability is very weak. Beyond seeing recent videos by those you follow, videos that are trending, and a selection of recommendations, you can only search for channels to follow (based on name). There’s no way to search for specific videos or shows, no way to browse channels or videos by topic, and no way to see what people you follow are watching.

It would be a missed opportunity not to vie for this. The upside is enormous—owning the Netflix of a new content category—while the downside is fairly minimal for a company with such a large balance sheet.

Sidestepping App Stores, Facebook Lite and Groups get Instant Games

HTML5 almost ruined Facebook when baking in the mobile web standard to speed up development slowed down the performance of the social network’s main iOS and Android apps. It eventually ditched HTML5, rebuilt the apps natively, and Facebook became one of the most powerful players in mobile.

Now Facebook is giving HTML5 another shot as a way to expand its Instant Games like Pac-Man and Words With Friends to the developing world through Facebook Lite, and to interest communities via Facebook Groups.

Instead of having to download separate apps for each game from the Apple App Store or Google Play, Instant Games launch in a mobile browser. That keeps Facebook Lite’s file size small to the benefit of international users with slow connections or limited data plans. And it lets Instant Games integrate directly into Groups so you can challenge not only friends but like-minded members to compete for high scores.

90 million people each month actively participate in 270,000 Facebook Groups about gaming, and now they’ll see Instant Games in the Groups navigation bar next to the About and Discussion tabs. Facebook is also considering making games an opt-in feature for non-gaming Groups. In Facebook Lite, Instant Games will appear in the More sidebar so they’re not too interruptive.

The expansion demonstrates how serious Facebook is about becoming a gaming company again. Back in its desktop days, the games platform dominated by devleopers like Zynga racked up tons of usage, virality, and in-game payments revenue for Facebook. That revenue declined for years after mobile usage began to dominate in 2014, but recently stabilized at around $190 million per quarter. Apparently someone is still playing FarmVille.

Facebook launched Instant Games in late-2016 to give people something to do while they’re waiting from friends to reply to their messages. Around the same time, Facebook launched Gameroom — a Steam-like desktop software hub for mid-core gamers, though there’s been less news on that product since. Instant Games rolled out worldwide in mid-2017, and opened to all developers in March of this year. It’s since been expanding monetization options for developers to make building Instant Games a sustainable business. That includes making Instant Games compatible with Facebook’s playable ads that let developers lure in users from the News Feed.

Facebook won’t actually be earning money from in-app purchases on Instant Games on iOS where it doesn’t allow IAP due to Apple’s policies, or on Android since it began forgoing its cut last month. It does take 30 percent on desktop though. But the bigger monetization play is in ads where Facebook is a juggernaut.

With Instant Games on Messenger, Facebook’s desktop site via a bookmark, its new Fb.gg standalone gaming community app, and now Facebook Lite and Groups, the company is prioritizing the space again. That seems wise as gaming becomes more mainstream thanks to players livestreaming their commentary and phenomena like Fortnite. And with Facebook’s expansion into hardware with the Portal smart screen and a forthcoming TV set-top box, it will have more places than ever for people to play or watch others duke it out.

Macaw will curate Twitter for you, help expand your network

Twitter today inserts activity-based tweets into your timeline, alerting you to things like the popular tweets liked by people you follow, or those Twitter accounts that a lot of people in your network have just started to follow. These alerts can be useful, but their timing is sporadic and they can be easily missed. Plus, if you turn off Twitter’s algorithmic timeline (as may be possible for some), you’ll lose access to this sort of info. A new Twitter app called Macaw aims to help.

Macaw, which recently launched on Product Hunt, offers a set of similar information as Twitter does, with a few changes.

Macaw works by first pulling in a list of people you follow. It then tracks what tweets they like throughout the day and turns that into a feed of tweets that were most popular. Macaw does the same thing for users, too – that is, it shows you if a number of people have suddenly started following someone, for example.

Beyond this, Macaw will also show you the “Latest” tweets receiving likes from your network in a separate tab, as well as tweets where someone has asked a question.

This “Asks” section will highlight tweets where someone on Twitter has asked something like “Does anyone know…?” or “what are the best…?”, for example. This can help you find new conversations to participate in and help you expand your network.

The end result is a curated version of Twitter, where you can catch up with what’s important, without so much endless scrolling through your timeline.

Even if you’re on Twitter itself a lot, Macaw can still be useful.

Its default setting will hide top tweets posted by someone in your network – because, chances are, you’ve already read them. With this setting turned on, you’ll only be shown top tweets by users you don’t yet follow.

You can also configure how many likes are required for something to be considered a “top” tweet. By default, this is set to 25, but you can change it to 10, 100, or even 1,000. You can adjust the default setting for the age of the tweet, too, from 6 hours to 2 hours, 24 hours, or 96 hours, based on how often you check in.

The app, however, is not a Twitter client.

That is, it doesn’t take the place of Twitter or other apps like Twitterific or Tweetbot, as you can’t use it to post tweets, access direct messages, update your profile, or follow users. You’ll need a different app, like the main Twitter client, for that. But a tap in Macaw will launch Twitter for you, making the transition feel seamless.

The app was built by Zachary Hamed, who had previously built Daily 140 for tracking a similar set of data, shared via email. He says he started building Macaw as a side project and launched it into private beta in August. It doesn’t currently have a business model, beyond a plan to maybe charge for additional features later on.

In some ways, Macaw is similar to Nuzzel, another Twitter summarization app that provides a list of top links that your network is sharing and discussing. But many of the best things on Twitter aren’t links, they’re individual tweets or tweetstorms. (Like that recent Google+ rant, for example).

Hamed admits Nuzzel was a source of inspiration for Macaw (a bird that screams constantly, by the way. Ha!)

“I was actually inspired by those notifications in the main Twitter app since I’ve always found them fascinating and by Nuzzel, which is one of my most used apps – and whose founder Jonathan I really respect,” Hamed says. “I think there is a lot of hidden insight to be found in posts people have liked and who they start following, especially if there is momentum around certain names or topics. As of now, Twitter only shares one to two of those recommendations, not all of it,” he adds.

*While we do like Macaw, the app, one thing we’re not a fan of are the fake reviews on the Macaw website, which pretend to be from @Jack, Mary Meeker, and Chamath Palihapitiya. It’s obviously meant to be a joke, but it falls flat – Macaw doesn’t need this sort of false promotion, and it’s wrong because it could confuse less savvy users.

Macaw is a free download on the App Store.

 

Hinge is first dating app to actually measure real world success

Dating app Hinge is today launching a new feature aimed at improving its recommendations, based on whether or not matches had successful real-world dates. The feature may also help to address one of the major problems with today’s dating apps: that no one knows how well they actually work. After all, it’s one thing to get matches and have conversations, but it’s quite another to turn those into dates, much less a long-term relationship.

With a new feature called “We Met,” Hinge will ask users a few days after they shared their phone numbers if they went on a date, and, if so, if they’d want to see that person again. This data will be used as a signal to inform Hinge’s algorithms and improve matches, if the user later returns to the app.

During beta trials, Hinge says that 90% of members said their first dates were great, and 72% said they wanted to go on a second.

“Ultimately, if you went on a date with someone and you thought they were great, that’s the strongest signal that we’ve gotten very close to your type of person. So if there are more people like that person, we can show them to you,” says Hinge CEO Justin McLeod.

By “like that person” it’s not a matter of physical appearance or some sort of profile categorization, to be clear.

“You can’t really aggregate people into their component pieces and try to crack what’s someone’s ideal person,” McLeod explains.

Instead, Hinge uses collaborative filtering – people who like X also like Y – to help inform its matches on that front.

With the launch of We Met, Hinge will now know when dates succeed or fail, and eventually, perhaps, why. It also plans to combine the We Met data with other signals – such as, whether users become inactive in the app or delete their accounts, as well as email survey data – to figure out which dates may have turned into relationships.

This is something of a first for the dating app industry, which is today incentivized to keep users “playing” their matching games, and spending money on in-app subscriptions – not leave them. It’s not in dating apps’ financial interest, at least, to create relationships (i.e., heavy user churn).

This influences the dating apps’ design – they don’t tend to include features designed to connect people in real life.

For example, they don’t make suggestions of events, concerts, and other things to do; they don’t offer maps of nearby restaurants, bars, coffee shops, or other public spaces for first dates; they don’t offer built-in calling (or gamify unlocking a calling feature by continuing to chat in app); they don’t use in-app prompts to suggest users exchange numbers and leave the app. Instead, apps tend to push users to chat more – with things like buttons for adding photos and GIFs, or even tabs for browsing Facebook-style News Feeds.

The problem of wasting time chatting in dating apps has now become so prevalent that many users’ profiles today explicitly state that they’re “not looking for pen pals.”

Of course dating apps – just like any other way of meeting new people – will have their share of success stories. Everyone knows someone who met online.

But claims that, for example, Tinder is somehow responsible for a whole generation of “Tinder babies” are hugely suspect, because the company doesn’t have any way of tracking if matches are actually dating, and certainly not if they end up getting married and having kids. It even said so in a recent documentary.

All Tinder has – or any of these companies, really – are anecdotes and emails from happy couples. (And this, of course, should be expected, with user bases in the tens of millions, like Tinder.)

We Met, meanwhile, is actually focused on quantifying real world dating successes in Hinge, not in-app engagement. Longer term, it could help to establish Hinge as place that’s for people who want relationships, not just serial dates or hookups.

The feature is also another example of how Hinge is leveraging A.I. combined with user insights to improve matches. Recently, it rolled out a machine learning-powered feature, Most Compatible, to help provide users with daily recommendations based on their in-app activity.

Hinge says We Met will launch today, October 16, on iOS first. Android will soon follow.

Zyl is now a nostalgia-powered photo app

AI-powered photo management app Zyl is going back to the drawing board with a streamlined, more efficient redesign. The app is now focused on one thing only — resurfacing your old memories.

Taking photos on a smartphone is now a daily habit. But what about looking back at photos you took one year, three years or even eight years ago? It can pile up quite quickly. Zyl thinks there’s emotional value in those long-forgotten photos.

Before this update, Zyl helped you delete duplicates, create smart photo albums based on multiple criteria and collaborate on photo albums. In other words, it was a utility app.

But when the company started talking with some of their users, they realized that one feature stood out and had more value than the rest.

Applying those AI-powered models to your photo library is a great way to find interesting photos. But nobody was really looking at them.

When you open the app, you get a view of your camera roll with your last photos at the bottom. There’s also a big green button at the bottom. When you tap on it, Zyl creates a satisfying animation and unveils an important photo.

If you took multiple photos to capture this moment, the app stitches together those photos and create a GIF. You can then share this Zyl with a friend or family member.

But the true magic happens if you try to get another Zyl. You have to wait 24 hours to unlock another photo. The next day, the app sends you a notification when your photo is ready. You can always open the app again and look at your past Zyls in a new tab with your most important photos.

Unlike Timehop or Facebook’s “On This Day” feature, Zyl doesn’t look at your social media posts and focuses on your camera roll. Zyl isn’t limited to anniversaries either.

Just like before, Zyl respects your privacy and leaves your photos alone. They’re never sent to the company’s server — Zyl uses the same photo database as the native one on your iPhone or Android phone so it doesn’t eat up more storage.

Over time, the app could give you more options by leveraging facial recognition and the intrinsic social graph of your photo library. Maybe you want to see more photos of your brother as his wedding is coming up.

And that notification can be a powerful nudge. I keep opening the app and sharing old photos. Zyl is a good example of the combination of something that you care about combined with an element of surprise.

Instagram tests tapping instead of scrolling through posts, first in Explore

The effortless way you fast forward through Stories could be coming to more of Instagram . A screenshot from user Suprateek Bose shows Instagram “Introducing a new way to move through posts — Tap through posts, just like you tap through stories.”

Now Instagram confirms to TechCrunch that it’s testing tap to advance within Explore, and a spokesperson provided this statement: “We’re always testing ways to improve the experience on Instagram and bring you closer to the people and things you love.” As for whether this could come to the main feed, an Instagram spokesperson tells me that not something it’s actively thinking about right now.

Tap to advance, pioneered by Snapchat, eliminates the need for big thumbstrokes on your touch screen that can get tiring after awhile. It also means users always see media full-screen rather than having to fiddle with scrolling the perfect amount to see an entire post. Together, these create a more relaxing browsing experience that can devour hours of a user’s time. While Snapchat remains the teen favorite, Instagram could cater to seniors with arthritis with this new method of navigation.

The fact that tap-to-advance is now testing but Instagram still hasn’t actually rolled out the Your Activity screentime digital well-being dashboard it says was launching two months ago begs the question of whether it really wants us to be more purposeful with our social media usage.

Facebook rolls out 3D photos that use AI to simulate depth

What if you could peek behind what’s in your photos, like you’re moving your head to see what’s inside a window? That’s the futuristic promise of Facebook 3D photos. After announcing the feature at F8 in May, Facebook is now rolling out 3D photos to add make-believe depth to your iPhone portrait mode shots. Shoot one, tap the new 3D photos option in the status update composer, select a portrait mode photo, and users on the desktop or mobile News Feed as well as in VR through Oculus Go’s browser or Firefox on Oculus Rift. Everyone can now view 3D photos and the ability to create them will open to everyone in the coming weeks.

Facebook is constantly in search of ways to keep the News Feed interesting. What started with text and photos eventually expanded into videos and live broadcasts, and now to 360 photos and 3D photos. Facebook hopes if it’s the exclusive social media home for these new kinds of content, you’ll come back to explore and rack up some ad views in the mean time.

So how exactly do 3D photos work? Our writer Devin Coldeway did a deep-dive earlier this year into how Facebook uses AI to stitch together real layers of the photo with what it infers should be there if you tilted your perspective. Since portrait mode fires off both of a phone’s cameras simultaneously, parralax differences can be used to recreate what’s behind the subject.

To create the best 3D photos with your iPhone 7+, 8+, X or XS, Facebook recommends you keep your subject three to four feet away, and have things in the foreground and background. Distinct colors will make the layers separate better, and transparent or shiny objects like glass or plastic can throw off the AI.

Originally, the idea was to democrative the creation of VR content. But with headset penetration still relatively low, it’s the ability to display depth in the News Feed that will have the greatest impact for Facebook. In an era where Facebook’s cool is waning, hosting next-generation art forms could make it a must-visit property even as more of our socializing moves to Instagram.