In 2011, Robby Stein left Google after nearly 4 years to develop check-in app Stamped, which he sold to Yahoo some 20 months later. He then left Yahoo for Instagram in May 2016, where he has launched such integral functions such as Stories, Live and Instagram Direct as Product Director, and thus has indirectly impacted marketing strategies for brands and influencers like none other. OMR editor Torben Lux chatted with Stein about new products, the influence of ads on his work and the million-dollar industry of 3rd-party apps.
OMR: Robby, as a Product Director at Instagram, what are your core responsibilities? Robby Stein: Basically, my job pertains to everything that has to do with how people connect and share on Instagram. My team and I worked together to launch the original version of stories. We built and changed a bunch of aspects on feed, we launched Live, a new version of direct messaging for visual. And then we also launched a whole host of creative tools like the question sticker, boomerang and superzoom.
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What standards do new products have to fulfill? That always depends on the product. But generally speaking, each of these launches have enabled people to better connect on Instagram and feel more comfortable just sharing what they are doing and what they are thinking. It is our mission to help you feel closer to people that you love.
Can you explain that using the two newest features, profile design and “Close Friends” on stories as concrete examples? The point of the new profile version that we’re testing right now is that a profile should represent you. If I have never met you before and I see your Instagram profile, I should get a sense of me getting to know you. And so what we’ve done is made a couple of changes to really emphasize your biography and your information more than system information like follows and all of that stuff. And with “Close Friends” the purpose is for you to share posts with your inner circle, while Feed is more for highlights. “Close Friends” creates a story that is private and only for your close friends to see.
You just mentioned the change in the way the feed is being used. As it does, a massive amount of reach and attention shifts towards Stories. Do you see the two products as being in direct competition with each other? They are two entirely different products. Stories is a full-media viewer that allows you to chain and easily skip between stories. We’re not seeing a problem with users finding stories, it is very clear. Feed, which is actually a vertical format, relies on having space. Right now it is in a good, balanced state and we are happy with where it is. But I do think as stories becomes a more and more prominent aspect of Instagram it only makes sense that it becomes a more prominent aspect of the product over time.
Do you think it could one day be released as a stand-alone app for example? No, there is no plan for an extra Stories app.
The product is still being developed further though, right? Of course. I think Stories is in its infancy still, with respect to what it can do. At its start it was a very basic format. If you look at what we have built over the past year and a half or so, it now has unique augmented reality experiences and formats in it, Superzoom, music integration… Still those are just a first set of things, but I imagine that in the next year or two there will be more things to make this format a far richer and more expressive experience. We are probably still in the early days with that.
And that would not be the first Instagram product that contains its own app. Take for example Instagram Direct. That’s true. But here we are still testing in a variety of markets and really leaning a lot.
A question about separate apps for individual functions. Doesn’t the user experience suffer when users have to download separate functions when on the surface it seems like they should be or in the past have been a part of the main app? First of all, we don’t know if it is the right thing; we are testing it. One of the things we are testing is does it make sense to have an independent app, what do people think about it and how are they using it. From a philosophy perspective, it is my belief that you should consider an independent app if it dramatically improves the overall performance of the essential functions. Messaging is an excellent example as it is a unique product category.
What makes it unique? There are several aspects that make it unique. So, a messaging app demands a deep set of features, in order for it to be something that you use everyday and really enjoy. For instance, it needs a clean push-notification channel. If you don’t know that you’re friends messaged you, then Messenger is broken. The second important aspect when messaging a friend is speed of reply and speed of access. They are essential factor in people deciding where to message people. If it is tucked inside of another app, it is three extra steps in order to just message a friend. And so our approach is, could you build the best-possible experience for a messenger inside of another product. Speed also is important here, because you don’t have to load Instagram, since it is just messaging. So, if enough of those benefits occur and we think it’s valuable then that’s why we are interested in testing.
If you had to choose one, which Instagram product would you are most proud of? You can’t pick one of your children. But I do think that what people do not understand is that the products are not used separately. The average user will go to Stories, they’ll write back to friends, which they’ll see in Direct. They’ll go in Feed and they’ll re-share something funny they see to a friend in Direct. And in one session they’ll use all three products.
What about IGTV? Its performance has been rather sluggish, hasn’t it? I do work on it, but it is not my focus. Instagram TV is a very early project that we just started working on 6 months ago. And we are testing a whole bunch of different experiences there to bring creative video to Instagram.
How much time do you spend on average with the Instagram ad product? I work very closely with my counterpart, who runs the ads products. While I focus on consumer products, it is a very important partnership. Businesses are a key part of Instagram; 80% of people on Instagram follow a business, many people follow brands and seek out the content that is in ads. It is a fundamental part of the overall experience. It is therefore important that from a product perspective everything is consistent. And so we work together to make sure there is a holistic, consistent experience, which was also the case when we developed the first design of Stories ads.
How closely do you work with 3rd-party apps? Getting the most out of the creative and marketing tools that use the Instagram API, has evolved into a million-dollar industry. What we use are sharing extensions for Stories, which does enable businesses to create things for Stories. It effectively enables a company like Spotify to create a visual object and then when you say share to story, it puts a photo into a story. That makes a nice visual experience and the added benefit is that we are able to link back to the music and listen to it yourself. The purpose of the tool was to enable people to build apps that we probably would not have built ourself, which was the case with Spotify. We look for opportunities like that.
The last thing I would like to ask is something about which there is constant speculation: if there is a correlation between the number of hashtags used on a post and its reach. fanpagekarma.com recently published a study>/a> that stated Posts with 30 hashtags have the most likes per follower, while posts with 20 hashtags have the most reach per follower. I am not familiar with the study or that data. But I think it is a complicated thing to optimize, because we optimize for user value. Ultimately, it is completely personalized based on what the user is interested in. My advice to publishers is to focus on creating content that lots of people like, because if we have a signal that people are enjoying someone’s content, then that content tends to get more interaction in the system.