In the five years since launching, Instagram's app has remained remarkably streamlined. Despite adding tons of features and capabilities, the company has never overloaded its users with functionality -- anyone who opens Instagram understands innately how it works.
Facebook (NASDAQ:FB), Instagram's parent company, was born on the desktop, and still has many carryovers from that era. The Facebook app acts as a catchall for all things Facebook -- News Feeds, Messenger, Groups, Photos, Events, Pages, and soon Shopping. It certainly hasn't been too much of a problem for Facebook, which sees 1.3 billion monthly active users on mobile.
But when it comes to producing stand-alone apps, the companies take different approaches. And the Instagram subsidiary has done significantly better in its early attempts than its parent company.
Instagram's latest stand-alone app, Boomerang, follows the same approach as its first two efforts in stand-alone apps, Hyperlapse and Layout. All three of these apps are designed to add functionality to the main Instagram app. On their own, they can create videos or photo collages to upload to any web property, but they're most useful in conjunction with Instagram.
Instagram's apps serve to increase engagement on the platform in two ways. First, they provide new ways for users to create content for the social network. Boomerang allows users to create short 1-second videos; Hyperlapse lets them create time-lapse videos; Layout allows them to make photo collages. Second, the space they take up in a user's app launcher serves as a reminder to check out what people are posting on Instagram.
Instagram's promotion of its apps is subtle and convenient. When posting a photo, it has a small logo for Layout in the corner if you want to post a collage instead. With Boomerang, it's automatically tagging "made with Boomerang" on uploads, sending viewers to download the app in the app store to make their own micro-videos.
Facebook often takes the opposite approach of Instagram, pulling features out of Facebook instead of creating new ones. That's not bad, and it often becomes a necessity because of the more cluttered nature of the flagship app. Messenger has gone on to attract 700 million monthly users since being separated from Facebook's main app. Using the Groups app is a much better experience than following Groups on the main app.
Sometimes, however, Facebook goes out and makes an app from scratch. These apps are moonshots, and they have the success rate of moonshots. Ever heard of Riff? How about Slingshot? Some readers may have heard of Paper, but probably don't use it. These apps often fail, but Facebook has been able to take the best parts of each and implement them on its flagship app. Paper was the jumping off point for Instant Articles. Slingshot introduced the ability to draw on photos.
So, while Facebook may not be dominating the top charts in the app store, it's gaining valuable feedback from users.
What Twitter can learn
During Twitter's (NYSE:TWTR) fourth-quarter earnings call earlier this year, then-CEO Dick Costolo said he wanted the company to develop an ecosystem of applications and services. Whether that view has changed under the nascent leadership of Jack Dorsey is unclear. If Twitter does decide to pursue stand-alone apps (outside of its acquired apps Vine and Periscope), which strategy is it more likely to follow?
While Instagram's strategy has had more success, Twitter is more suited to follow an approach similar to Facebook's -- splitting off features into their own apps and experimenting with new products that don't directly relate to Twitter.
The primary target for splitting off features would be Moments. For a product feature partially designed to showcase the value of Twitter to non-users, it's impossible to access on mobile without a Twitter account. Twitter Moments could create a streamlined and curated Twitter experience for the uninitiated, leading to more downloads and sign-ups for the full app.
Twitter could also experiment with photos, videos, and social interactions in the same way Facebook has in the recent past. With product-guy Jack Dorsey at the helm and a recent shakeup of the product team, Twitter could come up with some creative ideas.
But the lack of real success from Facebook may be concerning for Twitter, which already has to answer to investors questioning where the user growth went. A flop of a stand-alone app won't help when it comes time to answer such questions after each quarterly report. To his credit, Jack Dorsey doesn't seem afraid to take risks and tell it like it is, so we might see him actually take steps to expand Twitter's reach on mobile with more apps.