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Microsoft wants to add Stories to corporate portals

Stories are everywhere -- and I'm not talking about the fantasy kind. In the early aughts, Snapchat launched Stories as a way to let users share candid moments throughout the day, like catching the morning sunrise or going on a coffee run. It was a massive success, and the intervening years have spit out many an imitator, from Instagram Stories and Facebook Stories to the less-successful YouTube Stories. Now -- not to be outdone -- Microsoft aims to bring Stories to the enterprise with the aptly-named Stories feature, a forthcoming addition to the company's Viva "employee experience" (i.e. intranet) platform.

The Stories format of snackable content, which grew popular partly because it's so darn effective at attracting eyeballs, might sound like an anathema to the sort of corporate customers who subscribe to Viva. After all, blue chips value productivity above most else. But Microsoft says this isn't so -- there's an appetite for ephemeral photo and video slideshows within the workplace, the company argues, because they provide a "fun, familiar way" to stay connected with colleagues.

The jury's out on that. In any case, Stories is a part of Viva Engage, a new "AI-powered" component of Viva and app in Microsoft Teams that "provides employees with personal expression tools," like creating and sharing video Stories. It's a replacement for the Yammer Communities for Teams, which is going away soon. Here's how Microsoft describes it:

Viva Engage is a social app for digital communities, conversations, and self-expression tools that builds on the existing capabilities of the Communities app for Teams and Microsoft 365 to connect employees and empower everybody to contribute and express themselves by meeting people where they are in Teams and Microsoft 365. And as an integral part of the Microsoft Viva suite, Viva Engage contributes to Viva Connections and Viva Topics and over time will extend community, conversation, and knowledge experiences into other areas of Viva.

For managers, Viva Engage supports things like virtual events, pinned conversations, and announcements with notifications across Teams, Viva Connections, and Outlook. For the rank and file, Viva Engage offers a "Best Answers" to questions feature, "@" mentions, and forum-like topics as well as posts with rich media (e.g., photos, videos, and files) that reach across Outlook, Teams, and Yammer.

As with Snapchat and Instagram, Stories, which can be uploaded from the web or mobile, appear in a chronological carousel alongside contributions from followed and "recommended" colleagues. In Viva, Stories show up at the top of a Facebook-like news feed dubbed Storyline and a dedicated tab. In Teams, they're above the video window. You'll also see them in Outlook and Yammer.

"Storyline posts will show up in Viva Connections, and you can choose to receive notifications of new posts and Stories from people you follow in Teams and Outlook," Dan Holme, the product lead for Viva Engage, told TechCrunch in an email interview. "The posts and stories you share remain part of your Storyline until (and if) you delete them ... On the home feed and Storylines feed, when you're looking at content shared by others, the carousel and feed will focus on content you have not yet seen; and Stories will disappear from the Stories carousel after 30 days."

They wouldn't be proper Stories without stickers and formatting options, and Viva Engage mostly delivers the goods, here. At launch, Microsoft's brand of Stories will allow augmenting photos with text and stickers, and the plan is to "regularly enhance" these features after the general release, Holme said.

Viva Engage Stories
Viva Engage Stories

Image Credits: Microsoft

The question in my mind, though, is: Will anyone actually use Viva Engage Stories? LinkedIn gave up on Stories last year, and one survey - albeit a few years old -- found that 31% of employees haven't checked their company's intranet once. If simply opening a portal is a tall order, what chance does Microsoft's take on Stories stand?

On the other hand, it's true that videos are an easier sell than the docs that typically fill an employee portal. According to Forrester Research, employees are 75% more likely to watch a video than to read documents, emails or web articles.

Microsoft Stories in Teams
Microsoft Stories in Teams

Image Credits: Microsoft

It's also true that the pandemic has disrupted the social fabric of the workforce in ways that have some workers yearning for deeper connections. For example, contrary to popular belief, not all Gen Zers of working age -- between ages 20 and 24 -- are on board with the remote setups that the pandemic normalized. Research firm Generation Lab found in a recent study that 40% of Gen Z workers are worried about fewer networking opportunities and less mentorship.

"Storyline and Stories are anchored in making it easier for employees to connect with colleagues and share and socialize their thoughts through conversations, images, and videos -- similar to how they do within their personal social platforms," Holme said. "Stories provide a familiar and personal way to capture the moment and share in a way that is not yet served in the enterprise. It gives employees a quick way to engage with each other, share their unique voice, and amplify moments that are meaningful to them. Additionally, customers have asked for more modern ways to communicate and engage with the new workforce, which tends to be familiar and engaged with modalities they're accustomed to in their personal lives."

Stories won't replace the watercooler or after-work happy hours. But maybe -- just maybe -- it'll scratch the itch to socialize.

Oh -- and in case you're wondering what all this means for Yammer, Microsoft's other enterprise-focused social network, fear not. The Yammer web experience and native mobile apps will continue to be available post-Viva Engage launch, and content created in Viva Engage will be viewable in Yammer and vice versa.

Viva Engage will be available to all current Microsoft 365 commercial customers at no additional charge, Microsoft says. Users must have a Yammer license to use the app. In late August, Storyline will begin public preview; Stories will be coming into public preview later in the summer.