What is an Activity Feed?

Your complete cheat sheet for all things activity feeds. Here, we outline the definition, benefits, use cases, and best practices of activity feeds, and ways you can easily integrate this vital functionality into your own platform.

It should be no surprise that some of the world’s most popular apps contain an activity feed as their core functionality.

This comprehensive guide is a crash course in activity feed types, activity feed benefits and best practices, and real-world activity feed examples and use cases. We’ll also explore how you can quickly integrate a feed into your app using best-in-class APIs and developer-friendly SDKs to get your product up and running quickly.

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What is an Activity Feed?

Sometimes called a newsfeed or activity stream, an activity feed is a real-time list of actions performed by users on an app or website. Activity feeds display information from a user’s online community such as likes, follows, comments, posts, and content shares.

Feeds are an effective way for apps and websites to keep users engaged in their platform and motivated to interact and connect with others. Activity feeds positively impact an app or website’s key performance indicators such as retention rates, session length, engagement, and overall user satisfaction, making them a vital software component for community-centered platforms such as social apps like Facebook and Instagram, and professional tools like Microsoft Teams and Hubspot.

Activity Feed Types

Activity feeds come in several forms. Here, we’ll briefly describe the three top feed types. Apps can contain several types of feeds at once.

  1. Flat Feeds. A flat feed lists posts from a user’s community in an easy-to-understand, straightforward order. Social media sites such as Instagram and Twitter are prime examples of flat feed organization.

  2. Aggregated Feeds. Aggregated feeds combine updates from a user’s community into one listed action. For example, if multiple users react to your post, an aggregated feed may read, “Sam, Joan, and 12 others liked your post.” Aggregated feeds allow a user to view who in their community reacted to content without flooding their feed with near-identical updates.

  3. Notification Feeds. Notification feeds notify users of actions completed by members of their community. Notification feeds can let users know a friend followed their feed, read a message, or @mentioned a user in a comment. Some notification feeds are synched with email notifications to ensure users receive updates.

Feeds can also list content according to different sorting hierarchies. When using a feature-rich activity feed API, app owners can choose how content is populated on each feed to deliver content to their users in the way that makes most sense to their specific use case. These sorting options broadly include:

  • Chronological Feeds. Chronological feeds typically list content and updates from a user’s community in reverse chronological order (most recent updates populate at the top of the feed) to present an uncurated summary of user actions such as liking, following, commenting, or posting. The chronological feed allows users to discover content easily, and is a good model for low-volume feeds. However, as social network users widen their community and follow hundreds or possibly thousands of accounts, chronological content can quickly get lost in a firehose of updates, making it difficult for users to view every content piece.

  • Custom Ranked Feeds. Custom ranked feeds allow app developers to configure their own feed ranking method. For example, developers can ensure that certain content rockets to the top of a feed based on criteria such as popularity (i.e., the most likes, comments, and reshares). Custom ranked feeds also encompass “pinning” and promoting select content so it has a higher likelihood of being viewed by a certain community. (Custom ranked feeds can be challenging to build in-house. Stream’s Activity Feed decay algorithms offer developers complete control over how to rank a feed.)

  • Personalized Feeds. Personalized activity feeds are dictated by algorithms that populate the most relevant content and updates to the top of a user’s feed. Personalized feeds leverage machine learning to optimize what’s displayed in the feed, and predict the type of content users will interact with most. A popular example of a personalized feed is Instagram’s Explore Page, which uses data from an individual’s historical actions with certain content. For instance, if a user starts liking and commenting on posts about healthy recipes, Instagram’s algorithm will populate additional healthy recipe content from a variety of content creators because chances are high that the user will also find this type of content interesting.

Learn how Stream’s personalized feed powers CodePen’s social development experience.

Activity Feed Benefits

Activity feeds are the cornerstone feature of many top apps, and platforms featuring a feed enjoy benefits that range from greater user engagement and connected communities to real-time analytics and predictable user habits.

1. Improved App Metrics

Feeds power key metrics that matter to app owners. Studies show that users of apps with activity feeds are nearly three times more likely to stay in an app longer because they feel a sense of community or belonging. Engagement metrics in particular such as time in app, session interval, retention, and active users improve with a feed integration. For instance, after integrating the Stream Feeds API, Stream customers saw their user engagement increase by an average of 66% and user retention increase by 58%.

Such impressive statistics indicate that feeds are an invaluable feature because they have significant positive impact on an app or website’s success.

Learn how Crunchbase increased user engagement with the Stream Activity Feed API.

2. Fresh Content Population

Activity feeds enable platforms to have a continually updated stream of user-generated content, which allows users to consistently enjoy interesting new posts to view and engage with. Feeds that are custom ranked or personalized using machine learning in particular facilitate new content discovery, which makes opening an app exciting.

3. Real-Time Analytics

Activity feeds offer app owners and marketers a goldmine of rich engagement analytics that can help decipher the actions and motivations of their users. Engagement events such as posts, updates, shares, and search queries provide insights into content that best resonates with an audience. These analytics are particularly helpful in verticals such as virtual events, where user engagement with a presenter’s posts can indicate attendee satisfaction with that topic.

4. Form Predictable User Habits

Activity feeds help users form predictable, daily-use habits that can influence an app’s financial success. Habitually checking a newsfeed for updates — and discovering new relevant content — is rewarding, and encourages users to keep coming back to your app for the long term.

Predictable user habits also lay the foundation for app monetization, such as in marketplace use cases.

Activity Feed Best Practices

The success of your app’s feed is contingent on its UI/UX. Activity feeds are interactive, and users must instantly know how to scroll through the feed, post updates, and comment, like, and reply to posts. Implementing design best practices can help you get the most out of feed functionality.

Seek Simplicity

App users should quickly understand how to interact with your product’s feed. A simple design aesthetic that reduces clutter can clearly guide users to engage with content. A simply designed feed can mean removing redundancies, choosing typography that prioritizes readability, embracing abbreviations for minimal text, and focusing engagement controls (such as like, comment, and share).

Populate Feeds Immediately

When a new user enters your app, avoid displaying a blank feed, as it provides little value to onboarding first-time app users. Rather, ensure your users can immediately start engaging with a feed by designing a “who to follow” board. This is an ideal way to encourage your app audience to construct their unique feed. Follow suggestions or sidebar content ensures that new users follow highly engaged members of your community.

If your app is integrated with a popular social media app such as Facebook, try populating a user’s feed based on their existing Facebook data that includes interests, friends, follows, and likes.

Minimize Feed Changes

If you already have an engaged audience that uses your feed, be wary about making sudden design or organizational changes, as this may upset your user base.

For example, several years ago Strava changed their chronological feed ordering to algorithmic sorting, sparking confusion from users who were used to viewing their friend’s activities based on time and date. (After user feedback, Strava later added back in the option to view feeds chronologically.)

It is ideal to establish the hierarchical feed organization at your app’s launch, rather than change it later on.

Activity Feed Examples & Use Cases

Nearly every industry can benefit from an activity feed integration. Here are examples and use cases of feeds in several different key verticals, including edtech, fintech, health and fitness, and social networking. All of the following examples help engage app users and encourage them to return to the app more frequently.

Edtech: Enabling Students to View Every Class Announcement

K-12 school districts in the U.S. spend upwards of $8.4 billion on edtech software each year. But according to a Glimpse K12 study, nearly 67% of the software licenses go unused. This troubling statistic underscores the need for more engaging edtech solutions that teachers, students, and parents alike are motivated to use to keep curriculum and work on track. Edtech software with an integrated feed enables students to view assignment announcements, ask questions, confirm their work was submitted, and receive kudos from teachers and peers.

Kiddom is an all-in-one edtech platform that is designed to keep students engaged in an in-classroom, hybrid, or virtual classroom learning environment. In addition to a reliable in-app chat, Kiddom’s class announcement feed keeps students updated on deadlines, class happenings, and more. Feed updates also trigger email notifications.

Fintech: Turning Payments Into a Social Experience

More than a simple payment app, Venmo brings sociality into online transactions with a feed that allows users to broadcast their payments and social connections. This public payment method is a key driver of Venmo’s success, as it facilitates repeat app use and adds a level of user connection. “Nearly every major social media platform has tried — mostly unsuccessfully — to do money,” explains Lana Swartz, author of the New Money: How Payment Became Social Media. “And increasingly, financial technologies and banks are trying to look more like social media.” Venmo’s flat, chronological feed is a simple, easy-to-understand feed that encourages dynamic content use such as emojis.

Health & Fitness: Motivating Movement

Ample research suggests that people are more motivated to exercise and eat mindfully when they have community support, and health and fitness apps with feeds are prime vehicles for such social connection.

Strava’s feed, which includes a commenting and liking feature, encourages users to run, bike, hike, or walk farther and more frequently. Strava also aggregates “kudos” actions for a streamlined, easy-to-read notification feed.

Social Networking: New Content Discovery

Feeds are a core functionality for social media apps of all ilk, one of the most popular being the photo-centric Instagram. Instagram’s personalized feed leverages machine learning to populate new and relevant content to users in order to keep audiences scrolling.

Tutorials: How to Integrate Activity Feeds

Developers can either build a feed themselves (often called building “in-house”) or buy a best-in-class feed API from a reliable tech provider.

The following tutorials showcase how to build a feed using the Stream Activity Feed API, a component that is trusted by enterprise clients and more than a billion end users.

Activity Feed APIs & SDKs

Building a feature-rich feed from the ground up can be a challenging undertaking that requires ample dev resources. Even websites and apps that pioneered the modern feed in social media originally had issues scaling their feeds. (Rest in peace, Twitter Fail Whale, a cute whale drawing that represented Twitter’s frequent service outages.)

As the componentization of in-app features grows more common, increasingly more product managers and developers are embracing best-in-class APIs and SDKs to integrate reliable, scalable feeds into platforms. Designing an activity feed with tech building blocks is also easier with customizable activity feed UI kits, which take the guesswork out of creating social feed patterns, profile pages, and grid/list pages.

Adding a feed to your app doesn’t have to be a headache. Whether you’re launching your MVP or elevating your existing product’s community platform, Stream’s Feeds API and developer-friendly SDKs (available in React, React Native, iOS Swift, and Flutter) can provide a lightning-fast, reliable feeds option. Explore the Stream Activity Feed API today.