Let's be honest - Snapchat's first impression didn't exactly suggest that it would become a valuable, or even viable, channel for marketing.
Back in 2011, Stanford University students Evan Spiegel and Bobbie Murphy were inspired to develop a photo-sharing app within which any photos they sent would disappear upon viewing. How did they come up with this idea?
"I wish these photos I am sending this girl would disappear," a friend of theirs had remarked.
Yes, the origins of Snapchat are pretty much as you'd expect - a couple of college guys were trying to think of a way to erase the evidence of their potentially embarrassing photos, which they were sharing with girls. Yet, from that basic seed, Spiegel and Co have gone on to create one of the fastest growing and most popular social media apps available today. There are now more than 7 billion videos viewed on Snapchat every single day. For comparison, Facebook serves 8 billion video views per day, while YouTube, reportedly, sees close to 5 billion. And while the varying measurements make it impossible to directly rank the three (Snapchat counts a video view upon a user opening the Snap, Facebook counts after 3 seconds view time, while YouTube waits 30 seconds before marking it down as a view), the reach and resonance of Snapchat is undeniable. As per Snapchat's advertising page:
If you see a teenager taking a selfie these days, chances are they're posting it to Snapchat, and that reach potential, the capacity of the app to connect with a younger audience, has many brands extremely keen to get in on the action - and has Snapchat looking to build an entire empire around their service. And they're doing so, one small update at a time.
Update: Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel is now reportedly telling analysts that Snapchat is serving 8 billion videos to users per day, putting it on par with Facebook. Spiegel's also noted that the app's 100 million daily users spend 30 minutes per day on the app, while more than half the new users signing up to Snapchat are over the age of 25.
One of the most interesting aspects of Snapchat's growth has been the methodical and paced way in which they're going about it. Snapchat knows that user experience is king, that they've reached a unique and trusted position amongst a younger audience - a demographic that can be fickle and rally against any kind of marketing when detected. This is particularly true amongst the next generation of digital natives - while generations past have had to endure broad-scoped ads wedged in between segments of their favorite TV shows and the pages of their magazines, digital savvy audiences are growing to understand, and even expect, that marketers will reach them with highly targeted and personally relevant messaging, which will also be built to fit into the flow of the platforms they're already using.
Snapchat knows this, and they've been working to create a more natural and non-intrusive monetization system that will enable them to maximize that audience reach, without sending users flocking to 'the next big thing'.
They started with Discover, their publishing platform which was introduced in January 2015 and has been allocated its own, separate section of the app, so it doesn't interfere with the normal process flow. Discover was given increased emphasis in July, with an update to have the Discover channel tabs flow over into the main 'Stories' screen. But still, it's generally unobtrusive - you can ignore it completely and go about your Snapchatting without having to wade through content you're not actually interested in.
Discover, at the moment, is Snapchat's primary revenue source, charging publishers to place their content within the app and selling ad space within Discover content. But there have been questions about Snapchat's reach and whether users are actually viewing Discover content, largely because of this deliberately non-disruptive approach. Different publishers have reported different results - Cosmopolitan says it gets 3 million readers a day on Discover, while BuzzFeed says it gets 21% of its total traffic from Snapchat. Yet, at the same time, Yahoo and Warner Music were dumped from Discover by Snapchat itself due to poor performance on the channel. This somewhat tells the story of Snapchat more widely - that brands who are willing to invest the time and understand the platform can succeed, but those who don't will sink.
This, of course, makes monetization of Snapchat more challenging, but at the same time, it's also likely to make it more rewarding for those brands that do get it right. Snapchat's keen to find more avenues towards monetization, and they're doing this through a range of add-on functions - like branded geo-filters which the platform announced last week - and those types of tools will likely prove hugely popular, as they enable brands to reach Snapchat audiences in a more natural, engaging way. It's that aspect that's the biggest hurdle for Snapchat business, reaching the platform's audience in a way that works with what they're seeking to do within their on-platform experience.
But aside from platform understanding and adaptability, another problem for Snapchat has been the limitations of the platform from a discoverability standpoint. Snapchat is a mobile-only app - you can't access Snapchat on desktop like you can with many other social platforms, and the content disappears after 24 hours, making it harder to link to. In fact, there was no way to link to Snapchat content at all till a few weeks ago, when Snapchat announced an update that enables users to 'deep-link' to their Snapchat content - meaning people (and brands) can now link direct to their Snaps from another app like Facebook or Twitter.
That update was important, as it enables businesses to better justify further investment in their Snap content - if they can reach a wider audience by referring users direct to their Snapchat channel, that may give them more license to put more effort into their Snap material - which, again, only lasts for 24 hours. The disappearing element is significant - how much do you spend developing content that's going to be gone tomorrow? It's a whole new way of looking at content creation - and this week, for the Oscars, Snapchat took another step forward in this, with the Snapchat Oscars Live Story viewable on the web, the first time active Snapchat content has been viewable via desktop.
Make no mistake, this is a big deal for Snapchat and for brands looking to utilize the platform - while it's only one story so far, and there's no indication as to how long that Story will remain active (via this link), it's a very interesting development, and an exciting one for those considering what role Snapchat plays in the wider social media marketing landscape.
Why is it so important? Because despite the ubiquity of mobile devices, desktop use is still highly relevant - as noted in this chart from the 2015 Mary Meeker internet trends report, while mobile usage has increased higher and higher, desktop usage has remained relatively stable also.
That's particularly relevant in the case of Snapchat - for many, particularly older users, Snapchat's confusing, its user interface is not intuitive, the learning curve is quite steep, etc. But a great many people do, actually, use Snapchat, and they use it alot - being able to showcase the many perspectives of those Snapchat users to people who are not active participants themselves could lead to a huge boost in Snapchat viewership. And given many of those older users are active on desktop PCs...
It could also significantly boost the potential reach of Snapchat content - if every Snapchat story is given its own, unique URL and users are able to share them across each and every platform, that boosts the value of Snap content significantly. Brands would be able to link back to stories about their events, maybe even create their own stories which can be shared to both Snapchat users and non-users alike. For one, it'll expose Snapchat content to non-believers who might finally see that the app is about way more than just naked photos and teens, but it'll also better showcase the work of talented Snapchat creators and enable them connect with brands who might be looking to utilize the platform - and with better reach through expanded sharing options for Snapchat content, influencer partnerships like this will no doubt become more popular as time goes on.
But again, this is only a subtle change, at least from the regular Snapchat users' perspective. Where Snapchat is succeeding, above all else, is that they're evolving the platform in what feels like a natural and intuitive way, and through a process that's expanding their potential audience without alienating the devotees they already have. This is crucial for Snapchat - and despite all the noise around the app's $16 billion valuation, despite the questions about their monetization strategy and growth potential. Despite all these additional pressures and queries, Snapchat is building their empire at their own pace. Surely that'll have to change is Snapchat, as expected, does publicly list at some time in the near future, but right now, the app is on the right track, and is positioning itself well to capitalize on that huge audience resonance and appeal.
If you're not taking Snapchat seriously, it might be time to give it another look.