I am getting asked a lot about Snapchat, so in the last few months I thought I needed to give it another try. I installed and uninstalled it twice over the last two years, and especially last time I have to admit I was too quick in deciding it would not be a mass market service in Germany – I thought that if an app doesn’t have any reasonable mechanism to discover accounts, not even those of celebrities, football clubs or media outlets, and if your “newsfeed” does not have any intelligence other than sorting your content by time (“user to user”) or by editorial selection (“Live” and “Discover”), you wouldn’t get very far. Plus, of course, I had that critical mass problem: hardly any friends were using Snapchat.
In December, when you finally have time to unsubscribe from unnecessary newsletters, uninstall apps, clean up your phones, tablets and laptops, I gave it a third try – and now I am a daily user with increasing fun on Snapchat, and I think I finally figured out a few things about it that may help to explain why Snapchat is such a big deal. Because here’s one thing that has always bothered me: journalists or fellow strategists sometimes explain things with “millennials love to do xyz” or “people nowadays want xyz”, as if it would happen by some miraculous trend out of nowhere that a service reaches a hundred million active users – and I have read that many times about Snapchat. I always think there are reasons behind millennials doing this or people wanting that. My way of trying to find explanations is not sociological or psychological – which would be valid, too, like Snapchat not having a publically available “friend count” or an equivalent to “likes”, which leads to less social pressure especially among younger users. I try to look at the inner workings of services, the mechanisms that are applied and the structure of these applications. What may have misled me at my first two tries is that the two most famous things about Snapchat – the fact that your messages disappear and the filters and lenses for the camera – are more or less “cosmetic”, fun additions to Snapchat’s unique approach:
I think the core of its uniqueness lies somewhere else: Snapchat seems so confusing because it seamlessly combines a social network and a messenger. The messenger to me is “the left Snapchat” (1), the social network is the “right Snapchat”(2) (as the directions where you have to swipe to get there from the start screen). Additionally, vertical video (3), its tapping/skipping feature (4) and the radical “creation first approach” (5) make up the five main factors for me why Snapchat works – and will continue to attract users.
Let’s first have a quick look on the differences between a public social network and a messenger:
A social network is mainly characterized by a newsfeed. Your connections – whether you have a friend or follow a page – have your permission to post into your feed. You will find a mixture of personal, natively produced content and professional content, either from the original source or shared by one of your connections. All this content is sorted by some form of algorithm. On Facebook, it is the famous newsfeed algorithm that decides which stories are on top, which are shown on “lower” areas of your newsfeed, and which are not shown at all to you (Instagram gets an algorithm, too; Twitter introduced, years too late, their “while you were away” feature). This of course applies to your own posts, too: You publish to your – let’s say – 350 friends, plus the general public, and you have no idea who has seen your post (unless they like/react, comment, share). In a social network, you are broadcasting to a public (general public, your friends, groups/lists – but it is still broadcasting). You have less control over who sees what, but you have a generally high reach as a sender, and as a recipient generally good chances for discovery of valuable content you didn’t ask for (the better the algorithm works, the better your chances). Your feed is what your connections have put together for you, and the algorithm provides a selection of that.
Messengers are very different. In opposite to public social networks, a messenger lets you handle private micro-networks. The smallest being two people in a conversation, but for example on WhatsApp, your largest group can have a hundred members. These private micro-networks often only exist for a small period of time. When you go out with two families for a day in the park, a few years back people would post the pictures on Facebook. Today, much of that communication goes to a messenger: you would add everyone who has been there plus the aunt who lives in that other city and the grandparents, so they can see the pics of the kids – and not your creepy colleague from work or the borderline stalker of a neighbour. Here, no algorithm is at work: everyone who is intended as a recipient will get the message delivered – and no one else.
As a sender, you can even see who has received the message yet and who hasn’t. You are in full control of the communication. Private micro-networks are my explanation why native, user generated content (in their own words, images, videos) on Facebook has reportedly decreased by 20% from 2014 to 2015.
Snapchat combines the two:
If you swipe left from your start screen, the camera, you enter the “left Snapchat”: a messenger to communicate directly with your connections. If you swipe right, you get to Snapchat, the social network, the “right Snapchat”: here, you receive broadcasts from your connections – and can broadcast to them. In my eyes, this is the most unique thing about Snapchat: There’s a left Snapchat, and there’s a right Snapchat.
The left Snapchat: The messenger
The messenger is pretty basic. It allows to send text, links, and everything you would produce with the Snapchat camera, its lenses and filters and production tools. Messages disappear after viewing. The confusing thing is: if you want to send a natively produced video/image, you can choose whether you want to send to a private micro-network or broadcast to the public social network on the same screen – “my story” (broadcast) versus individual recipients. Here, left and right network are very close to one another. You can even send pre-produced content – for example, when you take a picture in MSQRD, because you like the lenses better, and you tap “share” in that app, Snapchat is among your sharing options, just like Facebook or Instagram or Messenger or Whatsapp. You can send any picture from your gallery via the “left Snapchat”, the messenger. Or you can send plain text, or links. Mastering the “left Snapchat” is easy. It’s a messenger.
The right Snapchat: The social network
Coming from your camera start-screen, if you swipe to the right, you get to the public social network. Here, you will find basically three elements. The first is “Discover”: An old-school, editorial selection of content, brought to you by professional content providers. It is the same selection for everyone.
The second category is “live”: Again, editorial selection, and again, the same for everyone. A daily program that often features sports and music events or portrays cities and countries. Both these areas are pure broadcasting in its oldest sense, it is a program that is available to every user, and we will get to its special appeal a bit later (especially “Discover”): It’s vertical video.
The most interesting part is your newsfeed. It is sorted by time: the newest story on top, the oldest at the bottom. Stories last 24h. A mixture of professional and “amateur” content, just like in other newsfeeds you know. But this one is a bit different: there is no way to upload pre-produced content to this newsfeed, or to publish links. You will only find content that has been produced with Snapchat’s camera, lenses and filters. The New Yorker, Red Bull, Serena Williams, MTV, the NBA, Eva Longoria or Lady Gaga use the same tools as Bayern Munich, you and me. That makes your newsfeed strangely homogenous. It is extremely visual, consisting of photo and video, and once you start it, it autoplays story after story. If you follow enough accounts, you could watch for hours.
Tapping = Skipping
So how does Snapchat ensure that we get relevant content in the newsfeed, when no algorithm is there to sort the stories for us? The answer is: tapping. For every story, you have two circles on the top right of the screen. The inner, grey circle, shows the progress of the whole story from that sender. The outer, white circle shows the progress of that very segment you are just watching.
If you are bored, you tap on the screen, and the next segment begins. If there’s something you’re not really interested in, let’s say MTV covers a band that is irrelevant to you, you simply tap and tap and tap until the next story from the next sender starts (or you swipe right and jump to the next story). It’s confusingly quick to skip a full story. It feels like ultra-zapping on TV.
I didn’t choose the TV analogy accidentally. Once I had enough interesting accounts to follow, I sometimes found myself “watching Snapchat” for an hour or two straight. One of the big conveniences here, besides tapping, is vertical video. You are holding your phone in its “natural” position. This goes as well for “Discover”. The publishers who have a deal with Snapchat are required to publish vertical video. And not only them: Advertising also has to be vertical.
There’s not much advertising yet, on the one hand because Snapchat reportedly is very careful with ads within the “Discover” stories (and sharing the revenue with the publishers), on the other hand because many advertisers will probably shy away from producing video ads for Snapchat only. But vertical video is definitely one of the strong points of Snapchat. It is different from square video on Instagram or the video feed on Facebook, where you either use less than half of your screen real estate for video or turn the phone horizontally – and back up to vertical once you’re back in the normal newsfeed.
Having said all that, Snapchat doesn’t emphasize this structure. When you open the service, your first screen is the camera. It says: “Do something”, instead of “here’s some content”, it treats you as a producer first instead of a recipient first. I would be very keen to see stats about how many daily visitors actually post – and I bet the ratio is very good in comparison to social networks, and probably slightly below messengers where people have conversations only (and Facebook acquiring MSQRD and reportedly working on a “camera first” app is also an indicator that this approach probably works).
Snapchat gives you frequently changing lenses, a big variety of stickers, and the chance to draw and write in your picture or video. You can recognize Snapchat content even when you see it on other platforms easily. It kind of “brands” the content that is produced there. The production tools give you new reasons to post every day, even when you are maybe not vacationing in the Carribean or having a three Michelin star lunch. Plus: Every content segment from “Discover” or “Live” can be shared with friends in direct messages. It’s all “ammunition” for communication.
So Snapchat has not a separate Messenger and a separate social network, the way Instagram or Tumblr have an internal messaging system. Snapchat really combines the two, in a very slick and frictionless manner. Therefore, the combination of private messaging and a social network is, in my eyes, the core of Snapchat’s product. Emphasizing vertical video, making the newsfeed easy to handle by tapping/skipping and providing great production tools, with every content shareable, is a unique package. According to a survey by BRAVO, a German teen magazine, Snapchat is the fastest growing social/messenger app among German teens and more than doubled its penetration during the last year.
I personally believe it will not only appeal to “crazy millennials”. Wait for the newsfeed to get more fancy, especially graphically, maybe enhanced with a bit of a preview for each story. Wait (in Germany) for more and more professional accounts with valuable Snapchat content, like Bayern Munich had a Snapchat feature with Paul Kalkbrenner during the match against Borussia Mönchengladbach, or ProSieben’s great “Snapchat week” with extra-content from most own formats. Wait until “content/account discovery” is improved, and we will have a mass market phenomenon with Snapchat in Germany, too. In the meantime: add me using the code or my username “epapa100” 🙂