A decade is a really long time. I am 33 years old currently, and I think a lot about who I was at 23 years old. It feels like I am a totally different person than I am now. There are things that I miss about my younger self, but I also appreciate the growth from there into what I am today. In that sense, I feel like services and companies will occasionally mimic humanity, life reflecting business if you will. In the social media era, there have been a staple of players and they have slowly evolved from what they were into what they are today. While all the players have re-imagined themselves in some way or another, none have seemed to change what they once were more than Snapchat. The app is an interesting case study in the chase for reinvention in the mobile age.
Boom Goes The Message
Snapchat at launch gave a refreshing take on communication with friends. The original concept was simple, send a photo based message to a friend that they can view for up to 10 seconds. After that 10 second period, the photo would disappear forever. In an era where concerns about Facebook starting to store data and the early days of super targeted advertisement delivery, Snapchat was a breath of fresh air. The idea of the app was so different from anything that was out at that time, as all social media apps that were popular used the endless feed model. Services such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram employed a vertical list of content that was visible at all times. Snapchat instead felt much more deliberate and focused, where the app was only being opened when a message was received or a message being sent.
This novelty appeal of Snapchat is what endeared it to so many users especially teenagers in its infancy. There was something of an ignorance of bliss quality to the app. Someone would send a snap and it felt personalized even if that person sent it to every contact they had on the app. This level of personal touch was something that could not be replicated by a Tweet or Facebook post. This is what made Snapchat unique. The issue though, became that the app was very much of a one trick pony. Eventually features like the ability to send video snaps instead of only photos and being able to tag specific locations became part of the platform. But the issue of daily usage of the app became a focus of the company to be able to increase profitability through a way of delivering ads to monetize the service.
This is where Snapchat Stories were introduced. The idea was simple, instead of a direct message that only lasted 10 seconds Stories gave an option for 24 hours of viewing to be viewable by multiple people to be able to tell the story of that day. It was at this point that Snapchat matured from a nifty way to send private messages into the realm of truly trying to compete in the crowded social media space. Stories would turn out to be Snapchat’s most innovative idea ironically, as the idea has been copied by virtually every social media app ever since then and in many ways was the hero turning into the villain.
Another Social Media App
I remember in the early days of Snapchat Stories thinking that the feature was a gimmick, that it violated the core nature of what Snapchat was supposed to be. Snapchat, after all, was supposed to be this different way of communication through photos and videos that focused on user privacy with the exploding message setup. Now with Stories this 10 seconds expanded to 24 hours and in a way felt rather disingenuous to the foundation of the company. At the same time, the company really had no choice as they needed a way to become profitable, and the easiest way to do this was through advertisements.
Implementing advertisements would have been incredibly clunky in the traditional conversational style that Snapchat was founded upon. Stories allowed for an advertisement break in between different friends story posts. Based on this delivery method to generate revenue for the company, the Stories feature was constantly being pushed and having features added to it. This made the user base of Snapchat start to use Stories more often, and this was the moment where Snapchat became what they originally weren’t: another social media platform.
The functionality of communication became somewhat lost as the whole point quickly became to mindlessly rifle through various friends Stories. In essence, this made the Stories feature on Snapchat not all that much different from scrolling through a news feed on Instagram or Facebook. All this focus on Stories did work however, as the platform began to see more new users and these users were using the Stories feature heavily. This was so popular in fact that over the last few years, various apps have implemented their own Stories feature. The feature has come to Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, and even Facebook Messenger. In many ways, it is Snapchat’s biggest innovation.
Unlike a huge company like Facebook however, Snapchat has never had the portfolio to let the Stories feature just sit there while other avenues collect revenue. Ad revenue was proving to not be enough, as the company saw a mass exodus of customers migrate to Instagram as well. Instagram had the benefit of a few factors that lured users away from Snapchat. The usage of verified high profile accounts was already in place so that customers could keep up with their favorite celebrities, new features were quickly being added to Instagram at a faster rate, and the user base was already established through the photo sharing archive for millions of users. This positioned Instagram as the do it all app with a full photo library, a Stories feature, and a competent messaging feature. On top of all of this, Snapchat was notorious for having something of an iPhone bias in the way that its app was updated, often leaving Android users with a poor experience. This has never been the case on Instagram. It was time again for Snapchat to reinvent itself.
The Do It All Experiment
As Snapchat has rapidly lost users to Instagram Stories, it has experimented with a few new ideas in an effort to lure those users back to the platform. To solve the verified account problem that it faces, the company started to make curated and featured stories from influencers that it labeled as Discover. This allowed people to subscribe to these accounts to see their daily content. While popular, the reach of Snapchat pales to that of Instagram in both a numbers and mindshare perspective. This has created a somewhat convoluted app experience where there is a separation from the friends in a users contact list and the influencers that they choose to follow. Personally, I know a bunch of people that will not follow anyone of note on Snapchat and choose to follow them on Instagram instead. This is a problem of perception for Snapchat: they believed in their reinvention but their users did not follow this belief.
In order to stay relevant, we have seen Snapchat incorporate features from a variety of apps into what it has become as a platform today. The company integrated a memories feature that has borrowed heavily from TimeHop and Facebook to show Snaps that were posted on the same date a year or two ago. In order to keep up with Instagram, the company has been clumsily adding features in the way of filters, music add-ons, and general app integrations. The company has also incorporated a map feature to show you where other Snapchat users are at any given point in time. This feature in particular was kind of odd to me from a company that was founded on a vision of privacy. The last peculiar addition was the positioning of the app as a sort of camera and gallery replacement, in many ways pitting Snapchat against apps like Google Photos and OneDrive.
What all this has amounted to is an app that is an all you can eat buffet of modern social features. An app that has turned into part social media news feed, part photo gallery, part content consumption source, and part instant messenger. In many ways Snapchat has become the social media jack of all trades but master of none. All of this is rather troubling since the proliferation of Instagram instead of Snapchat plays into the tech trend where larger companies are too big to fail and smaller companies simply cannot compete. The reach and pull of a company like Facebook which now owns the most popular social site, in addition to the top instant message app (WhatsApp), and the top disappearing photos platform (Instagram) makes survival for an app like Snapchat to succeed.
In many ways, Snapchat has stretched itself too thin over the years. A focus on the communication core could be the solution to their problems, as competing feature for feature with Instagram seems to be a fool’s errand at this point. A renewed focus on the communication angle could be the answer, but really Snapchat is at the point of needing to figure out its identity and target audience at this point in time. A platform that saw its popularity rise on the backs of teenagers and college students has been losing the interest of that fickle segment for multiple quarters at this point.
Snapchat is a classic case study in how handling success and growth can be incredibly challenging in a space that is always changing. A company that had a core philosophy but strayed away from is as the time went on. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but Snapchat is by no means the same company that it was a mere 9 years ago. A decade is a long time, here’s to hoping that Snapchat continues to mature and gains the focus that it has been lacking so desperately in recent years.