Understanding Snapchat

Speaking at Ad Week Europe in London yesterday, Snapchat’s VP of content Nick Bell discussed some of the misconceptions surrounding the platform, how it differs to other social networks and how much it really costs to advertise

Founded by Stanford graduates Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy and Reggie Brown in 2011, Snapchat started out as an ephemeral photo sharing app called Picaboo. In its early days, the app was perhaps best known for being used by teens to send naked selfies. Now, it has 100 million daily users and 8 billion daily video views. In the US, presidential candidates have been creating Snapchat ads to target young voters and even the Whitehouse now has an account.

The app has undergone several updates since it was launched: users can still send snaps (pictures and videos) which can be viewed for up to 10 seconds before they disappear, but they can also make audio and video calls and create ‘stories’ – compilations of multiple videos and photos from a single day, arranged in chronological order, which can be viewed for up to 24 hours.

In addition, Snapchat compiles a handful of ‘Live Stories’ each day which collate snaps from various users at particular locations or events around the world. (Past live stories have included streams of content from major cities, sports tournaments and the Oscars). In January last year, the brand ventured into news media with Discover: a feature that allows users to watch videos and read articles from media partners including Vice, National Geographic, the Daily Mail and Refinery29, with content refreshed daily.

Discover Home
Snapchat’s Discover feature, which lets users view video, news and editorial from media partners. Image: Snapchat

Speaking to Contagious editor Alex Jenkins at Ad Week, Bell, who is based in Los Angeles, said Snapchat aims to provide a platform for users to consume media and information while communicating with their friends. Speaking about the difference between Snapchat and other social networks, he said the app is focused less on curating a perfect online image and more on capturing things ‘in the moment’. This focus on immediacy is reflected in the app’s UI, which directs users immediately to the camera function on their device. (Two-thirds of Snapchat users create new content every day and while its UI is often criticised, Bell said the app’s design is based on making it as easy as possible to take and share pictures and videos).

“In the past 15 to 20 years, the digital world has become very siloed from the physical world. We’ve tried to bring those two together, so you can be the same person digitally as you are day to day in the physical world,” he said. “It’s not about trying to capture the perfect picture to see how many likes or hearts you can receive, it’s about capturing the moment and sharing it with your friends and that removes some of the pressure [for users], I think.”

He also said the platform appeals to young adults’ tendency to express themselves pictorially through stickers and emojis. Snapchat users can add stickers (images), lenses (animated layers) and geofilters (location-based overlays) to their pictures and videos.

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Snapchat’s UI.  Image: Snapchat

The ephemeral nature of the site has made some advertisers wary of investing in content for the platform, only to see it disappear a few hours later, but Bell said this has been key to the platform’s success over the years, creating a more dynamic environment for users and one where people don’t have to worry about their thoughts, pictures and opinions being stored permanently online.

“I welcome the idea that the person I am today isn’t the person I was a year ago,” he said. “This concept of recording everything we do is new … the personal computer brought with it the concept of saving information, but just because you can, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right thing to do,” he added.

Bell also said that Snapchat’s ephemeral nature forces brands to be more creative – and cited a recent SuperBowl campaign by Gatorade as an example of how to get huge engagement in a short space of time. (The brand created a sponsored lens which allowed users in the US to overlay an animation of them being showered in Gatorade, mimicking the Gatorade ‘dunk’ SuperBowl tradition. The lens received over 160 million views).

“It gives you a huge opportunity to be creative and capture the moment … the reason [the Gatorade lens] was so popular was because it was so relevant. [The SuperBowl] was like the only thing on people’s minds at that period in time,” he added.

Speaking about common misconceptions held by advertisers, Bell said there was still a belief that launching a campaign on the platform is incredibly expensive. An Ad Week article from 2015 claimed Snapchat was asking brands for $750,000 a day to run ads but Bell said campaigns now cost considerably less thanks to new targeting features.

420Snapchat
Discover content from Refinery29’s channel of Snapchat to mark 4/20 today, which has become known as ‘pot day’

“Initially when we were running campaigns, we didn’t have a huge ad tech platform, so if you wanted to run one you were getting huge reach and it was expensive, but that’s no longer the case,” he said. Brands can now target users by age, gender and location and Bell said entry level campaigns cost tens of thousands rather than hundreds. “Geofilters also allow you to choose a location and time frame [running graphics in a set location at a particular time] and the entry point for that is significantly less,” he added.

Last year, the brand rolled out a new native ad product, 3v (vertical video view) to encourage brands to create custom full-screen videos for Snapchat. The platform claims users are nine times more likely to watch full-screen vertical videos, as most users hold their phone upright while consuming content.

Unlike pre-roll advertising on YouTube, which users are forced to watch, Snapchat ads can be skipped at any time by swiping or tapping. Bell said brands often ask Snapchat if there’s a way of forcing people to watch content, but added that this is something the platform is keen to avoid as it tends to annoy users.

“We’ve done a lot of research and one of the things that came out of that is that 50% of people who are forced to watch an ad actually built up negative sentiment towards that brand,” he explained.

“I think the concept of watching to completion has been overplayed by the market,” he added. “Just because you’ve created a 30-second TV spot doesn’t mean that’s the optimum amount of time to spend watching that ad.” As attention spans are much lower on a mobile, he also said that communicating a message in three or four seconds “is much more powerful” than creating a cinematic 30-second spot.

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Discover content from Sweet and Vox’s channels on Snapchat

Asked by Jenkins whether advertising was likely to spoil the party on Snapchat – referring to the idea that platforms often lose their cool once brands move in – Bell, rather predictably, said “definitely not.” But he added that brands should be thinking about how to integrate advertising in a fun way like Gatorade if they wanted to engage with users.

“If you’re having a conversation with friends, the last thing you want is a guy with a sandwich board shouting at you – it’s really disruptive and it doesn’t make a huge amount of sense,” he said. With Gatorade, Bell said the brand had developed an ad that users wanted to share with their friends, making the leap from the ad and content side of the platform directly into video and photo chats between friends. “If I use a filter or lens it’s my choice, so it’s welcomed into the conversation,” he said.

Speaking about the future of Snapchat, Bell said the company was focused on sharing events, whether GOP debates or major news events. The platform is rolling out new media partners in the UK – The Sun will be joining in a few days – and Bell said it will be rapidly expanding its UK team. “It’s now our second biggest market in terms of user base and an important focus for us in the coming months and years,” he told Jenkins.

Nick Bell was speaking at Ad Week Europe in London. For details, see advertisingweek.eu

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