HomeTech How Snapchat is saving itself and keeping up with the Silicon Valley giants

How Snapchat is saving itself and keeping up with the Silicon Valley giants

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How Snapchat is saving itself and keeping up with the Silicon Valley giants

W.Why are some social networks a success, while others struggle to stay alive? How did Facebook and Twitter go from peers in the 2000s to barely rivals 15 years later? Everyone seems to use social media, so everyone seems to have an answer to these types of questions.

But social media is icebergs: most of what matters lies beneath the surface. Simply creating a good user experience is something that is at stake for gaming in the space. However, to be successful, you also need to master the parts that most people don’t see.

Snapchat won’t thank me for calling the app “social media”; is in the middle of an international advertising campaign encouraging people to use “Less social media, more Snapchat”, repositioning itself first and foremost as a messaging service, rather than the “social media popularity contest” of its competitors. It fits with the overall vibe the company has been promoting as, effectively, the largest standalone app for American consumers.

Snapchat is also one of the best examples of why focusing only on what users can see will lead a company to miss out on what makes a service thrive. After the pandemic-era boom, the company was hit hard by jitters in the tech sector, with its share price falling from a high of $83 in October 2021 to less than a tenth of that, only 8.15 dollars, in just one year. It was a grueling sign that the company needed to rethink things, and in the years since, Snap has worked hard to create products for advertisers, influencers, developers, and marketers that can go toe-to-toe with Facebook and Instagram.

Last week, I spent time with Ronan Harris, the company’s president of EMEA, to discuss those changes. I wanted to know what a company the size of Snap should focus on and what mistakes people make when they focus only on the public-facing parts.

“Our users tell us that Snapchat is the happiest place they spend time online,” says Harris. “I’d love to say it’s because we have magically happy technology. But I think it’s actually because it’s where they spend the most time online with the people they care about, and in a way that feels authentic and real.”

That sense of connection fundamentally changes the nature of Snapchat’s business. It’s easy to inject ads into an endless, algorithmically curated feed, but somewhat harder to do the same when users send messages back and forth. And then Snapchat has to work harder to stay still.

Snap Inc IPO on the New York Stock Exchange in 2017. The stock price fell sharply after the pandemic. Photo: Justin Lane/EPA

“What we’ve done from an advertising standpoint is figure out, well, how do you put native formats and native advertising into those experiences without clashing with them?” There is a space for traditional vertical video ads, as Snapchat’s Stories feature (the near-ubiquitous format shamelessly cloned by Instagram and then everyone else) has ads interspersed.

But other options require more work. “When you open the app, the camera opens and you have the lens carousel at the bottom – that’s where you’ll experience a sponsored lens,” says Harris. “It’s not imposed on you, you can choose to participate in it, and a large proportion of our community does, because the lenses are usually high quality.”

Telling advertisers to submit a video and link requires little effort; Telling them they need to build a custom AR lens is a little more key. And then Snapchat doesn’t do it. Instead, it simply does the work itself. “We take away all the pain,” explains Harris. “We will work with you on creativity. “We have a network of vendors that we fund that will create the lens and as an advertiser you only pay for the actual media spend for the engagement you get on the platform.”

It’s a surprising offering, because it goes against the stereotype of Californian tech titans, where an obsession with solutions that “scale” means it’s rare to hear about jobs that involve human labor. But the rules are different when you spend a lot. “When you spend money on advertising, unless you’re small, you can pick up the phone and have a human on the other end,” Harris says. Coca-Cola doesn’t just type a credit card number into a web form to launch a multi-million dollar campaign, and even the world’s largest companies will offer a friendly face and a firm handshake to seal the deal.

Part of Harris’ work, however, has been to make this personalized service more accessible. The company now has a sleek set of tools for small businesses, making it easy for a mid-sized fashion startup or influential entrepreneur to shell out their own money. “We had put too many barriers in terms of usability and functionality on the front-end. It was not easy for an SME (a small and medium enterprise) to understand what the opportunity is and then how to take advantage of it, so we have been working hard. That has driven 85% growth in that part of the business.”

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If you’re trying to sell a pair of shoes on Snapchat, for example, you can now simply upload a still photo of them to the platform and use its tools to automatically create an augmented reality lens that allows users to “try them on.” . Put some money in your account and ask the company to target users and it will try to spend your budget well automatically, via an AI manager that focuses on the things you want to maximize.

For readers with marketing experience, nothing I’ve described will surprise you. But that’s the point: these are the basics of the business, and yet they’re surprisingly difficult for a social media platform to understand. From the outside, the answer to questions like “why does Facebook dominate?” I feel like they must be due to things we users experience: network effects, ease of onboarding, or just ubiquity.

But one answer is that Facebook was one of the first companies to properly solve these problems. Meta’s advertising tools are formidable, for everyone from your neighborhood takeaway to multinational giants, and it’s a mammoth effort to prevent the gap from widening further. It’s too early to say whether Snap’s efforts to shut it down will be successful, but it’s the things hidden from regular users, as much as anything they can see on their phones, that will decide the next decade for the company.

The Broadest TechScape

Nintendo’s Pokémon Go augmented reality mobile game. Photograph: Toru Hanai/Reuters

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