In early 2017, Snap, Inc. (the parent company of Snapchat) made an important decision in the life of its company and the social media field when it went public with its IPO. By doing so, it made the claim that not only was it a unicorn and disruptive force in the media industry, but it was here to stay. With its potential success and business sustainability, this company has the chance to join the ranks of disruptive innovators…but will it?
What is Snapchat?
At its core, Snapchat is a visual-based messaging service, not too dissimilar from WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or texting. At inception, it allowed receivers to view the sent image or video for an allotted number of seconds, and then it disappeared from the device (note: Snap was required to keep record of content, though this was note widely acknowledged until an FTC ruling in 2014). Its original intended use was content users didn’t want found or used later, thus the company’s questionable reputation early on. Its value was ephemeral by design.
As it was developed, Snapchat entered the realm of social media in 2013 with Stories, moving beyond messaging and allowing many to come to see a collection of snaps. It was far from first in image-based social media—Facebook and Instagram as the incumbents existed seven years and one year respectively ahead of Snapchat’s soft launch in 2011. While most media allows you to automatically store and later search history in a public feed, Snap has still clung to the ephemeral and stories disappear from public after 24 hours (though an author has the option to save their content).
As it has evolved, Snapchat is not a pure messaging platform, but a new social media platform that is drawing in a younger crowd and changing what is expected in functionality. As such, it can be talked about as a demand-side generation, changing what is expected out of a social platform.
The right conditions for disruption
Individuals’ data privacy becomes culturally relevant
With recent hacks of celebrity iMessage accounts, individual data privacy has become much more relevant and concerning, especially for sensitive material. Evan Spiegel, Snapchat co-founder, acknowledged in a 2012 TechCrunch article that “the app was partially inspired by the Anthony Weiner scandal last spring and a desire to create an app with expiring data.” 
Not your parents’ social media
The adoption and saturation of current platforms has led many teens and young adults to abandon use. This is to be expected from the current young generation—it is typical to seek out different from where parents exist to develop an identity. With Facebook and Instagram’s large user numbers, the conditions are ripe for a new platform targeting young adults.
Catalysts for change
Smartphones are commonplace. In the U.S. in 2011, 35% of adults had a smartphone and in 2015, that number was at 68%. Now in 2017, 77% of people have one and 69% of adults use social media, making the barriers of technology to develop and deliver a service like Snapchat very low. Additionally, Instagram proved out the concept of a mobile-only platform, showing that an app could be highly successful without a browser component (though they have since enabled a view function for desktop browsing). Snapchat launched and has remained mobile-only, leveraging specific touch device capabilities for app functionality (multidirectional swiping, camera, GPS).
Cultural communication shift to visual, not voice
Smartphone are less used for the phone functionality and now mostly for the features. Texting is the preferable form of communication for 55% of teens; informal communication is preferred to be read or visual. Snapchat content is highly informal and capitalizes on this, also leveraging another trend:
Desire for less perfection and more transparency
As consumers, there is a global shift to see more “real” communication, whether it is from CEOs or our friends. Instagram allows any photo to be uploaded, which has fostered a platform for inspiration—photo editing is so expected, people call out (sometimes untruthfully) when an image hasn’t received any editing with #nofilter. This rise in edited perceptions has left room for the more casual, less put together, in the moment imagery. Snapchat’s restriction to use content captured while in the app (until a recent release, when Memories made camera roll content usable) has encouraged informal snaps that become highly-enticing when you have celebrities and other traditionally polished people on the platform.
Challenges for those in power
User base adoption is a challenge and at the core to the disruption—the size and activity of a social media’s user base is the true product, since revenue is generated by advertisers and companies that tap into the user base, not the users themselves.
From the incumbent perspective, losing the teen/young adult population to Snapchat is a blow—especially with technology, youth adoption dictates who will lead the future of the industry; older generations follow the younger ones, as in fashion.
From Snapchat’s perspective, the challenge is alienating older generations from use by platform perception and functionality. To significantly disrupt the social media sphere and become sustainable as a company, their reach has to extend beyond the youth segment. Snapchat has been successful in engaging those who felt Facebook was widely adopted—and it has added features to subsequently expand its attractiveness to older age groups with news stories by outlets such as CNN and focusing on getting businesses to engage, giving its content created more weight.
How have incumbents responded?
Snapchat has had a significant impact on the incumbents in the spaces of social media and messaging, driving each to alter their product offering to incorporate time and visual interaction as elements. As a demand-side disruption, the approach in countering it has been to copy proven successful core features of Snapchat as secondary options to the incumbent core image capabilities to satiate users’ new demands.
Facebook attempted to directly compete with the app feature Poke, which quickly faded. It seems that as the parent company of Instagram, Facebook has smartly allowed Instagram to take lead in directly addressing the threat of Snapchat. Instagram, as an image-based social tool most similar to Snapchat, has been relatively quick to pivot and innovate based on the proven successful elements Snapchat introduced, namely Stories.
Stories have been highly successful with Instagram, quickly adopted with 100 million active users after launching late in 2016. It quite literally is a copy of Snapchat’s story feature, yet it pairs the fleeting content with the less fleeting and curated feeds, working nicely to allow users to tell the finished result, as well as behind-the-scenes views. After its launch, the growth of users on the Snapchat platform showed a sharp downturn to be at only one fifth the rate compared to the prior quarters. 
Testing is underway on implementing Location Frames that copy Snapchat’s Geotags—seemingly on Facebook, though it could be for Instagram or both, given the ownership structure. Geotags allow you to specify a special filter to be made available for people within a geographic perimeter. When they use the tag, what they share with it is made available to the geotag owner to be used in a larger story. It is a way of crowdsourcing content and bringing together community stories, as well as a way for businesses to engage in an appropriate way and generate revenue for the platform. 
One of the most recently copied innovative features of Snapchat is masks or as Instagram has labelled them, face filters. These are interactive, allowing the user to modify their face and in some, their voice. This has been one of the core features pushing the pro-narcissist perception of the platform, making it generally unappealing to older age groups. Time has yet to show how the older demographic in Instagram responds to this addition and if it is as robust as the masks in Snapchat. These innovative features are areas of revenue generation for Snapchat and only while they have unique experiences and interactions do they have a chance at long-term viability.
Instagram is not suffering from adoption of young adults like Facebook. I would like to see Facebook ask the deeper question of why teens and young adults feel the platform has jumped the shark and look to address that in a uniquely innovative way—it is different enough that copying Snapchat won’t address the core challenge.
I’d also like to see Twitter test out an ephemeral version or feature to their platform to attract the Snapchat crowd in a complimentary way. Perhaps disappearing tweets/text could make Twitter relevant again.
Will this disruption become the incumbent?
Ultimately, I am not convinced Snapchat will exist long without a significant pivot from its original foundation in the ephemeral. It has succeeded in disrupting the messaging and social media sectors, however, it has still yet to find a way to be long term sustainable. Its foray into selling hardware through (failed) watches and glasses is misguided, and if it is the direction of the company’s pivot to be sustainable, it won’t last much longer in its current state.
I believe rediscovering its roots of the ephemeral in messaging and looking to where else this can be applied with an increased level of measurement, accountability, and usefulness will be key. The money exists in being attractive and useful for business—the main communication of business is email and the main frustration is inbox clutter. While disrupting email is not a known direction for Snapchat, I see how repurposing its technology and deploying it within company communications may be a way for Snapchat to find footing and funding in the business world.
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- “Facebook is copying Snapchat Geofilters with Location Frames.” BuyGeoCustomFilters.com. February 18, 2017. April 01, 2017. https://www.buycustomgeofilters.com/blog/facebook-is-copying-snapchat-geofilters-with-location-frames
- Greenwood, Shannon, Perrin, Andrew, Duggan, Maeve. “Social Media Update 2016.” Pew Research Center. November 11, 2016. April 01, 2017. http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/11/11/social-media-update-2016/