On November 13, 2013, the marketing world lost its collective mind. The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook offered to buy Snapchat for $3 billion—an astronomical sum that almost nobody had anticipated. What was previously viewed as a sexting app for teens was catapulted into legitimacy in the eyes of marketing and social media agencies everywhere.
Immediately, the marketing community tried to begin to understand this platform that so few had heard of. With impressive user stats, the marketers knew they needed to have a Snapchat strategy, before they knew what strategy would work.
As with any new medium, there were stumbling blocks at first. Old ways of thinking about social media had to be reexamined. But it soon became clear that Snapchat has a steeper learning curve than most social media. Compounding the problem (especially for older would-be Snapchat marketers), it’s almost impossible to get a sense of how to effectively use Snapchat without friends actively using Snapchat.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many people who try Snapchat are initially confused by the format. When I introduce people older than 25 to the app, they have similar complaints:
- What disappearing photos would I send to people? I already have apps to send photos to people.
- Your messages don’t actually disappear, so what’s the point?
- The UI is confusing.
- Why can’t you upload your own photos into a snap?
- The distinction between snaps, stories, and chats is arbitrary.
While these questions are understandable, none of them constitute major flaws. In fact, I would argue that the relatively steep learning curve is a feature, not a bug. (Snapchat won’t go the way of Facebook any time soon.) These questions reveal a misunderstanding that Snapchat is just another social network like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. While, yes, it is a social network, it’s different in some important ways.
On a “normal” social network, there’s a well-established sharing process that creates a social ripple effect:
- You create content.
- You post content.
- Your followers see the content.
- Your followers like, re-share, and comment on the content.
- More people see the content.
- Repeat step 3 to step 5 until interest in content wanes.
Many social marketers take this thinking and apply it to Snapchat. They ask questions like “How do we get the most engagement?” and “How can we use this to reach more people?” Then they come up with answers like “Hold a contest!” or “Do a Q&A!” or “Give special offers!”
And all of these ideas miss the point for a simple reason: On Snapchat, there is no social ripple effect.
Instead, the process unfolds like this:
- You take a photo.
- You draw on it and add filters.
- You send it to a discrete number of your friends.
- It disappears.
For users, this feature is Snapchat’s most important advantage over other forms of social media. It removes many of the features on “normal” social media that make people uncomfortable:
- Interactions are not public by default.
On Snapchat, there is no pressure to present your “best” self. Other social networks fill some users with social anxiety. On Snapchat, though, you don’t have to worry whether your friends will judge you and users can breathe a sigh of relief that mom and dad have no way of snooping.
- There’s no record of your interaction.
On Snapchat, it’s impossible to “stalk” someone because everything on the app is ephemeral. This removes another source of anxiety and neuroticism for many people.
- No links allowed.
It’s hard, if not impossible, to self-promote on Snapchat because there are no clickable URLs. Every “Snapchat Star” should more precisely be called a “Snapchat/Twitter Star”.
- Every snap is a work of art.
Because the character count is so limited, everything in a snap must be presented visually.
- Your Snapchat following is a private clubhouse.
Because you have to add someone on Snapchat by either phone number, QR code, or local wifi, there are no randos, harassers, or unwelcome brands bothering you.
At first glance, this arrangement may be confusing to marketers. If Snapchat can’t directly send traffic to your site or let you reach new customers, what’s the point?
Aspiring Snapchat marketers need to think about the long game. While Snapchat is all about the ephemeral, the relationships it allows people to create are not. The core platform of Snapchat ingeniously prevents any marketer from engaging in spammy, self-promotional, or shortsighted tactics, which leaves only the proven, reputable methods of engagement on social media.
At its best, social media allows people to “look behind the curtain” to see what’s actually going on behind the scenes. It allows experts to demonstrate their expertise, show they have a sense of humor, and put their creativity on display. No other social network is as good as Snapchat at allowing you to capture the essence of what you’re doing in real time. You could be reading, socializing, or completing your life’s project—and share it all on Snapchat.
Blogging was the first tool people had to accomplish that, until it was ruined by charlatans. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have followed similar paths, but, unlike them, Snapchat has a built-in way to prevent lazy marketers from trying to automate the process.
While brands have pushed their way into Snapchat recently, anyone who wants to use the platform will have to pay up, because Snapchat retains sole ownership to one key part of their product: discovery. People who want to expand their base on Snapchat through Snapchat alone with face difficulty, because, again, there is no social ripple effect to take advantage of. This key difference is the reason I put Snapchat all the way to the right of the marketer-friendliness scale:
All of this leads to the question: How should marketers operate on Snapchat? Well, as with all social media, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. But here are a few best practices:
- Distribute your Snapchat QR code on other social media. This isn’t a perfect solution, because most people look at social media and Snapchat from the same device, but it builds awareness that your brand on Snapchat. Many brands make their profile picture their Snapchat QR code.
- Post stories when you go to events or do something cool. Snapchat is most effective for live events. Say who you are and where you are at the beginning of the story. Take snaps of the cool things you’re seeing, and post them to your story. But limit the story to less than 5 minutes, or else you’ll lose most everyone who’s watching.
- Be creative! Experiment with interesting angles, filters, and effects. It’s really how you can make Snapchat a creative endeavor. Here are a few examples of some of my favorite snaps so you can get an idea.
- Keep promotional material (find our ___ on our site!) to a minimum. While it’s acceptable to give a quick plug for your website, product, or project, self-promotion doesn’t fit with the spirit of Snapchat.
- It’s okay if you don’t post that much. We get it! Nothing spectacular happens at the office on a daily basis. Going days without posting is better than posting sub-par content every day.
- When Snapchat ads come out for everyone, see if it makes sense for your brand. Snapchat just unveiled sponsored filters, which could be put to good use during corporate events. When Snapchat releases a broader advertising suite for small-to-medium sized businesses, evaluate to see if sponsored snaps make sense for your product.
As with any new social network, it will take some time to get it right. But marketers have to realize that Snapchat doesn’t fit the mold of “normal” social networks, and trying to shoehorn Snapchat into old social media strategies won’t work.