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Marketing On Snapchat: It’s (Absolutely Not) A Snap!

Just when a brand thinks it’s gotten the social media landscape figured out, all of its social marketing strategy ducks in a row and its content calendar shored up, along comes a new platform, and overnight, it seems like everything the company knew about social media flies out the window.

Such was the case when social messaging app Snapchat came on the scene in 2011.

At first, it seemed like its primary use was for teens and college-aged users to send provocative photos to each other that would “disappear” from the Internet after just a few seconds. But, since then, young millennials and teens have flocked to the platform, which has expanded far beyond its seedy photo-messaging roots. The network, now ranked third behind Facebook and Instagram (and ahead of Twitter, Vine and Pinterest), represents a huge land grab for brands as they try to figure out how to garner attention on the platform.

So, what is Snapchat? How does it work? How can brands use it to connect with young audiences? And what is the outlook for commerce on the platform?

First, some history and the basics.

Snapchat was created by Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy and Reggie Brown while they were students at Stanford University. The messaging app allows users to take photos, record videos, add text and drawings — these are called snaps — and send them to a specified list of contacts. Once sent, the snap is available to be viewed anywhere from one to 10 seconds, depending on preferences set by the user. After the content expires, Snapchat claims it will be permanently deleted from the company’s servers, thus protecting the privacy of its users and their conversations.

Snapchat was instantly a success among young millennials and teens, leaving many other generations (including their parents) shaking their heads and wondering where the value was. CEO and Cofounder Evan Spiegel took to the Internet, sharing a video that tried to explain to parents exactly why their teens were taking so many pictures — of seemingly un-photo-worthy things — and sending them to their friends. While the video quality is poor, the simplicity of Spiegel’s explanation is eloquent: “Pictures are being used for talking,” he said. “So, when you see your children taking a zillion photos of things that you would never take a picture of, it’s cos” — that’s the real time-saver way of writing “because,” unless the reader confuses it with “The Cos,” as in “Bill Cosby,” and then no time is being saved at all — “they’re using photographs to talk … And that’s why people are taking and sending so many pictures on Snapchat every day.”

In fact, according to numbers released by Snapchat, by May 2015, the app’s 30 million active users were sending 2 billion photos and videos per day, while Snapchat Stories — a new feature which allows content to remain available to viewers over 24 hours — were being viewed 500 million times per day, according to the company. By Nov. 2015, the number had reached 6 billion videos per day. A recent comScore report found that the app had 32.9 percent penetration among 18 to 34-year-olds, making it the third most popular social app among that age category. And if you narrow that view to look at just 18 to 24-year-olds, the app has a very impressive 50 percent penetration.

Snapchat reportedly turned down a $3 billion acquisition offer from Facebook in 2013, a decision that caught the then-23-year-old CEO Spiegel a lot of flack. Snapchat recently raised a $200 million round of funding from eCommerce giant Alibaba at a valuation of $16 billion. Other sources say the company is valued at closer to $20 billion, putting it on par with the most valuable startups in the world, according to an article on Slate.

What else can Snapchat do? Pocket-lint shares that Snapchat has since launched a live messaging and video chatting tool, allowing users to talk with friends and share pics and other content during their chat session. Additionally — and very interestingly for brands, as Pocket-lint notes — in 2014, Snapchat partnered with Square to launch Snapcash, a payments service which allows users to use their debit or credit cards to send money to friends. To activate it, users enter a debit card from their settings once, and then while they are using the app, they can enter a dollar amount and then hit a button to send the funds. This feature is available to users ages 18 and older and is one of the most promising signs for the future of commerce on the platform.

So, where, or rather how, do brands come into play? In 2015, Snapchat released its Discover tool. While only a select number of invited brands (less than 20) take up permanent residence on the offering, this is where brands can really flex their creative muscle. Discover stories are series of photos, animation, text and video used to share brand messages, coupons, discounts and exclusive content. Unlike the rest of the platform, Discover offers brands and their content a more permanent presence and added discoverability — swiping right from the home screen will bring you to the Discover feature.

Discoverability is arguably one of the biggest challenges for brands on the platform. As of the writing of this article, there is no way to verify a brand’s handle in the search results for new contacts. If you want to follow your favorite sports franchise, you better know exactly how their name appears on the platform, or they will not appear in your search results. Maybe, as Danny Sullivan points out in an article on Marketing Land, this is a result of the organic development of the platform as a peer-to-peer messaging app — not a full-fledged social network — where users would have shared usernames between acquaintances directly.

The app has come up with some clever ways to address this, but to a novice, these options are a bit hidden … as is much of the functionality, thanks to a less-than-intuitive UI that leaves many users feeling frustrated and confused (not cool kids like us here at PYMNTS, of course — other users). The ghost avatar that comes standard with your Snapchat account also serves as a QR code of sorts; it’s what the app calls a Snapcode. Clever brands have taken to sharing their Snapchat avatar as a pic on other social platforms. Users can then grab a screenshot of the avatar and select it from their camera roll when prompted in the “add contacts” interface. Simple, right? No? (Are you still reading this?)

Another drawback for brands is the effusiveness of the platform. How much time, energy and precious social marketing resources should brands dedicate to content that will live in any user’s stream for only 10 seconds? The aforementioned Story feature clearly helps to address this, but even so, reach and engagement are two key social metrics that are severely limited on the platform. How does something “go viral” on Snapchat? Short answer: For now, it doesn’t.

The challenge to prove advertising efficacy is part of the reason that Snapchat has, so far, gone after very large brands for advertising spend. According to Fast Company, these advertisers tend to be more comfortable with campaigns that produce a longer-term net positive effect in the marketplace, versus a smaller brand that is looking to recoup costs quickly.

McDonald’s has found success in influencer-based Snapchat campaigns, using celebrities to share their own stories around brands and promotions. A series of video spots for McDonald’s Bacon Clubhouse burger featured LeBron James (bacon clearly being a dietary staple of MVP-caliber athletes), as well as other professional sports icons, on the platform.

Another brand knocking it out of the Snapchat park — albeit after some trial and error — is Coca-Cola. During the NCAA Final Four, the soda brand repurposed content from television and social platforms on Snapchat with lackluster results. After retooling its approach, Coke launched a series of videos this past fall with a “back to school” focus, featuring 10-second video spots. The videos were a hit, with a 54 percent completion rate among viewers.

There may be more clues for marketers looking to crack the Snapchat code in a series of surveys from Sumpto that appeared on eMarketer in 2014. Seventy-seven percent of college students surveyed said they used Snapchat every day, and nearly seven out of 10 college social media users in the U.S. said they were likely to add a brand on Snapchat if they were already following them on another social network. Meanwhile, 67 percent of those same college students said they would be interested in receiving discounts and coupons from said brands. This may be a trend that brands can jump on, keeping their strategy simple and discount-focused for the budget-restrained college set.

In case you thought there was some clear insight brands could use to guide their strategy: One-fifth of the same group from the survey said their primary goal on the platform was just to be entertained.

So, uh … see you on Facebook, probably.

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