By Sarah Ullman
Snapchat Discover debuted this week, thus launching Snapchat into the race for digital video platform dominance. Snapchat will not only distribute video to its 200 million users, but also create and publish its own content on the “Snapchannel.” (No one could think of a better name?)
Converting Users Into Customers
Snapchat is somewhat inelegantly designed but wildly addictive. I won’t waste time explaining Snapchat basics, but you should know that the company is valued at $10 billion, and that users, including me, feel a strong sense of brand loyalty to the platform. As a user, I have an impassioned connection to my posts: the impermanence of a “Snap” means that it’s the only place I will take selfies. Selfie snaps feel almost existential: Are you there, SnapGod? It’s me, Sully. And then, it disappears! Did it ever truly exist?
Can you tell that I feel a bit emotional about Snapchat? I wrote a sentimental and embarrassing Snapchat dissertation on Tumblr two years ago, which you can read here. It explains my belief that Snapchat is actually the most raw, base form of filmmaking that exists.
In some ways, Snapchat is the inverse of Facebook: content is temporary but a user can see exactly who is consuming your posts. Honestly, the knowledge of who is looking at your posts is essentially social media crack.
Snapchat knows that its audience is addicted, and now it’s time to trade in on that platform loyalty.
Nothing New Here
The lineup of publishers on Discover is at first glance, quite impressive: CNN, ESPN, National Geographic, Vice, Food Network, Yahoo News, etc. At second glance, it feels a bit dissonant. These are all legacy publishers with extremely strong brands that will attract advertisers, yes. But Vice and Yahoo are the only truly digital native creators; where is BuzzFeed, Rooster Teeth, Tastemade, or any of the MCNs? Word on the street tells me that digital creators will be featured at a later time, but this initial lineup feels a bit “establishment” for the Snapchat audience.
The content is a mix of video and text/photo posts with a very diverse range of subject matter. Snapchat’s own initial effort at content creation is called the “Snapchannel.” The trailer featured muppets, animation, music, cute organgutans, yoga, comedy, sock puppets, and a cute otter. I watched videos via Discover on topics ranging from a perpetually naked man who lives alone on an island in Japan (Vice), to a baby sloth orphanage (National Geographic), and a Snapchat music series entitled “Under the Ghost.” The text posts were largely inane, and included a discussion entitled, “Can you always tell if someone’s into you? IDK, let’s explore” (Snapchat) and a CNN post about the blizzard beginning with the words “It’s heeere.”
Some screenshot snaps for your viewing pleasure:
The Structure Determines the Content
Discover was released with the following announcement to users:
“This is not social media. Discover isn’t about what’s most popular. We count on editors and artists, not clicks and shares, to determine what’s important. Discover is different because it has been built for creatives. All too often, artists are forced to accommodate new technologies in order to distribute their work. This time we built the technology to serve the art: each edition includes full screen photos and videos, awesome long-form layouts, and gorgeous advertising.
Discover is new, but familiar. That’s because Stories are at the core — there’s a beginning, middle, and end so that editors can put everything in order. Every edition is refreshed after 24 hours — because what’s new today is history tomorrow.”
This is clearly a press release meant for a much older audience of reporters. While it reveals some fascinating subtext — “This is not social media” meaning “This is high quality content, spend money here” — again, the average user’s interest in the underpinnings of story structure is minimal.
I do love the “support of artists” declaration. Snapchat Discover’s UX/UI was built with “creatives” in mind: “All too often, artists are forced to accommodate new technologies in order to distribute their work.”
While it’s wonderful to build a distribution function within an app to support artists, I would challenge both publishers and Snapchat itself to think a bit deeper. The platform has an enormous audience built on social sharing of photos and videos that are 10 seconds or less. It’s naive to think that an oasis for longer form (but still short — between 2 and 10 minutes or so) legacy publisher-produced content will automatically perform well with this audience. After all, the rules of commerce dictate that art must serve a platform’s audience.
I would be eager to see any analytics suite Snapchat has built for its publishers. What’s the audience retention rate for each video? Are people reading the photo/text posts on an app where the only text is usually drawn in hot pink? Do brands see the names of the users who look at their content?
Please don’t misunderstand me; I am long on Snapchat. I love Snapchat! There are immense challenges ahead, especially in the evolution of publisher and content best practices for Snapchat as a distributor. However, I’m hopeful (for the sake of my selfies) that Discover’s user adoption rate is high, and that publishers can access the younger audiences they so desperately want and need.
Sarah Ullman (@thesillysully) is a writer and creative consultant focusing on the YouTube ecosystem. She writes a weekly newsletter about the business of YouTube called “The Jungle” (subscribe here) and specializes in helping “traditional media” clients transition to the digital landscape.