Stuck On Snapchat: The Product Hooks And Platform Powering Snapchat's Rise To 200 Million Users And Counting


As Ev Williams from Twitter famously stated, “Take a human desire, preferably one that has been around for a really long time…Identify that desire and use modern technology to take out steps.” By combining minimalist design with a product strategy that taps into fundamental human desires and psychological triggers, Snapchat has leveraged its success as a messaging and sharing app to become a powerful media platform.  

Bobby Murphy, co-founder and CTO of Snapchat, visited MIT Sloan last spring of 2014 and delved into a thoughtful sociological discussion about the intrinsic need people have to wear public masks versus private masks in order to fulfill their on-stage and off-stage selves. Snapchat at its core was built to preserve and honor the “off-stage” self by enabling the expression of thoughts and feelings that may only be relevant in that moment. In Peter Thiel terms, Snapchat found a “cultural secret” that went against the social media and messaging trends at the time: what can make shared moments more special is that they are private and fleeting. In doing so, Snapchat entered into the uncontested market space of ephemeral messaging, creating an entirely new use case and making direct competition with other social media and messaging platforms much less relevant.

But what is most fascinating is that Snapchat’s simplicity as a messaging and sharing platform has accelerated its growth as a real-time window into firsthand experiences around the world. Not only are people creating on Snapchat, they are creating for Snapchat.

But what is most fascinating is that Snapchat's simplicity as a messaging and sharing platform has accelerated its growth as a real-time window into firsthand experiences around the world. The curated public stories made by Snapchat are glimpses into events as they happen live, making Snapchat a tremendously powerful media platform -- almost as if Twitter were video-first, curated, and more focused on sharing firsthand perspectives. This is what I love about Snapchat most: its potential as the top of mind place for people to share videos of what is happening real-time, immediately.  As M.G. Siegler puts it, "True power is when media creates content explicitly for a network, rather than simply repackaging it." Not only are people creating on Snapchat, they are creating for Snapchat.

At the time, I was still much more of a skeptic than true believer of Snapchat, fully convinced that the rise of social media platforms that I loved (including Facebook and Twitter) reflected a fundamental shift towards transparency -- or the decline of this separation of on-stage and off-stage selves. I believed (and still do) that this level of transparency and public sharing was important in promoting integrity and consistency. However, I neglected to fully appreciate the power of “and” in this equation: people fundamentally have an equal desire to share publicly and privately - this human truth will never go away. Before Snapchat, no platform for ephemeral messaging existed. The flexibility of the platform and clever interface design won me over.


The growth to 100 million users on Snapchat is a direct reflection of their value innovation and strong network effects. According to June 2014 comScore Mobile Metrix data, 32.9% of American’s between the ages of 18 and 34 use the app—behind only Facebook and Instagram, with 75.6% and 43.1% penetration rates, respectively--and this is only 18+ . Furthermore, as of the end of 2014, 50% of the app’s users are outside of the United States. Snapchat users also send 400 million photos and videos each day, matching the daily uploads to Facebook and Instagram combined because -- remember, Snapchat is messaging first unlike Facebook or Instagram, which puts the numbers in perspective.

Uncovering human truths has translated into a strong business case for Snapchat, which has found a way to serve the highest needs of people. According to professors at Wharton: “There is a great shift in value that is occurring globally as organizations climb Maslow’s hierarchy to serve our less tangible needs. In fact, we are just beginning to witness the power of firms that use today’s technologies to fulfill the belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization needs of individuals." Finding more authentic, honest ways to connect is certainly top of the list. 

From a technological standpoint, key pain points that created friction in communication have been eliminated by Snapchat: needing to delete random photos that were never meant to be saved, and remembering to delete text conversations that might trigger embarrassment or regret. Snapchat reduces the friction of private messaging to your inner circle. This is where Path struggled: while the app made it simple to “update” your inner circle on daily activities, it missing the opportunity to enable sharing feelings and emotions in a more rich way, which is the underlying value of those updates. For example, having my best friend receive an update with a photo of an airport I am in is not particularly interesting. However, if I can customize that photo with a meme or drawing that expresses my current mood, that changes the game.

By making micro-moments customizable, Snapchat has empowered users to make shared media more relevant to the moment--and therefore more variable and interesting, supercharging the creativity of creators. As Aaron White observes, “It immediately creates artificial scarcity; you have to pay deliberate attention to each message as you open it. The message instantly feels more special, and more private because it is intended for you, you alone, in this moment… and then it's gone.”

While Snapchat’s appeal and adoption rises, the social costs of public sites like Facebook and Twitter continue to rise, ranging from everything as simple as shyness or uncertainty about what to comment on a friend’s post to examples of public conversations around topics that devolve into violent public arguments and threats. The costs of posting and sharing on social media have gotten higher and higher, with people sometimes even losing jobs or spouses based on what they have posted.

The lack of context around character, history, and relationships in the current structure of public social media posts creates a breeding ground for misinterpretations and miscommunications.  By contrast, Snapchat offers a safe, intimate space in which posts can be made public to friends but interactions are private and fleeting, reducing inhibitions and relieving the anxiety of needing to always say the right thing for fear of someone taking a screenshot and having it go viral.


Minimalist Interaction And User Experience Design

One of the first things that intrigued me about Snapchat was its distinctive UI and interaction features - in fact, they are so unique it actually took me a while to get used to the lack of buttons and gesture driven interactions. However, discovering these uniquely designed interactions has been almost magical: in my first live videochat with my best friend (I had to instruct her to find the blue button and hold it down), we were both blown away by the tap and drag feature that allowed you to rotate the camera based on a "magic corners" concept similar to the desktop feature on Macbooks. Magic!  

Removing as many points of friction as possible may be a driver in Snapchat's ability to accelerate user engagement amongst the younger demographic. This same minimalism may be a barrier for the older demographic, which now has to shift their mental models from traditional menus to much more subtle interactions. However, the trend in user experiences is undeniably towards minimalist interfaces and gesture-driven interactions. This makes Snapchat a leader in experimenting and maximizing all that mobile has to offer across several dimensions: screen real estate, touch, and sensors. Here are some key design techniques Snapchat employs:  

Design Mechanism #1: Full Screen, Immersive Content
Smartphones are small enough - why not leverage the full screen real estate available to make the phone a true portal for content? Snapchat frees up the entire screen to be flooded with video or photo, removing the typical clutter of menus, logos, and buttons for a content consumption experience that is enveloping.

Design Mechanism #2: Horizontal Swipe Gestures
In a design move that maximizes screen real estate and creates a feeling of expansive, infinite discovery, Snapchat eliminates the need for menus or buttons, relying instead on gestures. While this disrupts a trained user behavior on smartphones, which typically requires finding and tapping specific objects shown on the screen, it seems obvious in hindsight to incorporate horizontal swipe interactions as a way to uncover new screens. This reduces another point of friction in user interaction and begins exploring the possibilities of more innovative, intuitive UI that one can easily imagine translating to world of more digitized surfaces and screens, such as a concept video from Amnesia Razorfish from 2011.

Design Mechanism #3: Tap And Hold, Tap And Drag
By using the tap and hold interaction for viewing, Snapchat creates a pain point: not being able to finish seeing a photo or video. By making it necessary for users to tap and hold, Snapchat makes opting into viewing content a clear decision. Another personal favorite of mine is Snapchat's product decision to use the all of the screen real estate - during live video chatting, you can drag your image to different corners to rotate the camera from front-facing to back-facing. The combination of these design mechanisms leads to a minimalist gesture-driven user experience that promotes engagement and reduces friction for content creation and sharing.

The trend in user experiences is definitely towards minimalist interfaces and gesture-based interactions, making Snapchat a leader in experimenting and maximizing all that mobile has to offer across several dimensions: screen real estate, touch, and sensors.

The Psychology Fueling Snapchat's Growth

The essence of Snapchat’s allure is embodied in the design of a cutting edge user experience that appeals to several fundamental human needs or psychological triggers:

Scarcity - Humans place a higher value on an object that is scarce, and a lower value on those that are abundant. The more difficult it is to acquire an item the more value that item has.

Connection and Intimacy - Emotional closeness defined as being found in intimate spaces of togetherness

Authenticity and Freedom of Self Expression - Enabling honest communication and creation within an “inner circle” (I am frequently busting out in laughter or amusement at the very candid and entertaining Snapchats made by star Snapchatters like Casey Neistat)

Novelty - Satisfying the itch of curiosity and boredom and gap of knowledge  

Ease - “If there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs. Laziness is built deep into our nature.” (Thinking Fast and Slow)

Anticipation - Anticipating positive events sustains the output of dopamine into the brain’s chemical pathways.

Completion - The Zeigarnik Effect is what psychologists call our mind's tendency to get fixated on unfinished tasks and forget those we’ve completed.

While there is no magic recipe (as Ben Horowitz emphasizes in The Hard Thing About Hard Things), analysis about the role of specific product features and how they connect to human needs is extremely valuable in understanding what core features are driving engagement with a product and what might be upcoming opportunities. Based on an analysis that integrates Nir Eyal’s Hooked framework with growth factors, it is clear that the product features of Snapchat resonate strongly with core psychological triggers and have strong growth implications. 


Snapchat's Opportunities For Expansion And Monetization

Snapchat’s new features such as Stories, and acquisitions including and Vergence Labs, are showcasing its ability to take successfully designed product features and trained user behaviors into new arenas. According to Ben Horowitz: "Media companies focused on things like creating great stories whereas technology companies focused on creating a better way of doing things." For Snapchat to continue leading this category, it must be simultaneously be a creator of new media and designer of cutting edge of technology experiences.

In an analysis of core Snapchat features, these acquisitions make sense for long term plays into a variety of industries for monetization, from retail to entertainment. As a messaging and platform app, Snapchat may help QR codes finally succeed in the US by integrating a scanner directly into their photo functionality, taking a page out of China’s successful apps, most of which have their own QR code reader feature built-in. In fact, Snapchat has already begun incorporating this through Snaptags, which customizes each user's ghost icon to allow users to add friends by scanning each other's Snapchat ghosts.

Other highly successful apps in China may be driving Snapchat’s interest in expanding its reach: WeChat promotes itself as a “new way to connect” and features messaging, video calls, a news feed, payments, an Evernote like favorites feature, a game center, a location-based people finder, a Shazaam-like song-matching service, and even e-mail. With a similar entry point as a messaging app, Snapchat may be considering the opportunities that WeChat has shown are possible, expanding as a platform by leveraging the network effects achieved by the current momentum from its growth.


Opportunity #1: Media Partnerships

Snapchat is already curating original content, which has been highly successful thus far and is a major competitive advantage for differentiating themselves from other ephemeral messaging apps. Snapchat just launched Discover, where users can browse content from media companies ranging from Vice to National Geographic -- and even original Snapchat content. Early reports show that impressions from Discover are through the roof, easily reaching millions. Given that a core value of Snapchat is real-time, the following media opportunities are a strong strategic fit: 

Breaking News: Short clips delivered from CNN with updates on stories in the existing Our Stories Snapchat format. A reporter on the ground could easily document updates through Snapchat and add on to their Story throughout the day as new developments occur. Given Snapchat's strengths as a journalism platform, the future of VR could also hold many possibilities for Snapchat's continued growth. 

Live Sports Commentary: Similarly, ESPN could have sportscasters who Snap live commentary so people can check in on the Story to watch feedback live during the game.

Exclusive Releases: Because Snapchat is designed for full engagement and a sense of privacy and exclusivity in viewing clips, launching new entertainment releases through Our Stories through a partnership with Vevo or MTV makes Snapchat a new distribution channel. In fact, Snapchat is already in talks with Sony and William Morris and has already integrated click-thrus to iTunes. Snapchat is poised to become a new source of music discovery and can facilitate interactions between artists and Snapchat users. 

The tradeoff inherent in these media partnerships is guaranteed engagement and attention for sharing. For content that relies on the public social network referrals, making it first available on Snapchat then promoting its distribution through Facebook or Twitter could be one distribution strategy. Another could simply be reserving specific types of less edited, more informal and raw content or commentary for Snapchat that cannot be found anywhere else on the web, reinforcing the sense of scarcity and potentially increasing engagement. Regardless of the strategy the media partnerships adopt, the opportunity for real-time, mass distribution of ephemeral content creates interesting opportunities for both Snapchat and their media partners. 


Opportunity #2: Event And Location-Based Advertising Partnerships

While Snapchat is generating groans from digital marketers around the world by taking a stance against highly targeted ads and instead adopting a traditional broadcasting advertisement method (again, going against the current trends) -- there are still merits to this strategy. As a data-driven marketer, I was initially appalled at this seemingly backward step, however if Snapchat takes a Superbowl approach towards advertising, they can focus on only attracting high quality, top of the funnel ads that are focused on telling brand stories as opposed to focusing on click-thru conversions. With a general understanding of the audience of specific Stories, the ads may still be contextual enough to be very effective. 

While it’s easy to take a trite anti-ad stance, as TechCrunch states “an ad is an ad is an ad. And ads are never actually cool”, the fact is that the advertising industry has provided countless moments of pure entertainment and cultural connection. During events like the Superbowl, ads are often beautifully shot, culturally on-trend micro-stories that happen to star brands. Take, for instance, the "like a girl" campaign by Always. In other words, ads can actually be cool. Very cool. In fact, 60% of Snapchatters say they enjoyed branded Our Story ad campaigns. YouTube is even planning its own Superbowl halftime show featuring online stars and fake ads in homage to this wildly popular tradition.

By curating Stories, Snapchat may have an opportunity to customize advertising to some extent based on the topic (i.e. the EDC story would have very different ads compared to the Detroit Auto Show). Snapchat has one particularly valuable metric that no other platform has: opt-in engagement. Because users must keep their fingers on a photo or video in order to view it, Snapchat can provide advertisers with absolute data on whether or not their ad was seen and exactly when during the ad viewers decided to opt-out of watching, which is a major win for data-driven marketers.

Because users must keep their fingers on a photo or video in order to view it, Snapchat can provide advertisers with absolute data on whether or not their ad was seen and exactly when during the ad viewers decided to opt-out of watching, which is a major win for data-driven marketers.

Furthermore, Snapchat has location data - which can mean highly relevant advertising based on events or travel. For example, the Detroit Auto Show could have specific vendors or restaurants in the area provide promotions to Snapchatting attendees -- all of which would be opt-in of course. Or if someone is on vacation in Hawaii and staying at a specific hotel, promotions for the hotel restaurants or spas may be relevant. Vacationers are much more likely to be using Snapchat to message their friends and family in private as opposed to frequently publishing updates on Facebook, giving Snapchat a leg up on these advertising opportunities. From an analytics standpoint, knowing when users decide to drop out of watching a Story is very valuable for content creators and location-based data also presents a unique opportunity for Snapchat specifically because of the frequency of its usage.

Opportunity #3: Flash Sales, Retail & Payments

Another opportunity that stems from Snapchat’s core value propositions of being both real-time and private that integrates Snapcash with new acquisition could be retail. Partnering with Square makes dealing with challenges on the retail front significantly easier, as Square already has partnerships established and can help move potential pilot programs or promotions through to stores much quicker. For example, a Snapchat user could be shopping at Macy’s, find a pair of shoes that is out of stock in her size at the store but Snap a photo of the QR code with some Snapcash to get it delivered directly to her home.

Furthermore, capitalizing on its core strength as a platform of temporary information, Snapchat could fuel the rise of flash sales for anything from vacations to clothing through branded Snapchat accounts that fans love. This gives companies an opportunity to reward loyal fans and fans a chance to get a great deal.

Opportunity #4: Snapchat As Talent Agency

Especially after Tumblr announced their new creatrs program, the future for Snapchat as a talent broker through the platform seems very bright. With more and more people joining the platform and original content being created, influencers and artists are bound to emerge. Snapchat can match Snapchat influencers with brands or media companies to cross-promote relevant content, something CEO Evan Spiegel is already rumored to be thinking about for current music stars on Snapchat. 


The Evolution of Product Features  

From a product standpoint, Snapchat has significant opportunities across a variety of industries, making investments into product feature expansion necessary as these monetization opportunities evolve. Some key product features that Snapchat should consider building out:

  • Expanding Discover: Recommending key Snapchat users based on current Snapchat public follows (i.e. If someone is following Washington Post, recommend NPR), building out public Snapchat video responses to branded content from users

  • Location Stories: Aggregating daily public stories within each city based on public submits by users (i.e. Today In Paris) to help users see into the window of locations around the world

  • Analytics: Dashboard for brands and media companies featuring engagement, location of users, # of friends following Snapchat account, etc.

  • Advanced Editing: Tools and geofilters (for example, to upload a brand logo into a video - community geofilters are already being created)

  • Branded Accounts: Multiple logins for easy Snapchat corporate brand management with automatic ownload to a content archive for brands and media with machine-learning on the cloud to create analytics for batches of media (i.e. Being able to identify what within a video is most engaging to users since computer vision is becoming more advanced)


With a cutting edge user experience design that eliminates buttons and menus, focuses on immersion and engagement, and removes both psychological and physical friction from interaction, Snapchat is a media platform that creates new opportunities across industries and has attracted users that are using Snapchat to tell stories in creative and unprecedented ways. Suddenly, 100 million users seems to be only the beginning.

Victoria YoungComment