Snapchat: How To Reach 200 Million Youth?

It’s sometimes difficult to reach the members of Generation Z (youth born between 1995 and today) as many have adopted a fully digital mode of content consumption. However, a mobile app stands out from the pack when it comes to reaching teenagers and young adults: Snapchat.

The world of finance and new technology was taken by surprise in November 2013 when Evan Spiegel, 22 years old at the time, refused a $3 billion offer from Facebook to purchase his Snapchat app designed to post short-lived messages. The young entrepreneur had reason to believe in his small white ghost on a yellow background. In less than four years, Snapchat has become one of teens’ favourite apps and it is worth $19 billion according to the most recent forecasts.

This would make Snapchat the third most highly appraised non-listed start-up in the world, right behind Chinese smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi ($46 billion) and Uber ($41 billion).

According to a document of the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) published last year, Snapchat has successfully raised close to $485 million in capital, namely from China’s e-commerce giant Jack Ma (Alibaba) who invested $200 million in the start-up as well as the Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byer investment fund, which already holds shares in both Google and Twitter.

The idea behind Snapchat came to Spiegel in 2011 on the campus of Stanford University. The app, initially named Picaboo, makes it possible to share photos and videos known as “snaps.” However, viewers dispose of only 1 to 10 seconds to view the content they receive.

According to a study conducted by Global Web Index, Snapchat is the social app that recorded the strongest growth in 2014, going from 30 million users in 2013 to 200 million today. These users exchange more than 700 million photos and messages daily. Although Snapchat has an immense pool of young engaged users, the app continues to search for its economic model.

Half of the app’s users are aged between 13 and 17 (31% are between 18 and 24 years old). As Slate’s Will Oremus explains: “Snapchat makes anyone who’s more than 25 feel old, including those who never felt old before. That may be its main attraction.” Reminder: Evan Spiegel, Snapchat’s founder, is only 24.

Users find on Snapchat a level of freedom that no longer exists on Facebook’s very policed platform. On Facebook, users must manage their digital identity on an ongoing basis (in what Christine Rosen calls Ego Casting, i.e., self-production and self-staging). For teens, Snapchat represents the opposite of what Facebook is. It’s a place where they are free to express themselves without fear of being judged. In one word, Snapchat is liberating.

Monetizing stories

At the end of 2013, Snapchat launched Stories, a feature that enables users to upload photos and videos that their contacts can view during a 24-hour period. Close to a year later, the platform made this feature available to brands and offered them the possibility of sending a 24-hour viewable ad to millions of smartphones at once in exchange of the modest sum of $750,000.

Although the sponsored snaps are particularly relevant for marketing offensives such as temporary price reductions or event-based sales, they are less effective for the purpose of gaining premium positioning. Contrary to Instagram and Pinterest, which chose a higher-end ad format, Evan Spiegel justifies the minimalist approach to advertising on Snapchat: “They will be neither too elaborate nor targeted.”

“Our Story” feature

In June 2014, Snapchat launched Our Story during Las Vegas’ Electric Daisy Carnival. The functionality gathers a series of snaps posted by users who are attending the same event at the same location. Snapchat’s team then selects the content and creates an authentic story based on a given event.

During the snowstorm that hit New York City on January 26, 2015, Snapchat’s team created “Snowpocalypse” which was viewed 25 million times in 24 hours. By comparison, “Sunday Night Football” is watched by 21 million people. Since then, Snapchat has produced similar stories for the New Year, the Golden Globes, the New York Fashion Week and the Vanity Fair Oscar After-Party.

Sports events are particularly popular on Our Story. Snapchat posted stories on the Daytona 500, the FIFA World Cup and college football. However, this raises the issue of rights: the content is created from users’ snaps without the leagues’ explicit permission. The leagues have the reputation of being extremely demanding when it comes to broadcasting rights. Snapchat had been hoping since March 2015 to sign agreements with sports leagues and finally reached a first partnership with major league baseball in the United States to broadcast sports content through Our Story on a regular basis.

Made-to-measure editorials

More recently, i.e., in January, Snapchat launched Discover. This platform incorporates 11 “traditional” medias such as CNN, Yahoo, Vice, National Geographic, Buzzfeed, ESPN and CosmopolitanEach media proposes on a daily basis a made-to-measure short-format editorial that is a thumb swipe away and specifically adapted to its target audience. The topics are leisurely and accessible to the masses. Based on the same principle as Our Story, the content is hosted for 24 hours before being replaced by new content.

For Evan Spiegel, this broadcast mode takes a stance opposite to the model adopted by platforms the likes of Facebook seeing as it gives editors and artists full control over the distribution of their content. Contrary to Facebook, the distribution of content on Discover is not entrusted to an algorithm that thinks it knows users’ consumption patterns. Instead, decisions are made by real people in a copy room. In the case of Snapchat, professionals make curative and editorial decisions.

Content on Discover does not lead to external links as Snapchat forbids it. It prefers to be considered as a media in its own right rather than as an intermediary between users and content editors. Moreover, according to Politico, Snapchat hired on CNN political correspondent Peter Hamby to head a future news section.

One month after the launch of Discover, Snapchat used the new feature to broadcast its first original series (Literally Can’t Even) written by Sasha Spielberg and starring Emily Goldwyn. Despite mixed reviews from critics, the experience does point to the likelihood of other similar productions unless Snapchat decides to rethink its Discover feature. Indeed, according to The Information, web traffic dropped by half in only a few months.

However, this does not seem to worry observers seeing as Snapchat can always reinvent itself. On the one hand, Le Monde explains that the partnerships reached with Snapchat expire in June and that Snapchat will either renew them or reassess and adapt them to their target audiences. On the other hand, the small white ghost is very popular with brands (e.g., McDonald’s, Universal, Samsung, Macy, Amazon) that are absolutely set on reaching a target audience that is considered difficult to reach. These brands know that Snapchat’s popularity is far being a passing fad.

Fabien Loszach
Fabien Loszach holds a doctorate in sociology specialized in social imagery, art and pop culture. He works for the Brad agency as its director of interactive strategy and as a consultant in the media and digital fields. Furthermore, he contributes as a commentator to the digital culture show La sphère broadcast on Ici Radio-Canada Première. Each week, he discusses a current issue from a sociological perspective.
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