Is SnapChat’s Business Model Too Focused on Content?

Marki Conway

Yesterday, Brad Stone and Sarah Frier published a feature in Bloomberg Business based on an exclusive interview with Evan Spiegel, SnapChat’s co-founder and CEO, who notoriously shies away from press interviews. Kudos to them for great reporting, and for finding a way to broadly give us Spiegel’s perspectives, even on those topics he claimed were “off the f***ing record.”

The piece, Evan Spiegel Reveals Plan to Turn Snapchat Into a Real Business, tells the story of SnapChat’s growth and how Spiegel is a fiery young CEO with bright hopes for his startup’s future. But I’m left with a lot of questions throughout, as Spiegel claims to know what millennials want, even without studying data and trends that so many other publishers rely on in their attempts to give consumers the experience they supposedly want.



Image by Adam Przezdziek  used under CC license

A lot of Spiegel’s plans for the future seem to rely on editorial content. SnapChat’s first attempt at this was Discover, where publishers such as CNN, People and National Geographic have signed on to share video editorial content. If I brought this up in my circle of millennial friends – who Spiegel is claiming to target – most of them wouldn’t even know what the Discover feature of SnapChat is. That doesn’t mean there isn’t potential, but nothing about Spiegel’s plans left me believing that SnapChat would make it into my morning news routine. Let those that are nailing the content game do that right now – like the Skimm, which has quickly made itself a part of many millennial morning routines with its quick and witty news bites from what’s happening around the world.

Now, I’m not talking about the stories from around the world, or from specific events that show up in our story feeds alongside the stories of our friends. Those have an interesting and timely angle to catch a user’s attention, but they’re not editorial content, and they’re in the same SnapChat format as stories from our friends. I believe that SnapChat does have a lot of potential, but it’s not in editorial content such as Discover– it’s in sharing personalized, timely stories. Stone and Frier nail what SnapChat’s bread-and-butter is:

Spiegel says that in the beginning, Snapchat was less about disappearing selfies and more about letting people capture a moment that they can share freely online with whomever they want, without considering broader consequences. In a world where everything on Facebook or Twitter could become part of their permanent Internet persona, impermanence had value to young users. “Before that, most of social media stuff, you take a picture and give [it] to everyone on earth,” he says. “Our idea was not that grandiose. It was simple. Let’s just take a shot at restoring some context” to the pictures we exchange online with friends. 

For me, personally, it’s not about disappearing selfies so I can keep my Facebook corporate-approved; it’s about sharing the everyday moments with my closest friends, without bombarding the other 95% of people I connect with on Facebook and Twitter who don’t care about my dogs or that I’m sweating after running to the bus stop, yet again. So, I say, stick to that. Monetize that – the disappearing MMS app that brings context and personalization back into social networking.

While I’m skeptical behind the potential for SnapChat to become a content platform, I can certainly respect Spiegel’s philosophy behind it, especially some of his views on stories vs. data, like this one: “I really haven’t seen data deliver the results that I’ve seen a great editor deliver.”

I can see both sides to that argument – a great story has far more influence over me that any statistics I’ve ever seen. And it’s refreshing, more so than I can describe, for the CEO of a hot social startup to bank on reaching millennials based on experiences and storytelling, rather than what studies and research say about us. But at a time when marketers have more data at their fingertips than ever before, and more technology than ever to analyze and leverage that data, it’s hard to ignore.

And, while I love and respect a great story, I’m finding it difficult to believe that those great editorial stories will make their way into my SnapChat app. For it to succeed at editorial content, SnapChat would need those great editors to either publish exclusive stories to SnapChat or to offer stories as a completely different experience than how we’re consuming content today. While I admit that content consumption is different on SnapChat’s app, it’s not enough to keep me going back for more – not from an editorial perspective.

Let’s be honest here about what SnapChat is: a glorified MMS app. Spiegel himself, when asked about changing the world, understated the app’s capabilities by claiming, “we help people share pictures.” Simple, but true. It’s where I go to post embarrassing selfies to my inner circle and send probably annoying photos and videos of my dogs. Don’t get me wrong, I love it – but I don’t go there for editorial content. And I think Spiegel will be hard-pressed to find a mass consumer audience that does.



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