Social media

Why Snapchat’s popular users could disappear like its photos

YouTube and Instagram court and reward their most followed stars, but Snapchat does very little for its best known users

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 December, 2016, 12:34pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 December, 2016, 5:24pm

Self-described Snapchat power user Michael Platco received a neon sign bearing his name from social media rival Instagram. And a different video app e-mails him every week, hoping he tries their services and brings along his 500,000 Snapchat contacts.

Naturally, he’d expect Snapchat maker Snap Inc to call – or even respond to his e-mails – to ensure it doesn’t lose his videos, sponsors and fans to a competing service. Instead, the world’s fifth most popular mobile app has warned him to follow its rules and briefly deactivated his account.

“You couldn’t find a bigger advocate for Snapchat than me,” says Platco, who supports his wife and infant son with a six-figure income from companies that pay him for promotion in Snapchat posts. “I made that jump thinking Snapchat would continue to let me keep doing what I’m doing at least … but they are making it so hard.”

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Such strained relations are typical for Snapchat, whose aloof behaviour projects an elite image but can also come off as arrogant to users, employees and business partners.

Platco and several dozen other well-known users are frustrated because Snapchat refuses to collaborate on fostering their stardom and moneymaking opportunities. Another big user, Shaun McBride, detailed the concerns in a 10-minute YouTube video in Novemberthat included written support of 10 others. They’ve stopped short of ditching Snapchat, but say they aren’t afraid to do so. It’s tough to estimate the dent their defection would leave because the five-year-old Los Angeles start-up publishes limited statistics.

People who engage with the US$16 billion, ad-driven company are used to attitudes that range from self-confidence to pretension. There’s agreement on the likely source: co-founder and chief executive Evan Spiegel, the 26-year-old Stanford University engineering dropout whose wealth could skyrocket if Snapchat goes public next year as expected.

Questioning his vision is a difficult exercise. Snapchat has redefined itself over six years from a sexting app that was the butt of jokes to a video-sharing powerhouse adored by media giants to a camera company eliciting chills across Silicon Valley. It hasn’t significantly botched any feature launches. And its first device, sunglasses with a video camera built into a hinge, are an early hit. Despite their business grievances, top users rave about Snapchat’s core features.

Snapchat investors, including Benchmark’s Mitch Lasky, say Spiegel doesn’t get enough credit for creating masterpieces.

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“To contrast with Twitter, in which we were also an early investor, getting product releases there was difficult,” Lasky recently said. Spiegel, “on the other hand, is an inventor”.

But Snapchat’s reliance on his creative genius has coincided with shutting out others. A culture of secrecy befuddles employees, who have been surprised by media reports about feature updates and the IPO filing. Business partners, including major media companies such as Viacom and Walt Disney, find themselves accepting stiffer terms than with Facebook or Twitter. Spiegel forges ahead, including by acquiring smaller tech companies, with limited counsel of major investors.

If many of the top influencers were to stop on Snapchat, the innovation and subcultures could go away
Nick Cicero

Snapchat neighbours in Los Angeles’ Venice neighbourhood grouse about what they describe as an unapologetic real estate expansion, driving up rents and suppressing the enclave’s bohemian vibe.

Snapchat has, at times, budged. Needing to increase revenue in the last year, it added measurement tools and more options to appease advertisers. But some strict ad controls persist.

The tensions aren’t likely to fade as Spiegel and chief technology officer Bobby Murphy are poised to maintain voting control after an IPO. That leaves influential users wondering if they’ll ever fit into a long-term strategy. The company declined to comment, but influencers remain a subject of internal discussion.

Snapchat intends for users to share seconds-long bursts from their lives with friends. Even celebrities, whose followers test the limits of “friends”, largely stick to showing personal behind-the-scenes views.

But in promoting companies and creating widely watched stories that go beyond their personal experiences, Snapchat’s influencers are developing increasingly professional content. This work, they say, has shaped Snapchat into the entertainment hub it is today.

They’re the boundary-pushers whose hit videos guide advertisers and people on how to use Snapchat. By devoting entire days to the app, influencers realised that they could use its painting tools to craft intricate doodles, spawning a new art form across social media. In thinking of themselves as entertainers, they’ve defined new genres on Snapchat.

“If many of the top influencers were to stop on Snapchat, the innovation and subcultures could go away,” says Nick Cicero, chief executive of social media marketing firm Delmondo. “They are creating amazing, rich, diverse conversations.”

Audrey Spencer, who draws 90,000 viewers a day on Snapchat, gets half her income from industrial design jobs and half from sponsors – a violation of Snapchat rules. She rejects the notion she’s not using Snapchat as intended, given the bonds formed with viewers who adore her cat drawings.

“I seek out stuff I want to share with my audience,” she says. “It’s not a half-hearted sales pitch.”

But her business could be clashing with Snapchat’s own. Advertisers, including Coca-Cola, pay influencers to promote their products in Snapchat videos. They find that viewers perceive items better if someone they know pitches it, and influencers have large, young followings.

Those deals violate a ban sharpened over the last year on non-permitted commercial use of Snapchat.

The company declined to comment on enforcement. But it stands apart from Facebook and YouTube, which facilitate paid product placement, and Instagram, which is exploring ways to do so and tolerates it for now.

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Snapchat influencers say advertisers should have choices, and encouraging sponsored content can pay off. The company could take a cut of deals. Or it could continue to place ads alongside their videos, which could draw increased viewership and higher fees if Snapchat prominently displayed their content.

To increase users’ fame, some suggest a new section on the app to display popular posts the same way Instagram has done. They say it could help them add new fans and improve relationships with sponsors. They wouldn’t mind Snapchat financing recurring shows starring them or developing features tailored to them as YouTube does. Small moves would be welcome too, such as additional viewership statistics similar to what Facebook provides, or a special identity-verifying badge on their accounts reminiscent of what Snapchat gives celebrities.

Many top users turn to unauthorised apps to post on Snapchat because they are built to better save work or post on a schedule, saving sweat and tears. But when Snapchat’s automated systems catch someone using third-party apps, it issues warnings and temporarily locks accounts. Snapchat says the apps are hacks that threaten user security.

The crackdown contrasts with video-streaming competitors. YouTube provides fast-rising stars with training classes, a dedicated contact, cash for big-budget productions as well as space and equipment, including GoPros and 3D camera rigs. Facebook suggests good cameras and provides guidance on following rules and ad laws. Its Instagram app walks top users through new features and frequently solicits feedback. Smaller firms even host social events for popular users.

They’ve got to the point where – ‘We’re Snapchat. Period.’ – it could bite them
Jake Paul

One such character is Jake Paul, who met Spiegel at a party two years ago and hoped to develop such a relationship with Snapchat after being praised by the CEO. Afterwards, however, he heard nothing.

When Instagram featured him recently touring Universal Studios, Paul added tens of thousands of followers. Snap will lose users if it doesn’t start matching Instagram’s tactics, he warns, noting that it’s starting to pull even in terms of his income.

End of the line for Vine: how its audience fled, along with the video stars it created

Paul and McBride point to Vine – the six-second video app that’s being shut down – as an extreme cautionary tale. Though Snapchat isn’t as reliant on the top 1 per cent of users as Vine, Paul expects some lustre would be lost. He was among about 20 top Vine users who stopped focusing on the app after the Twitter-owned service refused to pay each of them a US$1 million premium for a guaranteed number of posts.

“I take 30 minutes to make a Snapchat, and they don’t take 30 minutes to honour them, and that’s where the disconnect is,” Paul says. “They’ve got to the point where – ‘We’re Snapchat. Period.’ – it could bite them.”

Los Angeles Times