Popular messaging app Snapchat – which lets users send videos and pictures that are short-lived and self-deleting – will soon be flush with cash after a mammoth initial public offering, but financial muscle alone may not be enough to upend a South Korean clone gaining a foothold in China and elsewhere in Asia.
Snapchat’s parent company, the California-based Snap Inc, sent technology industry circles into a tizzy this week following widespread reports that it had made a secret IPO filing to US regulators for a public float with a valuation of around US$20 billion (HK$155 billion).
The move fires the starting gun for the largest technology firm market debut since Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba – the owner of the South China Morning Post – went public in 2014 at a valuation of US$170.9 billion. Companies are allowed to make confidential filings for a US public listing if their annual revenue is less than US$1 billion.
Social media experts say the listing will allow Snapchat to make fresh inroads in the ephemeral social media space where posts are temporary, visual-heavy and largely light-hearted – a far cry from the more sobering, text-heavy content more typical of platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
Since launching in 2011, the messaging platform has grown rapidly from being derided as a ‘sexting’ tool for teenagers to an influential social media player. It has 150 million active users, among them US President-elect Donald Trump and his defeated Democratic rival Hillary Clinton. Sixty per cent of its users are aged between 13 and 24.
Snapchat “comes closer than any other social media to the experience of casually joking with a good friend”, said Joseph Bayer, an Ohio State University researcher who studies the psychological effects of social networks.
And Jonathan Rudd, the Asia-Pacific head of digital strategy at media agency firm Carat, said the app owed its success to young people using it as a platform “to share their moments as they were happening with who they wanted to without all the stigma associated with needing to gain likes or comments”.
But in Asia, a copycat app called Snow, owned by South Korean company Naver, rules the roost with an estimated 80 million users, and insiders say Snapchat will find it tough gaining ground against the home-grown competitor even with its multibillion, post-IPO war chest.
Snow’s features are almost a carbon copy of Snapchat. The app allows users to share goofy selfies enhanced with a myriad of “filters” that add animation from bunny ears and hanging tongues to superimposed disco backgrounds. Like Snapchat, these are short-lived and self-deleting.
There are also filters catered to Asian quirks – like masks that distort facial features to give a distinct Oriental look. Users can also add bottles of soju and bowls of rice to their pictures and videos, which disappear after 24 hours.
“Snap was just asleep at the wheel in Asia. They didn’t pay too much attention to this market, and Snow became very popular with its own set of localised features,” said Duckju Kang, head of Asia at New York-based data and research firm ValuePenguin.
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Other analysts attributed Snow’s regional success to the integration of its interface with other popular Asian apps like Line, the chat app owned by its parent firm Naver.
“Snapchat has some serious catching up to do in Asia which has shown a preference for home-grown social networks like Line, WeChat and KakaoTalk,” said Jeff Rajeck, an Asia-Pacific research analyst at digital research firm Econsultancy.
Another major advantage is that Snow is not banned in China – like its California-based rival.
“I don’t think the imminent Snapchat IPO has much bearing on the success of Snow in Asia,” said Rudd, the Singapore-based digital strategy expert.
Rather, “being blocked in the [Chinese] mainland – like so many others before them including Snapchat – would clearly restrict monetisation potential and affect investor confidence”.
Some industry observers say Facebook – which in recent years has splashed the cash on acquiring mature startups like WhatsApp, Instagram and Oculus Rift – is eyeing the purchase of Snow. Snapchat in 2013 spurned an US$3 billion cash offer from Facebook.
“The interest in Snow is understandable, given it would provide Facebook with an entry into the Asian chat app landscape, data from 80 million users and crucially, allow the company to start interacting with previously unreachable Chinese consumers,” said Zoe Lawrence, the Asia-Pacific digital director at market research firm Kantar TNS.
And Nicolas Trinquier, another digital marketing expert, said: “Facebook has everything to gain in developing a Snap-like tool” as the world’s biggest social media platform gradually loses its “fun side” and becomes mainstream.
“On the other hand, Snapchat is all about fun and not worrying about impressing others and creating engagement,” said Trinquier from Bangkok-based Vero PR.
A third major player in the ephemeral social media space is Facebook-owned Instagram, which in August launched Instagram Stories – a video and photo messaging feature in which posts self-destruct.
“Instagram Stories will likely have some impact on [Snow and Snapchat] when it launches its own set of fun things like filters,” said Kang, the US-based expert.
The array of choices may be mind boggling for some, but tech-savvy millenials say they have time to dabble in all of them simultaneously.
“Snap is for sharing with my closest friends, IG [Instagram] Stories is for a bigger group of friends, and Snow is for sharing with my friends and family in Korea,” Kim Ji-Won, a 17-year-old South Korean studying in Singapore, said.