Snapchat is an alluring platform for marketers, especially when they have a brand they’d like to get in front of younger Millennials, Snapchat’s primary user base.
The company has been fairly tight-lipped about user numbers, but recode has some eye-popping stats:
But for all the promise those numbers suggest, Snapchat marketing for most brands has been a crapshoot so far — and an expensive one for companies advertising to its users.
It would be easy here to blame Millennials’ stereotypically deficient attention spans. There’s plenty of engagement to go around, it seems, but most of it is diverted to selfies and inanity, all coded in the unintelligible language of youth and pizza emojis. Harsh realm, you know?
Here’s the thing: We’ve seen this all before. Snapchat is just following the hype cycle as Instagram did before it, and as Twitter did before that. That means we can put Snapchat’s popularity into what’s now a large and rich context, plan for its maturity, and be there to reap the rewards when the platform comes of age.
So, don’t shoo Snapchat from your lawn. Instead, invest a little bit of your time and energy into it today with an eye toward the future. Most businesses won’t see a return on their Snapchat efforts right now, but they can start building equity now and very likely cash in later.
Snapchat users reward authenticity perhaps more than any other channel’s users. Coming in with a carefully crafted, on-brand message is going to ring especially hollow here. In fact, NewsCred found most users shun celebrities and branded content — or at least seldom engage with it.
“Seldom” is the key word when you’re talking about 200 million active daily users. At that scale, brands are finding ways to tap into Snapchat’s unique terms of engagement. Curated Digital has a couple of examples:
Of course, those are huge companies that get eyeballs on any campaigns they put together. Smaller companies can compete for Snapchat attention, but the barrier to entry can be astonishingly high. You either have to have a built-in audience and a great story, or you have to make a compelling offer for attention.
Startup Icelandic airline WOW air opted for the latter in its SnapTraveler campaign. In the spring of 2016, the airline hosted a contest to find four participants willing to travel on the company’s dime to four different locations. All the winners have to do is promise to chronicle their adventures.
This is a good way to tap into both social influencers and Millennial wanderlust, but again not every company can afford 16 all-expenses-paid trips in exchange for that exposure.
For companies working with a social media budget a little more toward the shoestring end of the spectrum, here are four proven ways to gain traction on Snapchat.
WOW air says it received thousands of applications for its SnapTraveler contest, and it definitely earned the company some media mentions, which further funneled in Snapchat users:
Along those same lines, companies with built-in audiences can leverage Snapchat’s ephemeral nature by offering coupons on Snapchat, Lightspan Digital in Chicago writes:
“Urgency and scarcity are well-known to improve marketing conversion rates. Sharing coupons via Snapchat plays into this. Snaps disappear after you’ve watched them, and stories only last 24 hours. So you have to act quickly if you want that coupon or deal. There’s also a sense of exclusivity — snaps can’t be re-shared (if we don’t consider the screenshot option).”
Hootsuite‘s Kendall Walters makes another good point about Snapchat’s ephemerality: If you do something too weird, it will still vanish into the ether in 24 hours. There’s room to misfire here. This gives companies the freedom to show off an authentic personality without having to self-censor for fear of re-living a cringe-worthy post for eternity.
Still, you want to color within the lines. “Because watching a Story on Snapchat is such an engaging, opt-in experience, it’s crucial to make sure you’re putting out good content when you do post,” Walters writes.
“Rather than super-Snapping everything all the time — ultimately creating a disjointed and hard-to-watch Story — take the time to think through your Snaps. Plan your Story ahead of time so that it, you know, tells a story.”
At the same time, Ash Read at Buffer recommends setting a schedule so followers can know when to expect snaps from you. If you spend too long getting your stories just right, there will be no one around to watch them.
Sarah Clark, president of PR firm Mitchell, puts another spin on the fleeting nature of snaps at AdWeek’s SocialTimes. As with time-sensitive contests and coupons, snaps allow businesses to tease exciting company news or the launch of something. Clark cited HBO’s recent promo campaign for the newest season of Girls, when the network took to Snapchat to post exclusive teasers for the show.
Again, Snapchat works best when companies have something of real value they can offer to a specific audience.
Finally, you can opt into Snapchat’s own pay-to-play offer, but it’s anything but shoestring budget-friendly, writes Jillian Hausmann from St. Louis marketing communications firm Arco + Associates. Those filters Pepsi and KFC made hay with? They start at a half million dollars per day, Hausmann writes at AdAge.
If you’re hosting an event, you can target a little more closely with GeoFilters, Kristi Hines writes at Social Media Examiner, but even those can run you six figures.
Which begs an important question: Are these big brands dropping $500k just to make a bunch of Millennials chuckle?
As myopic as we think the view is, it’s easy for people to dismiss Snapchat marketing right now.
For one thing, it acts as what Mark Schaefer calls “a social media cul-de-sac,” a place where engagement can build up but has nowhere to go because Snapchat doesn’t leave much room for outbound links — or at least pointing people toward a link is awkward.
You certainly could build Snapchat-specific landing pages and drop the URL in your snaps. Mediakix reported in 2015 that ShopStyle tried this out, but you’d need a clean URL like snap.shopstyle.com (it now redirects) to make this work. The URL needs to be memorable enough that someone can remember it, open a browser and type it into the address bar.
Or, you could put up the money for a clickable link.
Further, it’s hard to build an audience that’s native to Snapchat; most of your Snapchat friends are going to come from elsewhere. “With Snapchat, the extra challenge comes in the fact that there’s no virality to the content,” Erin Carson writes at TechRepublic.
“Users can’t share snaps, so it’s not like going on Facebook and seeing a friend has liked a certain page or post, which serves as an endorsement of sorts. This is an area that will most likely require some cross-channel promotion to attract followers who will then, hopefully, end up helping spread the word.”
So, you have to pull Snapchat followers from an audience you’ve called together elsewhere. Then, once you have their attention, you can’t easily convert it into anything more.
At this point, we see Snapchat has potential as a couponing platform; a place to “tell a story,” which is beyond trite; and a canvas for some doodles to entertain the under-25 crowd. Is this the best we as a civilization can do?
Of course not. Social media simply need time to evolve. It took Instagram a while before it could graduate beyond a place for users to share pictures of their food. And Twitter … well, that conversation requires its own section.
In July 2009, the New York Times ran a “well, would you look at that” piece on how small businesses were successfully marketing themselves on Twitter that today feels like a snapshot of a baby deer taking its first steps. Twitter was still so novel to mainstream audiences then that the reporter used “twittering” as a verb.
A half year earlier, Copyblogger published its guide to using Twitter to grow your business. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is quoted as saying: “We’ve found that Twitter has been a great way for us to connect on a more personal level with our employees and customers. We use it to help build our brand, not drive direct sales.”
It’s funny to look back on eight-year-old advice on how to strategically use Twitter because we’ve all long since digested its best practices. But this is exactly what Snapchat advice looks like today, which means we’re all still on the windward side of the learning curve.
HubSpot VP of Marketing Meghan Keaney makes a similar point: “I’m not going to sit here and tell you your audience is on Snapchat. In fact, they might not be … yet. But there is a benefit to wading into this emerging channel early.”
Your company’s Snapchat presence at this point is probably going to be a long-term investment. If you don’t have the marketing budget of a company like Pepsi or even WOW air, that’s almost definitely the case. And even if you can afford to throw $500k at a one-day campaign, it’s not likely you’ll see an obvious return on that spend.
Instead, take it slowly. Build your audience organically, learn what resonates with them, and spend this time simply getting better at Snapchat. As the platform grows and the costs of capturing attention fall, you’ll be poised to succeed on an important social channel while everyone else plays catchup.
Here are a few resources to get you started: