Snapchat should kill Discover and go all in on Stories

By Sarah Lacy , written on August 10, 2015

From The "You know, for kids" Desk

I have always been bullish on Snapchat.

Early on-- when Snapchat was just five guys in Evan Spiegel’s dad’s house-- I argued it was about far more than sexting, saying it represented a huge shift in mobile, photos, and communication.

And later while many parents of young kids argued they weren’t the “demo” because they want memories that will last, I argued that sending snaps of my kids back and forth between family members and caregivers is the killer app of the app.

If I’m on a work trip and I see the Snapchat icon pop up on my phone around my children’s bedtime, I get a surge of emotion just thinking about how adorable that Snap must be. I can’t pay attention to anything anyone is saying until I watch it. It’s a way to see exactly what’s happening right now when I’m not there. Not a big momentous thing-- a fleeting moment of my everyday life that sadly I’m sometimes too busy to get to actually enjoy.


That’s akin to the early promise of Twitter, which wasn’t originally supposed to be about news and celebrities and TV hashtags at all. It was about intimacy. Knowing that second what someone was doing while you were doing something else. The intimacy of throw away moments. Living someone’s life along with them, knowing when they had a dentist appointment or the flu even if you didn’t get to talk to them everyday.

And Snapchat does that way better than Twitter ever did for two reasons: Video is way more powerful than text and the ephemerality of Snapchat lowers the performance anxiety of sending a thought, photo, or video into the digital ether. The fact that it’s not broadcast to the world keeps many of those messages personal and private and unlike what you’d send on any other social network.

But Twitter moved away from that original value proposition as its audience wanted the service to be something else. It also had to build a big business. The two don’t naturally go hand in hand: A network that feels very personal, private, and one that “forgets” everything you’ve shared, and an organization that knows how to push exactly a product you might buy at you at the right time.

Context is the key with most digital advertising. Think about Facebook’s retargeting: The same pair of boots you abandoned in a Nordstrom shopping cart follows you around the Internet like a ghost of “Do I really need these? Nah.” past. Meanwhile, Snapchat’s Spiegel has said these kinds of ads are “creepy.”

From an AdAge profile:

Spiegel says he finds targeted advertising creepy. "Some of the stuff that happens on the Internet—like when a product you didn't end up buying follows you around—that ends up feeling strange and maybe even winds up doing brand damage," he explains. Spiegel feels there's an opportunity to grow the business to live up to its $16 billion valuation without resorting to such tactics. "We have a really big business here that also respects the privacy of people who use Snapchat," he says.

He promises that there will be no invasive consumer data caches for marketers, explaining, "We're going to stay away from building really extensive profiles on people because that's just bad and doesn't feel very good." 

On one level, that’s smart and speaks to what Snapchat has always done well: Running a business so orthogonal to everything Facebook represents that Facebook can never really compete. Snapchat did it with product first, and now with its ad strategy. The best companies are ones where the business mirrors the core principles that went into the product.

But the obvious issue-- as that same AdAge profile points out-- is that it only confuses brands more about how to buy Snapchat. The answer to this conundrum-- we’re told-- is supposed to be Discover. But since it launched in January, Discover has never made any sense to me as part of Snapchat. I’ve mostly sat back and watched, tried using it, talked to marketers, talked to investors and spent months trying to figure out what I’m missing here.

Months later, I’m none the wiser. If Discover is the future of Snapchat the business, here’s where my bullishness on Snapchat is finally hitting a roadblock. Here’s the point where I say what so many reporters in their 30s and 40s before me have done: Throwing up their hands and saying “Well, I guess I’m just not the demographic, cause I don’t get it!”

And maybe that’s the point. Discover clearly isn’t built for me. Maybe it’s all about the 18-24 year olds, not the 40-year-old moms sending and receiving Snaps of their kids. But is Snapchat then saying that’s the only group on its platform worth building an ad business for? The genius of Facebook’s business is that it’s found a way to market to more than 1 billion people from all walks of life. Building a public company can’t just be about courting a young, faddish audience-- as much as that might be the sweetener that gets people excited about the platform.

It was Spiegel himself who argued to me in 2012 the power in Snapchat was how it was spanning generations, citing, for example, how many parents were using it to stay in touch with their kids who’d gone to college. He said:

"It makes complete sense that my generation would be the early adopter of something like this, but from what we've seen it's relatable for anyone.” 

Well then, shouldn’t your ad product be?

Beyond the philosophical, the product experience isn’t great. First off, Discover is... hard to discover. Snapchat has tweaked the product to make it easier and there are reports that the changes are driving views for media partners back up-- after a decline. Discover is interesting in terms of its look-- Spiegel is one of those lone believers that landscape is passe and users just don’t want to turn their phones. So the stories are vertical, animated, and have the digital look of a glossy magazine.

But other than VICE-- who seems to me to be using the medium best-- the content just feels confused and phoned in. Which isn’t surprising given the views aren’t above the single digit millions and the format is so bespoke. It’s an investment to do the channel well and no one-- not Snapchat, not the brands, not the publishers-- seem at all sure this is the future of marketing on this platform. VICE is the only one I’ve seen building substantial content regularly. Many of the media properties are subtly telegraphing disdain for the teens and young adults using the service by the insubstantial content they’re serving them.

Kids today don’t want to read! They don’t want real news!

Another problem in practice: Like much of Snapchat these days, it just loads way too slowly. When I’ve periodically gone to check Discover out over the last few months, I usually get sick of waiting and leave before I even see a story.

But beyond all that, the concept of Discover has just never made much sense to me given the reasons I thought Snapchat was so powerful to begin with. I appreciate that the lonely abandoned Nordstrom boots aren’t still following me around on Snapchat, but there’s another kind of context that works with advertising and doesn’t have to be creepy.

It doesn’t have to be about who I am (Facebook) and what I am looking for (Google) or doing (Twitter) that moment, but there should be a sense of why I’m on that platform to begin with. And I just don’t go to Snapchat to get GIFs telling me how to get a great “side butt” from Cosmo or instructions on microwaving a brownie in a mug or to be reminded it’s Anna Kendrick’s birthday.

If the content itself is hard to find, loads too slowly, and is too inconsistent in quality to regularly draw the audience, how on earth is this the future of Snapchat’s monetization efforts?

Worse: It’s the first time Snapchat has ever made me feel like I’m not the demographic, and I shouldn’t be using the site. That’s the exact opposite of what the company has always argued about its use case, and what it needs to project to new users if it’s going to keep growing. In his attempt to build an ad product that doesn’t know who each user is individually, Spiegel has built one that’s so jarring to users like me that it alienates me even more than the stalker ghost boots.

Indeed, as Snapchat’s video load times have gotten longer and its product has felt more designed for only teens, I get and send fewer Snaps these days than I did a year ago. The bulk of my friends on the platform have become inactive, and I see vanishingly few new friends appear. There’s increasingly less for me to do on Snapchat as a non-teen. Is that really the direction Spiegel wants for what he once described as a communication tool that could span generations? The move away from utility to content property that speaks to a very specific user is rarely a good one when it comes to optimizing for a big exit and building a lasting tech company.

It’s telling that those lauding the power of Discover are typically like this article by the Neiman Lab back at its launch: A 39-year-old who says he doesn’t use Snapchat at all but quotes a bunch of kids who are engaging with the content as evidence this is the future. If Facebook had tailored its product to stay only a college app it wouldn’t be the only $100 billion+ super unicorn of the social media wave. The vision of Snapchat painted in that article isn’t why investors bought common stock at a near-$20 billion valuation. They want the next Facebook, not another VICE.

A much better potential to build a business that’s distinctly Snapchat is in Stories. Stories were one of the smartest product moves Snapchat has done-- a way to gently migrate users from one-to-one to one-to-many. That’s an important shift because it would be near impossible to insert ads into highly personal one-to-one feeds if the company is concerned about “creepiness.” But one-to-many is do-able. That Snapchat can work with.

Snapchat has taken this product even further into a group space with Live Stories, where people opt into sharing their story as part of a greater one. Snapchat’s capturing and live streaming of prayers at Mecca at Ramadan was far more powerful than any of the insipid content I’ve seen in Discover.

It’s a glimpse of Snapchat doing what Twitter did, only with words, and what Instagram tried to do with pictures, but never really achieved: Telling a group global, visual story that makes people feel part of a greater whole. And because every single thing with Snapchat starts with the camera, it’s far more powerful than those previous attempts

Making users want to be part of something bigger, that’s inherently not anonymous but still every bit as personal, is exactly where Snapchat needs to go to create something it can sell against. Discover is a weird bolt-on where-- with the exception of VICE-- old brands and media platforms are trying to speak to an audience they don’t get in a format they don’t get either.

My hope is the weird disconnect I’ve always felt with Discover is a symptom that, internally, Snapchat knows Discover isn’t its future as a business. I’d much rather see Snapchat just kill it, and focus more on what makes the platform so distinct.   


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