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9 - Snapchat
Despite its 173 million daily active users (DAU), its 10 billion daily video views, its 2.5 billion daily snaps, and the approximately 18 visits it enjoys from its DAU per day,1 Snapchat remains another massively underestimated platform. Let me clue you in to an important tell: when the “normals,” that is, the nontech, nonbusiness crowd, are the first to start spending inordinate amounts of time on a platform, that’s the signal to start paying close attention. That’s what drew me to Musical.ly early on, and it’s why I knew Snapchat had an exciting future when it first came out in 2011. I saw it as the first social network to closely re-create the way we communicate face-to-face.
Its founders, Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy, conceived it as the anti-Facebook, a photo-sharing app for spontaneous, imperfect, and impermanent content. When Snapchat first came on the scene in 2011, the messaging app’s vertical video and left-right swiping had people totally confused. It took most users, even the young, a few minutes to click around and get used to it. For teens, though, it was worth figuring out, because it addressed two universal adolescent realities: (1) You don’t want to hang where you mom hangs out, and (2) You want to lock your room. Because adults didn’t get it, because images “self-destructed” one to ten seconds after being opened, and because it gave you the option of drawing and writing text or captions on top of your pictures, the kids were quick to see its potential as texting 2.0—a freer, less curated, and less dangerous place than other platforms to share and creatively express themselves. And share they did; it became widely derided and even feared as the next sexting tool for the high school set (though it never really was a sexting app; that was just the media jumping on a select few cases and running with the attention-grabbing headlines). Today people don’t talk about sexting and Snapchat in the same breath anymore, just as people stopped sneering at Twitter for being the place where attention hogs posted what they ate for lunch, and at Facebook for being a place where college students shared their beer-pong pics.
Today the Snapchat app allows you to post video as well as photos and has added all kinds of extras, like filters, Geofilters, lenses, emojis, and video-editing tools like slo-mo. Content is no longer ephemeral. You could always hack by taking screenshots of images to save them, but with the addition of Memories, which stores your content on the app’s servers, Snapchat essentially caved in to the human desire to save and revisit the important moments of our lives. The game-changing introduction, however, and the one that would turn out to have the most influence on influencers, was Stories, a function that allows you to link a series of videos and photos to tell a longer narrative, visible to the whole Snapchat community for twenty-four hours. It arrived in 2013, and I very publicly pronounced it a dud.
You can watch me make my blunder emphatically and passionately at the LeWeb’13 conference on YouTube. I loved the platform, but I thought the change introduced too much friction in the UI and betrayed the whole point of the app, which was to create snack-size disappearing content. I was dead wrong. The Story feature became the main place where users could consume content at scale. Less than a year later, 40 percent of American teenagers were using Snapchat daily. I learned an important lesson from that bad call on Snapchat: a devoted, sticky fan base is willing to be patient as you experiment your way to the next iteration. The next big launch, Discover, saw Snapchat graduate into a bona fide media platform by offering a page where users would find a slew of brands like National Geographic, T-Mobile, and ESPN. Snapchat now had access to advertising revenue, and that meant so did anyone who could crack the Snapchat code.
The man who did that is named DJ Khaled, but before I introduce him, we’re going to reminisce about Ashton Kutcher. He wasn’t the first star on Twitter—big shout-out to MC Hammer (joined in May 2007) and LeVar Burton (joined in December 2008)—but after joining in January 2009, Kutcher was the first celebrity to truly scale his brand through the platform. Like Hammer and Burton, he’d been building his brand through talent and hustle for decades as a model, a sitcom and film actor, and a producer and director for the reality-TV show Punk’d. I often talk about Kutcher when I talk about the history of Twitter, because it was only four months after joining that he became the first Twitter user to boast one million followers, thanks to a brilliant campaign of challenging CNN to a race to hit the milestone. Suddenly Twitter, which had seemed like a joke to most people, was mainstream.
DJ Khaled created the Ashton Kutcher moment for Snapchat. For over two decades, he built a name for himself in the music industry as a Miami-based DJ, producer, and radio host. Khaled joined Snapchat in the fall of 2015, snapping inspirational and motivational “keys” to life and success. His fondness for the platform, he wrote in his memoir, The Keys, was that, “It’s not about the angle or editing or lighting or how good you look, it’s just you for ten seconds being real with your fans.”2 That authenticity had earned him a sizable fan base. By November or December of that year, anyone following social media could see that whatever it was he was doing, it was something special. Thousands of kids were showing up to meet his bus in places like Des Moines, Iowa. You could start to feel that the scale of Snapchat was shifting. Then, in December of that year, Khaled left a friend’s house by jet ski, only to get caught off guard by the waning early-winter light. Disoriented in the now pitch-black water, he proceeded to snap his entire ordeal until he finally made it back to shore. By the next day, his popularity—and his personal brand—had exploded. DJ Khaled made it official: Snapchat was now a star-making vehicle.
So how did Khaled do it? How does a grown-up become famous on a platform that serves as a communication tool among tweens and teens? By not overthinking anything. Unpolished content is native to Snapchat, and Khaled just was who he was. Some people might call such banal, spontaneous content dumb and worthless, but that would be like saying that the minutiae of our lives are dumb and worthless. They’re not. When combined, those raw, unfiltered moments make up who we are. We don’t judge mundane behavior as dumb when we interact with people; we save such judgment for truly dumb behavior. We accept people in their natural habitats, and we understand that every word people utter is not going to be movie script–worthy. Snapchat is simply a channel that captures that unvarnished reality. The only reason some people think what gets shared there is dumb is because it’s on a screen, and we’ve been conditioned to think that anything on a screen has to be perfectly produced and performed. On Twitter we’re expected to be clever or politically astute and insightful. Facebook is where we show off our families and vacations. On Instagram we build relationships through images and short videos. Snapchat, though, is where we put our throwaway content. It’s a relief to many because it demands little of either its content creators or users. It eliminated the great barrier to many social networks, which is the anxiety of wondering what you’re going to post next, whether it will be well received, and whether it could come back to haunt you one day. With the freedom to post anything, people could experiment and get comfortable building their personal brands without fear of repercussions. That opened the floodgates for many to unleash their creativity and discover and develop new skills. More than one person has left a corporate job or fledgling startup because playing around on Snapchat led them to create a new art medium or become an influencer, which attracted brands eager to pay them tens of thousands of dollars to promote their products in Snapchat Stories.
It is staggering how many families are filming their days and building actual fame. It’s especially easy if you’re willing to include your children. That’s an extremely personal choice, but babies and cute animals always win, hands down. Kerry Robinson learned that when she used Snapchat to film herself engaging in #salontalk with her baby girl, Jayde, while Jayde took to her mom’s hair with a brush. Her Stories on Facebook went viral and garnered articles and TV segments in national media, from CBS News to Essence magazine. Today Jayde has her own ad-supported YouTube channel with seventy-four thousand subscribers and an Instagram account with more than two hundred thousand followers. You can watch a video of her opening a gift of children’s products from a hair care company and see a photo that expresses thanks for a T-shirt sent by a company that celebrates children with naturally curly hair. You couldn’t get a purer example of a person who is famous—and, it would seem, earning money—for simply being herself. That’s what can come from posting a single piece of excellent content. What will come of Jayde’s online celebrity in the long term remains to be seen, of course, but at a time when people are desperate for good news and uplifting, heartwarming content, a glimpse of your ordinary life could be just what they’re looking for.
Many people who have already gotten some brand traction and are becoming influencers, including some featured in this book, stopped producing content on Snapchat as soon as Instagram Stories came out in August 2016. The thinking was that Snapchat is toast. Why bother?
You bother because it’s a mistake to give up one of the tools in your tool belt for no reason. Hear this: Instagram and Snapchat are not the same. As always, people are looking for different things on each. Why would you deprive them? Sure, it’s hard. That’s the challenge. But that’s also the opportunity. Because it’s hard, only one in twenty of you is going to do it well. You should be busting your ass to be that one in twenty. I understand that you want to focus on what is giving you the best returns right now, but what if it doesn’t always? And why would you turn your back on a potentially whole new audience?
As I write this book, I’m constantly checking the App Store to see which platforms are ranked highest. Snapchat is often in the top five. That means it’s not an irrelevant platform, and no influencer is too good for it.
If anything, this app is one of the most valuable for anyone whose brand is starting to scale. Much of your competition has surely become too reliant and focused on Instagram, which means those potential eyeballs still on Snapchat are looking for more content to feed them. Make sure you’re the one to deliver it. It is so easy for influencers to become sucked into the vortex of the media machine they’ve created. You risk becoming a caricature of yourself, especially on Instagram, where the images are so highly curated. As a feature within your Instagram ecosystem, Instagram Stories are almost required to stay within the lines and support the narrative you’ve created there. Snapchat, on the other hand, is an entity unto its own. You can use it to break away from the familiar narrative and show sides of yourself that simply don’t exist anywhere else. It gives you differentiated content. Whereas all your other channels intertwine with each other to support your pillar content, Snapchat stands alone. That’s an excellent reason in and of itself to take it seriously, even when its DNA makes it a natural draw for the mundane and the silly. It gives you a place to be surprising and different, often in the most ordinary, banal ways. (This is advice I should take to heart, too; I could do an even better job there myself!) Snapchat 101
Back to the original question: how should grown-ups build their brands and dreams on a communication tool for tweens and teens?
Some people, like baby Jayde, have so much charisma that they’re going to go viral the minute they present themselves or their work in public. But those individuals are few. For the vast majority, it will take talent plus a combination of tactics and strategy to get noticed. Yet Snapchat limits those tactics. There are no hashtags, for example, so no discoverability. What that means is that building a brand on Snapchat is truly a test of your branding prowess. It’s not about running ads and quantifying every click and mathematical variable; it’s about hacking culture. Snapchat reveals who’s good at it and who’s not. This is why you shouldn’t wonder whether to bother with Snapchat now that Instagram has its own version of Stories. Whether or not Snapchat can compete over time, it’s a terrific training ground to become a superior marketer and branding expert, not just a conversion-based digital salesperson.
Let me say that again another way. The business world is separated into two camps, conversion-based salespeople and branding-and-marketing people. The former are short-term players; the latter, long-term. With no disrespect meant toward sales, I always try to teach you to be branding-and-marketing people, because the great, life-changing upside resides in long-term thinking, not in figuring out how to make a quick buck. For example, Lauryn Evarts, creator of The Skinny Confidential, takes a long-term view of her investment in Snapchat.
I answer every single snap I get, and sometimes I get two hundred a day. I sit down at night for an hour and in the morning for an hour, and answer every single question. It’s almost like text-messaging your readers like they’re your friends. I think it allowed people to really come into my life and allowed me to come into theirs. It’s just a different way of being social. And it allows me to tell a story, and while I tell that story, I’m 100 percent providing value to the audience.
For instance, if I go to cryotherapy, I take a picture of where I am, and then I show me in the booth freezing my ass off. And then I can show what I wore, and after that, I Snapchat the little flier with the benefits. So what my followers get out of that is where to go, what the benefits are, what they should wear, and what it looks like when you’re in the chamber. With every single thing I do, I try to hit those four points. I’m not just going to post a picture of my coffee cup. I’m going to say, “Today, I’m drinking iced coffee. I’m drinking it with a silicone straw because it’s BPA free, and I like cinnamon in it because it helps with your blood sugar.” Every single snap needs to leave them with something or else it’s narcissistic.
With Instagram Stories, you’re competing with a lot of people. Snapchat has white noise, and whenever I see white noise, I’m intrigued, because that’s the way to stand out. Some of these influencers have just been taking pictures for the last five years. Snapchat forces you to show your personality. Are you intelligent, are you funny? What are you bringing to the table other than what you’re wearing?
The thing to remember is that no one is famous only on Snapchat. Because of the temporary nature of the majority of the content, the only way to allow it to live long enough for people to discover and get to know you is to cross-pollinate with other platforms. For example, if you missed DJ Khaled’s jet ski drama, you can still find it on YouTube. Same with Kerry and Jayde Robinson’s salon talk. That means that to be a Snapchat influencer, you need to be strong on the other platforms as well. The content you produce for Snapchat has to be powerful enough to draw views on YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.
The way to get discovered on Snapchat is not much different from the way television stations try to get people to tune in to their programs, which is to market in all the other places where people who might be interested in you are already going. That’s what I did. I was never concerned by the lack of discoverability on Snapchat, because I could see that all I had to do was draw awareness to it through my base on Twitter, YouTube, and my website. I did not use tactics like running Facebook ads to convert people. Instead, I branded and marketed. You’ll be in the minority if you’re able to figure out a formula that works equally well across platforms—most people lean heavily on the one or two they’re most comfortable with—and that rare skill could make you a dominant force here.
All you’re doing when testing discovery strategies is figuring out how to siphon people’s attention. For example, if you want to bring awareness to your Snapchat profile and you send out lots of e-mails, add your snapcode to the e-mail. Pretty easy, right? You could wear a T-shirt with your snapcode printed on it, or you could create custom Geofilters, which are still underpriced.* Both tactics would allow you to put your brand right in front of people’s eyes in a fun, interactive, unobtrusive way.
Collaborate. There is no discoverability on Snapchat; people have to know who you are and be motivated to come find you and follow you. That makes organizing collaborations tricky unless you reach out to people on their other platforms—their e-mail, their Instagram, whatever—and either suggest doing something special together on Snapchat or offer something valuable in return for a shout-out or endorsement on their channel. If you need other influencers to help you grow your account, you’re probably not big enough to be of much interest to them unless you’ve got something pretty spectacular up your sleeve. Here are some ideas for growing your followers to build your brand and make yourself more attractive for collabs: Write multiple blog posts about Snapchat, so when the media need a quote about it, they come to you.
Gain visibility by creating Snapchat events, such as the Jurasnap Park project that helped launch the career of Shonduras.
Pay for a Google Ad that asks something like “Who Should I Follow on Snapchat?” and offers a list of names, with yours at the top.
One more suggestion: you could visit The11thsecond.com, a website founded by Cyrene Quiamco, also known as CyreneQ, snapchat artist and influencer extraordinaire. She created the website in response to the app’s lack of discovery. There you can submit and check out Snapchatter descriptions and user names to make it easier for users to find accounts that match your interests, like Meowchickenfish, who uses Snapchat art to teach sign language, and Snapchatchef, who makes cooking videos. The site is a screenshot repository for cool Snapchat art, as well as a resource where Snapchatters can look for tips, hacks, inspiration, advice, and more. CyreneQ saw a problem—no discovery option on her favorite platform—and solved it. Like all good entrepreneurs, she found a way.
Let’s say you’re like me, a forty-two-year-old influencer who has become somewhat pigeonholed in terms of the kind of content that’s expected of you. You already have a blog, a Q&A show, and a daily vlog. While playing around on Snapchat, you realize that it could provide you with an interesting outlet where you could create a new narrative, a place to microvlog. It’s the place where you can talk about your coffee, show a picture of the colorful cereal aisle at your supermarket, and reveal that your favorite color marker is green. It’s where Rick the clothing store manager snaps himself playing Wiffle Ball with friends, and where Sally the real estate agent admits that even though she’s paleo, she has a weakness for fried pies. Sharing these minor, seemingly unimportant details—often embellished with colorful doodles or fun filters—will do nothing whatsoever to help build any of our brands as influencers in our respective fields, but it does give our followers a chance to see us at our most human.
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