What You Need to Know About Snapchat.

What works, how to measure success, and what to expect in the future.

Andrew Cunningham
August 28, 2014

While Snapchat has been making the case that it’s a viable marketing channel, many brands are still skeptical. Taco Bell, General Electric and even Sour Patch Kids are making the disappearing photo service work for them, but many marketers still find the channel to be mysterious, nascent, and unable to provide the core metrics necessary to prove success.

To date, the approach to a Snapchat communication strategy has been as elusive as a Snap itself. There have been only a few examples of successful campaigns so far, and many digitally fluent brands are still struggling to find relevance on the channel. Dozens more are aimlessly flocking in, and the rest remain on the sidelines.

The recent informal announcement of ads and discovery, however, means more brands should be paying attention. While the demographics still skew young (81% under the age of 25; 50% under 17), the user base continues to rapidly grow past 30 million and can no longer be ignored. For many brands it’s officially the next frontier and the key to reaching Generation Z.

What follows is a working set of best practices for Snapchat, based on our experience with several successful campaigns for major brands. The platform is notoriously tricky, but this is our assessment of what works, how success can (or cannot) be measured for the time being, and what to expect in the future.

Strategy

Snapchat’s core philosophy is “delete is our default.” No surprises there. For the most successful accounts on the platform, however – celebrities, Snapchat personalities, entertainment brands, and many publishers as well – the best content strategy is clear: offer users VIP access, behind the scenes content, and slice-of-life vignettes. Humor also never hurts. 

The blanket term for this is “exclusive content.” It’s important to note, however, the difference between providing unique content between a brand’s social channels, and truly exclusive content. This distinction is key. It’s the difference between a series of doodles and access backstage to a concert. It’s also the difference between a video-of-a-video simply for the sake of posting, and an intimate glimpse of your favorite NFL team’s huddle minutes before kickoff. 

Ultimately, the goal for any brand on Snapchat should be giving a new perspective not typically seen elsewhere. Brands on Snapchat are still in the honeymoon phase, but make no mistake: content short of this exclusive variety will soon wear thin. For some brands, this is impossible; for many others, it’s at least a daunting task on a small budget (short of hiring a professional Snapchat artist.) While early big stats may be appealing, entering any channel without a mid to long-term strategy always ends poorly (even though, yes, sometimes a stunt does work.) It’s all in an effort to ensure a brand avoids suffering the worst fate of all: indifference and irrelevance, all on top of wasted resources. 

Execution

Content.

There are two methods to distributing content on Snapchat: Snaps, and stories. Snaps (also known as direct or private Snaps) are 1 to 10-seconds, and are capable of being sent to 1 to 200 users at a time. Once viewed, they expire. 

Stories are Snaps stacked together to create a “flipbook” of moments, and typically have cohesive narratives. Unlike Snaps, Stories can be openly viewed by anyone if a user chooses. Each individual Snap in a Story lives for 24 hours before it disappears. 

For most brands, creating compelling content on Snapchat remains a logistical and executional challenge. A perfectly framed, Instagram-worthy photo isn’t just nearly impossible to obtain for Snapchat – it’s not necessary. With a shelf life between 1 second and 24 hours at most, it’s important to be aware of the platform’s limitations:

  • Each account can only be logged in on one device at a time.
  • The camera has filters and enhancements, but at a low resolution.
  • All Story Snaps require one take – no uploading outside of chat.
  • The app tends to crash under high response volume and in poor cell reception – often resulting in lost content. 
  • Even though it lives for 24 hours, a brand’s Story will likely only be viewed once.

Keeping these limitations in mind can retain a production team’s sanity when things go wrong.

Audience.

Until an official announcement, Snapchat still hasn’t offered a way for brands to be discovered on the platform, paid or otherwise. So when it comes to building an audience, there are only two routes: organic cross promotion between social channels, and paid cross promotion. Organic will convert a core audience, but won’t drive a critical mass (unless you’re Tiësto.) Cross-platform paid, however, is a highly effective way to rapidly boost numbers. Bear in mind: there is no way to ‘fake’ a Snapchat follower driven by a promoted tweet or sponsored Facebook post. Users must consciously decide to switch between apps and then type a username in the search bar. 

Tactics.

Executing on Snapchat will remain a highly personal endeavor for each brand’s production team. It’s clear that Stories are the primary distribution option, and piecing together a compelling Story relies on creative use of Snapchat’s tools and tricks. It’s crucial to stay on top of the new trends and in-app features, but it’s equally essential to notice how minor tweaks in the interface can change the entire experience; when Snapchat implemented a feature that added a “chat” icon upon completion of viewing a Story, text responses became the standard reply function. These types of nuances can change a brand’s messaging and content strategy very quickly.

It’s also important to have a plan in place for direct, private Snaps as well. The direct Snap is the only action on the app with push notifications, and that ultra-personal capability is not something to abuse or ignore. When I received a personal Snap from Vans at their most recent skate competition (and had a brief chat exchange afterward), I noticed that there was no Story to accompany it. This was a surprisingly personal moment between myself and a brand, and a tactic that remains underused on the platform.

Measurement

Until Snapchat provides a legitimate analytics suite or API, the platform will be the Wild West for measurement. What, for example, is the value of a view? Is it like a video view, or an impression? How does Snapchat score come into play? Are screenshots the ultimate sign of engagement, or meaningless byproducts? For now, the answer is subjective based on the brand, its content, and the call to action involved; however, there are metrics to be gleamed from the existing statistics Snapchat provides.

For the time being, a user’s Snapchat score is too arbitrary to be relevant; there is no existing formula for the score, and it only concerns direct Snaps. 

With that in mind, here’s are the relevant measurements the platform provides right now:

  • Audience size (A)
  • Views on Snaps (V)
  • Screenshots (S)

And here are additional variables to consider when measuring success on the channel:

  • Production speed (P)
  • Total number of Snaps per Story (N)
  • Story length in seconds (L)

Audience size (i.e. number of friends) can only be measured via direct contact with a Snapchat representative over phone or e-mail for now. Thus, it’s a smart idea to be in touch with a Snapchat rep before launching a new account. 

The only official measureable stats in-app are views and screenshots – either on a particular Story or piece of a Story. Snapchat’s official word is that each measured “view” on a Story is unique. Since users must opt-in and press the screen to watch a Story, it’s safe to say it’s similar to a video view – but not identical. 

It’s also important to consider production speed, or the time it takes to complete a piecemeal Story. Stories created over a 12-hour span, for example, will likely see a wide range of Snap view numbers compared to one created in under an hour. A finished Story has no limit on length or total number of Snaps.

For now, there is no way to measure just how many private Snaps/replies are sent to an account without manually counting each and every one. According to Snapchat, a user’s inbox can only hold roughly 50 unopened messages as well. Thus, if a community team isn’t prompt about opening Snaps, they are gone forever – and if paid media drives a high volume of responses, for example, an inbox can crash within seconds.

There are viable composite metrics that should be considered for now based on what’s available. These include average views per Story (VA), engagement rate (E) and drop-off (D). These are measured using:

  • Audience size (A)
  • Views on the first Snap (V1)
  • Views on the final Snap (Vf)
  • Total number of Snaps (N)

Engagement rate for single Snaps is easy to measure:

As is average views per Story:

But outside of knowing how much of a brand’s audience was logged in, saw the Story, and clicked on it, this doesn’t tell us much – as mentioned before, we still don’t know what a view on a Story really means. Users could just as easily be clicking a Story to dismiss it from the top of their feed as they could be to actively watch. Screenshots can imply that content is compelling, but not with certainty. It’s always important to see if users are screenshotting and tweeting a brand’s Snapchat content – this, along with Tumblr, is where most organic social conversation around Snapchat ends up.

Drop-off rate, however, reveals more, and only concerns stories with multiple Snaps. First, however, it’s important to see the difference between raw drop-off (DR) and drop-off percentage (DP):

Raw drop-off shows how many users chose not to finish a Story, but doesn’t give enough context. Drop-off percentage, however, provides what proportion of the initial audience chose not to finish, and can be used for the lifetime of an account – it removes audience size as a variable and shows just how engaged an active audience is with a Story. The best drop-off rates we’ve seen are under 10% for stories up to 60 seconds in length. Unsurprisingly, the longer a Snap Story is, the larger the drop-off.

Future

Here are safe predictions for the future: improved analytics, and improved tech/UX. 

Outside of that, one can only speculate. It will be interesting to see what Snapchat’s new ‘Discover’ feature will offer brands, and just how far down the advertising rabbit hole it will choose to go. Paid placement - both for accounts and potentially just for stand-alone content as well - stands to natively increase brand reach, and creates an in-app method to build an audience. Along with age and geo-targeting, these are big firsts for the platform, and take a big step toward measuring success. It will all depend how far Snapchat wants to take Discovery; for now, there’s a pretty high ceiling. 

Of course, Snapchat could reinvent itself entirely tomorrow; such is the ruthlessly fickle world of social media. Snapchat in its current stage is a hybrid between a personal communication platform and a pure social media channel, and the team in Venice, CA likely wouldn’t have it any other way. One thing is for certain: if Snapchat hopes to monetize, it will be a balancing act.

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