Snapchat has a distinctive mix of user generated content, premium content and even augmented reality. And that’s just the beginning. Most platforms when the user goes in, there is a sense of what it feels like. And when the user goes into Snapchat, this is indeed what it feels like and perhaps it’s that sense of ownership that the users appreciate.
“Often, when you think of social media, the first thing that comes to mind is the feed. It’s algorithmic based. I have all these click-baity headlines,” relates Bhaskaran. “In Snap, you actually open up to the camera. And then if you want, you choose to go to the discover tab, which is where all of the content is. Some of it, yes, is user generated, but a lot of it is premium content, because Snap has a lot of partnerships. And we have our own shows as well. So you choose to then pick the content you want to watch, and continue watching. I think it gives users a sense of control and curation, if you will, in terms of what they want to watch, which I think a lot of them who use the platform appreciate.”
There is a user first context to the way Snapchat operates. It’s a philosophy that was intended when the app was designed.
“It’s all about connections and that was why the app was built,” says Bhaskaran. “And it’s not connection with the world, but it’s connection with close friends and family. That’s why it opens up the camera. You take a snap. And the first thing you do is you send it to a close network of family and friends. It’s not an app where you have thousands of followers. It’s just close people that you connect with. And then when you want to switch and have that element of entertainment and that’s when you’ll move on to the discover tab.”
Snapchat was also a pioneer in the early days of augmented reality (AR), a specialty that continues to this day.
“Just like any trend or product that comes out first, people were trying to figure out how to use AR. And Snapchat went all in. The first iterations of it were more geared towards entertainment. But slowly, you started to see the utility behind AR. And the Snap camera also in terms of all its features, then became pretty advanced, given all the investment that the company made behind that technology.”
Slowly, consumers began to leverage the AR function to try on different shades of lipstick or mascara or earrings. Then shoes. “And then you’re like, OK, how can we scan dimensions so I can upload a whole wardrobe from a retailer, and then you can try on different jackets. And then can I test drive a car which you can in this lens or gamification? So now it’s gotten so prevalent that the AR now lives outside the app,” she says.
The focus on AR has grown beyond Snap’s virtual walls. “We actually offer kits to companies so that they can embed this AR into their own asset, whether it’s their app or their store. We’ve done that with Puma. So if you go to their website or their app, the augmented reality is actually powered by Snap. We’re almost kind of democratizing the use of AR because technology has become so advanced that you can actually use it in place of the actual store visit,” says Bhaskaran.
In terms of lessons learned from the focus on technology, Snap has done a study about how AR is used in commerce, in particular on how it might impact returns.
Bhaskaran notes, “The statistic is something like 66% of consumers who use AR, say that it’s going to help reduce their returns. I think that has huge implications as a retailer and as a company managing returns. And I think from a societal perspective, it has huge implications on sustainability. I think COVID kind of accelerated that AR trend as well.”
Speaking of consumers, Snap is known for its heavy use by Generation Z. Just what make it so engaging to Gen Z?
“In the U.S., it’s about 90% of Gen Z has Snapchat. And I think Snapchat always captured Gen Z’s attention because it was all about that close connection. You’re not chasing likes and comments. And the ephemerality of the app as well. It doesn’t stay on to haunt you. You know, your post coming back ten years later.”
So Snapchat became an easy way to communicate with friends, and now it’s become an essential way to communicate with friends. And that, of course, ties into the camera that has the AR functions, then you have the content and the shows that you want to watch. “It almost becomes like an app that satisfies several purposes that Gen Z has,” she notes.
It also serves the purpose of serving advertisements. “We were one of the first platforms to actually introduce full screen vertical videos, because we were always a mobile only app, and only recently we launched our desktop version. We always felt that our ad loads full screen. It’s not like on the corner, it’s not half a screen in a feed that you scroll. So surely we are taking up more space on the phone. So we should have more attention.”
Bhaskaran notes that in the company’s research, it dug deeper into why users were giving it more attention. Was it the format? The platform? “We knew that consumers used it for that close network and to connect with family and friends. Does that put them in a more positive mind state to be more receptive to ads? And we decided to test that hypothesis last year, and it came out to be true. I expected our attention numbers to be good. I was not expecting them to be that good, like twice as much attention compared to other platforms. So I feel a lot has to do with the full screen format or AR, which is immersive.”
She adds, “It’s always about putting users first in terms of design and then everything else will follow. I think when we designed the app and thought about monetizing and looked at app formats, we wanted something that gives more control, just like everything else on the app, to the user.”