The struggle to “get” Snapchat

SnapchatThe 3-year old mobile communication startup Snapchat has been valued at an unbelievable $15 billion in its recent financing round. But despite several attempts, I have been failing to get hooked to the service. In my daily mobile life, Snapchat does not play any role. That makes it somewhat mysterious to me. How is it possible that the L.A.-based company is in the top 5 of the most valuable pre-exit technology companies, yet I do not see its fascination?! And it’s not only me. I have sufficient indications to safely assume that a major part of my network of friends, acquaintances and online contacts are not active Snapchat users.

Here is the explanation: Snapchat started as a phenomenon among teenagers. 3 years later, it is still mostly embraced by young user groups, lets say estimated 25 years and younger (college students and younger). My friends and contacts are mostly older.

Among U.S. teens, Snapchat is almost as popular as Instagram. A recent report by GlobalWebIndex confirms an equally high popularity among teens in Canada, the UK, Australia and some other countries. I am not aware of any survey that suggests a significant usage of Snapchat among people in the age group 30+. But what I am aware of are dozens of articles with headlines like “16 Things Old People Don’t Understand About Snapchat” or “Is Snapchat Really Confusing, or Am I just Old?” that you can find when performing a web search for “Snapchat + old”.

It gets apparent that even in 2015, Snapchat – unlike Facebook-owned rival Instagram – has not had its breakthrough into other demographics. It remains arguably the youngest among the billion dollar social apps.

I suspect that one of the problems that contributes to the absence of mature user groups’ is that initially, when the service was all about ephemeral photos and videos, it earned a not so favorable reputation as “sexting app”. That would hardly be a fair description today. However, today Snapchat offers a couple of very different services in one app. It has become impossible to describe in a few words what it does.

  • First you still can send and receive photos and videos that disappear instantly.
  • Second, Snapchat includes a text-based chat feature which works pretty much like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger.
  • Third, Snapchat Stories allow users to post (event- and location-based) photos/videos to specific streams that can be made visible for certain groups or all Snapchat users. In addition, brands and partners of Snapchat can publish their own stories. This feature is said to generate “tens of millions of views”.
  • Fourth, Snapchat Discover offers small chunks of multimedia content by selected publishing and media companies. It feels like a new version of TV for the mobile age (and is apparently great to generate advertising revenue)
  • Fifth, Snapchat Cash can be used to send money between users (U.S. only).

Try to package that feature set into a nice, short explanation after which listeners really would understand the product. Good luck. Maybe teens and students are an exception, but usually people respond positively to focus and a clear product promise. Snapchat fails to deliver that, which I see as a potential obstacle to reach new user groups.

For myself Snapchat remains unattractive because most of the use cases are already covered. There is only one feature that really excites me: If you use the chat and if both you and the conversation partner are inside the app, you can broadcast your live video to him or her right from the chat window. By default this is a one-way broadcast, although the other person might launch a broadcast as well. I find this to be a smart advancement from the “traditional” videochat which is based on the assumption that both people are fine with seeing each other.

For the time being it is unlikely that this will turn me into a regular Snapchat user. To be honest, I have no idea if I even am welcome. Maybe the company is actively trying to limit the app to the teen and twentysomething crowd (which I left behind 2 years ago), which could go well with certain advertisers. But considering the competitive market environment I think this is unlikely. Young users are also known to be the least loyal user group in the long run. In my eyes Snapchat only has one option: It needs to break out of its core user group and increase diversity of its user’s demographics.

This however will not be a cakewalk.


  1. I’m 31 and somehow feel a similar bewilderment when it comes to Snapchat. My social circle is mostly my age, so I lack the no.1 reason to get hooked on the app: other users onboarding me. I never questioned Whatsapp or Facebook in that regard, because everyone was on there from the get go. It was different with Instagram though. It took them over a year to gain momentum in Germany and for people to understand the mechanics of the app. I have still a lot of semi active friends on there that posted the first picture onto Instagram in 2012 and then went silent for over a year before everyone else was on there and it became interesting again. This time gap in pictures can be found in many accounts.

    And still, whenever it comes to cleaning up my phone I don’t want to delete Snapchat although I’m not a core user. Mainly because of the Story feature. It feels to me that clever web celebreties udnerstand to diversify their broadcasting in a way that benefits Snapchat. EVerything you see on Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, etc is orchestrated/filtered. You can bypass the smartphone cameras and upload pro content taken by real cameras, you can edit, filter and decide how a post on those platforms looks like. But Snapchat is live and always sort of raw/unfiltered. It has this behind the scenes look. Content in Snapchat Story is always timely relevant because of it’s ephemral nature and at least to me it feels as if I get closer to those people. A thing lacking on Youtube and Instagram.

    On a deeper note I really believe that Snapchat exploits bad parenting on a really wide scale. People don’t raise kids with values, so that those kids can be trusted and have freedom. Instead parents are mostly somewhat anxious and rely on micro managing and damage control throughout the day – one manifestation of this is turning into some 1984 overlord checking browser histories and camera rolls all the time. So, the ephemeral nature of not only picture and video, but text as well, really caters to kids whose parents have lost touch with proper upbringing values. I can tell because my nephews and nieces would rather burn instead of connecting their iphones to my Apple TV – they’re not quite sure what the icloud photo stream might leak onto the big screen, so they trust Snapchat.
    It’s just a super effective understanding of teenager psychology molded into app features. My niece e.g. has within every Snapchat chat window with her friends a ‘tagged’ chat line on top. I didn’t know this but it turns out that you can prevent the usual deletion of the chat stream by tapping onto a single text message or picture. It then gets bold and is still available the next time you enter that chat. She is crazy about having some secret confession stay in every chat stream. I don’t need this, because like you I’m a grown up. But I clearly get the tempting nature of Snapchat.

    Then lastly, there’s of course the finger-on-the-screen-thing, which hooks attention and is probably the single most genius element in Smartphone app design as of today in regards to ad revenue. Think of it, I use Ad Blockers on my Home PC, so they don’t get me there and on my iPhone, everything that shows up, I ignore – Facebook stream, Twitter stream, mobile pop-ups… doesn’t matter. But once Snapchat forces you to keep that finger on the screen and watch through an advertising before you can see the latest addition to someone’s Story, it’s basically game over in my eyes…

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