Social Channel Spotlight: Snapchat

What is Snapchat?

snapchat ghost
The Snapchat icon is actually named “Ghostface Chillah” after “Ghostface Killah” of the Wu-Tang Clan (image and source).

Functionally speaking, it’s a pretty easy question to answer. Snapchat is a mobile app that first launched in 2011. Its design and purpose are simple: it allows users to take photos or videos, edit them with text and freehand doodles, and send them to friends and followers. What makes Snapchat unique is that it provides a solution to the social media problem of “what you post is forever”, meaning, photos and videos sent via Snapchat have a short lifespan. Once they’re viewed for the maximum time specified by the sender, they vanish for good. Users have the option to send their photos and videos to contacts they specifically choose, or they can add photos and videos to their “Story (aka My Story)” which is a collection of media shared over the course of 24 hours. Media in the “Story” gradually vanishes as the 24-hour viewing limit runs out. Snapchat also includes a chat feature. Users can chat one-on-one in a thread and continue to send text messages or “snapbacks” in response to one another.

In 2014, Snapchat launched Snapcash, a feature supported by Square that allows users to send money to one another by entering a chat and typing an amount preceded by “$”, i.e. “$5.00” (Neistat).

Snapchat qualifies as a social media channel and thrives as a mobile app. Though it’s all about imagery and video, it can’t truly be classified as a content community by virtue of its distinguishing “self destruct” feature, or, in other words, because its content is not permanently accessible. Its users don’t necessarily have to know one another personally, but many users do tend to know one another to some degree, as one of the main ways to contact another user via Snapchat is by phone number. Other means of establishing contact with another Snapchat user include searching for a particular username manually or using a Snapcode to find them quickly.

A Little History…

Snapchat’s entire life story is one as steeped in founder tension and legal drama as competitor Facebook’s. It all starts with three main players–Evan Spiegel, Bobby Murphy, and Reggie Brown–and goes something like this:

Evan Spiegel (image and source).

The original roles were fairly defined: Murphy as CTO, Brown as chief marketing officer, Spiegel as CEO, honing the idea as part of a design class he was taking. The first iteration was a clunky website that required users to upload a photo and set a timer before sending. The eureka moment only came when the idea migrated to mobile. “At some point it was like, ‘Hey, there’s a camera on your phone,’” Spiegel says. “‘Wouldn’t that be easier?’”
–Colao, (2014, January 20).

Pretty soon after its birth, Snapchat and Spiegel drew the attention of Mark Zuckerberg, who had devised a similar app, called “Poke”, which he intended to use to empower Facebook and eliminate Snapchat as competition. Poke initially rose to the top of the iPhone app store at launch in December, 2012, but Snapchat pulled ahead once again within three days (Colao).

The app’s value, reach, and user base has grown ever since, despite the fact that the app itself is free, and, until more recently, advertisers and big influencers weren’t catered to by features such as “Discover”, which highlights large, Snapchat editorial teams that users may be interested in following.

To the surpise and scrutiny of many, when Mark Zuckerberg offered $3 billion cash for the app in fall 2013, Spiegel turned down the offer (Colao, et al).

Audience, Numbers, and Growth

Snapchat usage by age (image and source).

So who uses Snapchat? According to press reports, the majority of Snapchat users are female between the ages of 13 to 25, and two-fifths of 18-year-olds in the U.S. use Snapchat daily. It’s also estimated that more than 760 million snaps are sent every day and about 1 billion stories are viewed (Ballve). As of January 2014, Forbes estimated that 50 million people use the app (Colao), but, more recently, others estimate a user base closer to 100 million (Talbot).

Snapchat’s growth and future are somewhat difficult to measure and predict. Some analysts remark that the app’s young, fickle, teen audience may or may not continue to use the app as time passes. On the other hand, even though interest in Snapchat has experienced alternating surges and slumps in the U.S., internationally, it has seen increasing popularity, for example in the U.K. and France (Taylor).

Integration and How It Works

Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson took it a step further and reprised their Zoolander roles as Derek Zoolander and Hansel for a runway walk-off. They even had a “Blue Steel” geofilter at the fashion show (image and source).

Integrating Snapchat with other channels may have been much trickier before users began taking screenshots of snaps and stories. After all, when a platform is designed to destroy its content, how can you be sure your message is reaching anyone or whether it makes a lasting impression?

Even without the ability to capture a screenshot, Snapchat has still proven to be an interesting and effective marketing tool. The app allows an opportunity to create “exclusive” content, and provide real-time or behind-the-scenes looks at a brand or celebrity. In that regard, it takes advantage of consumers’ interest in getting a “sneak peek” of a new product or a company process. Many companies have also employed a “guess” tactic–sending a snap and having users guess what the photo is of or about, and prompting them to tweet their guesses with special hashtags (Ceira). In addition, like Instagram, Snapchat is a great platform for partnering with big influencers (Talbot).

The following are a few Snapchat campaign success stories. See these and more at and

  1. Heineken’s “SnapWho?” campaign. At Coachella 2014, Heineken sent users cropped snaps that provided clues about secret shows that would be held during the music festival. Correct guesses about a mystery artist or band were rewarded with early-access info about shows that would take place at the Heineken House (the sponsor’s stage). This was a successful implementation of “exclusive content” and sparked a snap conversation among users and “HeinekenSnapWho”.
  2. Taco Bell’s Snapchat mini-movie. Taco Bell launched its Spicy Chicken Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Tacos with one of the first Snapchat stories—a six-minute mini-movie directed by Jason Zada that included a scene on the red carpet of the MTV Movie Awards, and was filmed and posted in less than 24 hours. This move highlighted and pushed the boundaries of what could be done on Snapchat while targeting an audience using a great combination–MTV, Taco Bell, and Doritos.
  3. World Wildlife Fund’s “Last Selfie” campaign. Making a clever connection to Snapchat’s signature disappearing content, the World Wildlife Fund began the #LastSelfie campaign to create awareness about disappearing and endangered species. In a week, 40,000 tweets with the hashtag reached 120 million Twitter timelines and in 6 different languages. As a result, 50% of all active Twitter users were exposed to the campaign.
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For more interesting facts and info about Snapchat, check out this Prezi presentation!


Ballve, Marcelo. (2014, August 15). – “Snapchat’s Explosive Growth Among Teens and Millenials Means It’s Emerging As A Powerful Brand Platform”

Beer, Jeff. (2014, August 12). – “How 12 Brands Used Snapchat”

Ceira, Rochelle. (2015). – “5 Ways to Integrate Snapchat Into Your Marketing Strategy”

Colao, J.J. (2014, January 6). – “The Inside Story of Snapchat: The World’s Hottest App or a $3 Billion Disappearing Act?”

Misener, Jessica. (2014, July 2). – “13 Cool Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Snapchat”

Neistat, Casey. (2015). – “What’s the point of Snapchat, and how does it work?”

Simplify360. (2015, February 1). – “5 Brilliant Snapchat Campaigns That You Need to See”

Talbot, Kate. (2015, July 28). – “5 Ways to Use Snapchat for Business”

Taylor, Everette. (2015). – “Snapchat – How Did Snapchat Reach a Multi-Billion Dollar Valuation?”


Heineken “SnapWho?” —

WWF “Last Selfie” —

Direction of Communication and Availability: Classic vs Social Media Marketing

One of the biggest cultural changes that has come packaged with the Internet Age is the ability to talk to a brand. For a century or more, marketing and ad campaigns had been a process that took place in corporate brainstorming board rooms, behind closed doors, and far, far from the public eye. Brands took their time crafting their image and the message that would compel consumers to buy, and direct that information to the public via television commercial, billboard, magazine ad, or storefront display. The direction of classic marketing is one way–from brand to consumer. Sure, you could write a formal letter to Taco Bell if you wanted to complain badly enough, but it was likely no one else would hear.

The TV was once the single, most powerful channel for advertising.

Today, however, brands who are connected to social media can escape neither public approval nor scrutiny. Social media marketing opens a door to a dialogue between consumers and brands that is being held 24/7 and is changing the way brands speak to their customers. It is no longer sufficient to create a well-planned ad and trust a television prime-time spot to cast it upon an audience like a magic, money-making spell, and this is because, as Hausman says, “consumers don’t believe brands.” Before it was possible to have an open, public dialogue with a brand, companies could get away with manipulating the truth about a brand or a product, and some, if not many, did just that. Mad Men, anyone?

That’s what’s important, right?

Not only has social media opened a bidirectional dialogue, it has also made brands available and accessible to consumers around the clock, and prompted them to be ready to address customer concerns readily and publicly. Now, whether you applaud or berate Taco Bell, its Twitter team is ready for you. The fast food giant’s Twitter account has become widely popular in recent years because it meets consumers with “a clever combination of retweets, sassy comebacks, hashtags, and whimsical life advice” (Boboltz). The company has not only taken to social media advertising, it has come to live where its consumers like to hang out, and it speaks to consumers like they speak to one another. This kind of engagement is what earns points and develops consumer trust. It’s real-time and public–sincere in a way that classic marketing doesn’t have to be. It creates opportunity to address praise and complaint alike, and according to Baer, companies need to “look at every individual complaint as an opportunity to create a deeper brand experience than a single purchase or interaction ever could.” Taco Bell has adopted the “hug your haters” philosophy and also combined it with another valuable tactic: entertainment, which is seen as more authentic content (Young, p.27).

taco tweet 3
The “sauce vs spices” debate.

Classic marketing isn’t without its strengths. With the advent of social media marketing, multiple platforms, and bidirectional dialogue also comes clutter. Young says that “as we consume more media, the existing media channels are fragmenting and new ones are being added” and that “clutter is one of the biggest problems for marketers” (p.18). If advertisers don’t maintain consistency across multimedia channels, the brand image and message are weakened and less effective. Brand messages are broken up simply because there is no longer just a handful of powerful media outlets i.e. television, radio, and print.

Although social media marketing, in my opinion, is the stronger and more effective approach in the digital era, there is also strength in integrating social media advertising with classic advertising when communicating with consumers around the clock. As Young points out, “the world’s oldest advertising medium, the out-of-home (OOH) industry, is investing heavily in digital OOH networks. Digital OOH inside elevators, shopping malls, airports, and on freeways is transforming static signage into real-time, digital media” (p.20-21). Take, for example, a project by Aerva Inc. Aerva uses digital display billboards to share images of social media conversations that people are having about or with brands. The boards’ contents are managed by software that filters and selects appropriate posts while removing fraudulent and irrelevant posts, and then shows consumers what people are saying about a brand. Check out this link or click the video below to see a brief case study about Taco Bell and Aerva digital billboards.


Hausman, Angela. (2014, October 9). – “Social Media Versus Traditional Media”

Baer, Jay. (2015, April 1). – “How to Hug Your Haters: 3 Ways to Use Complaints to Strengthen Your Business”

Boboltz, Sara. (2014, February 28). – “Whoever Runs Taco Bell’s Twitter Account Deserves a Raise”

Young, Anthony. (2014). Brand Media Strategy: Integrated Communications Planning in the Digital Era. (Second Edition). New York, NY. Palgrave Macmillan.


Children gathered around TV: – “The new endangered species: The black and white TV”

It’s toasted Lucky Strike ad: – “Presenting the Maddies: Five very real ad campaigns from the world of Mad Men”

@TacoBell / @OldSpice: – “Taco Bell and Old Spice Mix it Up on Twitter: A spirited debate over sauce, spices, and volcanos”