What Snapchat May Tell us About the Future

Snapchat is an interesting app to discuss on many levels. Silicon Valley seems to be in love with it when in reality, certain truths about the company and service stand in the way of its long term future. I’ll discuss several of those issues, however, I believe Snapchat highlights a number of trends which serve as great case studies for the future.

Niche Social Networks

You may or may not know Snapchat is a niche social network. It has roughly 100m active users. 70% of them are female and under the age of 25, mostly well under the age of 25. I’m fond of saying Snapchat is a social network for teenage girls and the boys who want to flirt with them. Perhaps it is everything Facebook wanted to be but for High Schoolers. From a range of data points I have research on social network usage, there is little evidence Snapchat has meaningfully expanded their active user base this group.

The problem for Snapchat is they don’t realize they are a niche social network. They want to be a big social network that plays a significant role in the future of media. They are creating discovery channels where you can see short videos from brands. However, those brands are telling many of us, behind the scenes, that what they are doing on Snapchat is not working. This is due largely to the behaviors and motivations behind Snapchat. Teenage girls and boys are not using the service to stay in touch with brands or discover products and consume advertising. In fact, should Snapchat get desperate and push this in extreme ways and aggravate these users, I bet they find an alternative medium and quickly.

There is nothing wrong with Snapchat only being a social network for teenagers and primary US-based ones. There may or may not be a business model but, in my opinion, by chasing the broader audience, they may end up hurting their service in the long run and alienating their user base.

I believe there is a future for niche social networks and I believe they can be extremely valuable businesses. The first step, however, is to recognize this is the case and chase a smaller number of more profitable users with your service. Smart companies will chase high engagement and high ARPU over high user bases. This is ultimately something I believe Twitter should focus more on as well.

Social Networks May Be Regionally Specific

Outside of a rare few services like Facebook that are global (except in China which makes it questionable as to how global it is or not) I believe we will see a trend towards more regionally specific social networks. This is absolutely true of messaging apps where WeChat dominates China, Kakao talk dominates South Korea, and WhatsApp dominates parts of Europe, India, and many countries in Africa and the Middle East. There is really no such thing as “global” messaging apps nor are there “global” social networks

As I said, Snapchat is predominantly a US teenager phenomenon. Again, there is nothing wrong with this, except to game play a scenario where that is all it is in the end. I believe we will see many social networks which are not just niche but also regional only. There are dozens of these in the US, but I see this happening in China, India, and Indonesia.

Social Networks May Be Generational

This one may fascinate me the most. I’m beginning to believe that some social networks may have very short life spans — like MySpace. We learned a great deal from MySpace about Millennials and Gen-Xers and a primary take away for me is how fast the flock can move. MySpace played a role in a point in time and that was it. We can consider it a fad. But it played a role in the adoption cycle of social networks. Similarly, Snapchat may only appeal largely to a specific generation and perhaps even only for a time. I’m beginning to think this current generation may outgrow Snapchat during their next life phase.

As I have further traveled down this rabbit hole, I’ve been wondering to what extent technology is generational. Some technology will span generations, like the iPhone, where others like Snapchat may only appeal to a segment for a period of time in a particular life stage. This has a great many implications to tease out if it proves true.

Ultimately those are three areas I’m exploring using Snapchat as a baseline for this thinking.

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Ben Bajarin

Ben Bajarin is a Principal Analyst and the head of primary research at Creative Strategies, Inc - An industry analysis, market intelligence and research firm located in Silicon Valley. His primary focus is consumer technology and market trend research and he is responsible for studying over 30 countries. Full Bio

14 thoughts on “What Snapchat May Tell us About the Future”

  1. Social networks might be like music: inherently generational. As soon as parents, or even older siblings, are on a network, younger kids may try to gather their own tribe in a more secluded spot for their social-persona-building phase. I know FB et al have sophisticated privacy settings, but… maybe too sophisticated for their users, might as well not risk a goof and go somewhere fully isolated, even better if parents don’t even know about it.
    There’s also the whole transience vs permanence issue, I don’t think one app can do both even if simply for psychological reasons. There’s private stuff I’d rather be sure will vanish, and public stuff I’d rather broadcast (maybe to specific audiences).

    1. I find this part of the discussion to be a fascinating dynamic of the consumer tech landscape. Of course, this is already true in the broad and diverse world outside of tech products in the consumer landscape. But it is an element that is translating to the consumer world in some fascinating ways.

      I think it goes beyond social networks, and will be true of hardware, software, and services as well. The challenge is the one for a company like Snapchat that may only find success in a very short period of time, until their users outgrow them.. I could be wrong but that is what my gut is telling me about their product.

  2. Snapchat’s gambit is the same as Facebook’s at inception. The hope is that as these teenagers grow up, they will start using Snapchat differently for different things because it’s an interaction model that’s natural to them. In a sense, Snapchat becomes their default social graph and gets embedded into their lives. This is in part a timing and sequencing problem, but so long as things like Discover exists on a separate layer, Snapchat has room to experiment. Of course, Snapchat may never get the broader demographic reach that they wanted to get to that goal and they’re stuck in their (very large) niche.

    For me, the most fascinating aspect of the social networks as generational product angle is that we could in fact be seeing social network apps becoming analogous to TV channels or TV shows, where each network is like a cable channel that captures a segment of interest or identity, with some channels being staples and other channels coming and going with fads. Lot of interesting sociological implications if that idea is validated.

    1. Agree, but i’ll also add that if Snapchat doesn’t cross generations it won’t stick. I think that is what kept the younger demo on Facebook. I also think Facebook was a bit more flexible to grow with the users during their life stage. So if Snapchat can’t grow with them or cross generations it has a problem. The other theory that breaks down is the generation behind this one will use Snapchat once they are teens but I don’t see that playing out as well as that generation will jump on something new.

      1. I suspect that Snapchat as it is right now is nowhere close to a final product, and that they will need to build out what snapchat is substantially to realize its potential (and maybe develop broader appeal). Without more features structured around their primary interaction model I think theories about how Snapchat can fail overtake theories about how Snapchat can succeed.

        If we’re to generalize I think it really comes down to the frequency and density of interactions that can be built on Snapchat, and how that shapes and sustains engagement. Social apps that can build substantial socially meaningful architecture for a user are the ones that get to live.

    2. I think SnapChat and FB are profoundly different: SnapChat is built on and for transience, FB is built for permanence. Well, on the content side, the social graph remains the same, but still , I think it does have an impact: switching from FB means jettisoning years of my life’s logs/documentary/stage play; Snapchat doesn’t because it isn’t there to anyway.

      1. Exactly why there are potential problems trying to grow along with a demographic for Snapchat that don’t apply as strongly to Facebook. Whether they find a way to create stickiness and deeper engagement without self deleting content is going to be a primary challenge.

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