5 Things Snapchat Did Right

Building a wildly successful social media app based on sharing photos and videos — all of which, after only a few seconds, will self-destruct? Sounds like Mission Impossible.

But of course that’s exactly what Snapchat has done, and their platform now boasts more than 100 million users posting their soon-to-be-self-destructed content 8 billion times a day. How did this happen?

It would be easy to assume Snapchat is either a short-term fad or a startup that simply got lucky and stumbled onto something that resonated with the public. But both of those assessments would be unfair.

Snapchat’s success is no accident. Nor is it simply a matter of luck or good timing. The product team at Snapchat set a deliberate path, made a series of well-thought-out and gutsy decisions, and executed on them. Here are 5 things we believe Snapchat did right.


1. Snapchat was not over built and they took it to market quickly.

Imagine the product team at Snapchat — young, energetic millennials — sitting down to discuss the earliest versions of the app.

Those Red Bull-fueled brainstorming sessions must have led to a zillion interesting ideas to expand the doodles and filters and probably also to add plug-ins for hilarious sound effects, crazy mashup videos, funny text fonts, and who knows what else.

It would have been easy for the team to lose focus in those early meetings. Easy to get stuck, as so many companies do when developing new products, in an endless loop of brainstorming new ideas, then prioritizing those ideas, and continually adding more new ideas to the list, which also need prioritizing.

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By accident or not, Snapchat went to market with a lean app that did only a few things. That’s good #ProdMgmt.

But the early Snapchat team managed to do a great job of saying, “That’s a great idea. Let’s park it. For v1.0, we’re going with the streamlined version.”

And, whether they intended to or not, Snapchat went to market with a bare-bones social media app that did only a few things.

The company obviously trusted that its users would get it.

2. They targeted a specific segment of the public — a segment they knew really well.

Of course, the trust Snapchat placed in its target user group, millennials, wasn’t blind trust. It was, in fact, just the opposite — the type of trust that comes from knowing someone intimately.

The Snapchat founders themselves are millennials, and they used their understanding of today’s youth to differentiate their app from the countless others that hit the app stores every day.

As a teen or 20-something, there’s really only so much you’re comfortable posting or saying on Facebook if you know your mom or grandmother — both “friends” of yours — are likely to see it.

Snapchat designed its app to appeal primarily to young people. It would give them their own space, their own platform, a chance to express themselves to a small group of peers without worrying about what anyone else might say.

That targeting worked, of course. Snapchat has reported that 60% of its US-based users are between 13 and 24 years old, and more than 70% are 34 or younger. And because that segment is so coveted by marketers, Snapchat was able to grow to an enormous, multibillion-dollar valuation while essentially ignoring people not in its core segment in its marketing.

3. They created a brilliant hook.

Many of Hollywood’s big blockbusters are what the industry calls “high-concept movies.” These are films that a screenwriter or producer can easily pitch to a studio in just a sentence or two because the entire movie immediately becomes clear. For example…

Jurassic Park: Man brings dinosaurs back to life, and havoc ensues.

Liar Liar: A dishonest trial lawyer is put under a spell and can’t tell a lie for an entire day.

Products, too, can be high-concept. And this isn’t necessarily bad or good. A high-concept product means only that its basic promise to the user is very clear and easy to grasp. The digital picture frame comes to mind.

The product team at Snapchat devised a unique twist on the social media tools its target personas were already using every day: ephemerality.

Unlike every other texting, photo-sharing or other social media platform they had ever used, Snapchatters could now add a new component to their online social experience — temporary posts. Snapchat went high concept.

One of the advantages of adding a unique twist like ephemerality to its app was that it gave Snapchat’s early adopters, not to mention an initially baffled media, something interesting to talk about.

And when it comes to a social media app or any product whose success depends on the network effect — the more people using the tool, the more valuable it becomes for everyone — having a hook is a great way to get your early users convincing everyone they know to start using it too.

4. They created a truly new type of online conversation.

Linguist John McWhorter gave an interesting TED talk a few years ago, in which he argued that grownups and fussy grammar curmudgeons needn’t worry that all of this texting — LOL, JK, r u here? — is going to make kids lousy writers and spellers.

Why? Because texting, McWhorter argued, isn’t really writing at all — it’s the modern version of talking.

What Snapchat understood perhaps more clearly than any of the other social media platforms is the fact that young people embrace the casual, temporary nature of today’s communication — and they engage in it whenever they can.

They recognized that high school and college kids have no qualms about exchanging very informal, typo-ridden, emoji-filled messages with friends and family over text or email.

But, they saw, these same kids become very careful and deliberate when sharing pictures or video.

And that’s because, as Snapchat saw before anyone else did, there were no tools out there to enable young people to engage in the informal, playful photo-sharing version of the text conversations they were enjoying. In other words, bringing this point back to John McWhorter’s TED talk, there was no way for even the most avid social media user to engage in a photo or video-based temporary chat with friends that, like a face-to-face conversation, would disappear forever as soon as the parties involved walked away.

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Snapchat noticed a problem — that online media sticks around too long — before anyone else did. #ProdMgmt win.

Snapchat created the online photo and video-sharing equivalent of an informal chat between friends.

5. They leveraged what was already out there to power their app — existing tech and societal trends.

As CEO Evan Spiegel has explained, Snapchat isn’t a success because of its development savvy or because it used a specific type of technology. It’s a success because the company took several widespread trends — and pulled them together to create something new.

Spiegel credits three primary trends and tools with powering Snapchat: fast and easy media creation, the mobile Internet and ephemerality.

Fast and easy media creation? That just means that the smartphones, tablets and other devices on which users have their Snapchat apps are already equipped with cameras to take pics and videos.

The mobile Internet? That’s Snapchat’s way of crediting others for the fact that its users already have the hardware, software and Internet connection in their pockets, wherever they go, to share their “snaps” with friends. In other words, here too, Snapchat recognizes that its success is possible only because other businesses built the foundation on which Snapchat’s platform can now sit.

And the ephemerality angle? This is where Snapchat introduced something truly original. But CEO Spiegel even here seems to be sharing the credit. He is saying, in effect, that he and his team merely noticed the fact that Snapchat’s young user personas were already embracing informality, playfulness and ephemerality in their communications.

To listen to Spiegel tell it, he and his team merely added a new type of temporary conversation — one built on photos and videos that would last for only seconds — to the long list of such ephemeral communications his users were already having all the time.

Snapchat was built not on technology, per se, but rather on an idea. Several ideas, really. Those ideas — targeting young people almost exclusively, creating a tool that would take down its users’ content almost as soon as they posted it — were not immediately obvious winners.

But the team knew what they were doing, stuck with their plans, and executed on them with discipline. Some good lessons for any product, no?