The app that wouldn't go away

For an app that’s all about disappearing content, Snapchat just wouldn’t leave me alone. The routine went something like this:

  1. Read seventh article about “hot new messaging app” that teens are flocking to
  2. Download the app
  3. Hem and haw over what to snap and who to send it to
  4. Delete the app

A couple of weeks pass.

  1. Overhear friend exclaim, “Did you see Matt’s snap with the cat? Soooo funny!”
  2. Re-install the app
  3. Wait around for someone to send me a snap. *Crickets*
  4. Delete the app

…this happened four or five times.

But then it finally stuck. Like white on rice.

A lot of smart people have talked at length about Snapchat’s secret sauce — making it fast and easy to create content, limiting that content’s shelf life, mimicking the personal and immersive quality of in-person conversations, feeding our curiosity for variable and unpredictable experiences, etc. I won’t rehash these. But I think two aspects of the experience have been overlooked.

Multiple ways to create content: Active messaging vs. passive publishing

The thing that finally made Snapchat stick for me was the release of their “Stories” feature. Up until that point, I was a passive consumer, basically only opening the app when I received a snap from someone. There was too much friction to publishing my own snaps — the issue usually wasn’t coming up with the content, but deciding who to send it to.

My Snapchat graph in the beginning was pretty small and composed mainly of friends I had met recently in Seattle; many of my closest friends weren’t using it yet. The personal nature of the medium can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, there’s an immediacy and casualness to the interaction that makes it extremely engaging. On the other hand, it can inspire anxiety at the thought of imposing on someone who might not feel the same level of familiarity. The fact that you had to individually check each recipient’s name when sending snaps amplified this feeling of “I’m interrupting someone,” in addition to making it tedious to send snaps as your network grew.

But the ability to passively publish snaps and have them viewable to all your followers for 24 hours changed things. Suddenly I didn’t have to worry about the “who to send it to” part. I just posted to my Story and went on with my day. The key is that Snapchat closed the feedback loop by showing me the people who viewed my Story. Once I could see who was already looking at my stuff, it felt natural to send them a snap directly. Oh hey, a positive feedback loop!

Besides turning consumers into creators, “Stories” gave people another reason to open the app beyond receiving direct snaps, which meant more frequent and longer sessions. It also opened up a monetization channel for brands.

Matching emotional payoff with required investment

“It’s confusing.”

“How was I supposed to know how to do that?”

“I don’t get it.”

I hear this a lot from friends. Admittedly, Snapchat doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to straightforward UI, often burying new features in the settings, disabled by default. This would be a death knell for most products; people don’t have the time, patience, or attention to sit down and learn the intricacies of yet another messaging app. But Snapchat not only seems to get away with it, it actually thrives off of this dynamic. A few hypotheses as to why:

  • Snapchat’s seed audience, which evolved into its current base, is teens. This demographic likes to be the first to try new things and the density of their social circles ensures that interesting ideas spread quickly.
  • A novelty-loving user base is a big advantage, but it’s not enough. People will only invest in learning your UI to the extent there’s a proportionate emotional payoff to doing so. This is where Snapchat delivers — explorers unlock new filters, gigantic emojis, topical geotags, and other Easter eggs that make their snaps richer and more engaging. And as they discover and play around with these features, they spread it organically through their networks, piquing the curiosity of those they interact with.
  • Once people have sunk a bit of time and effort into your app, they feel more attached as a result of this investment. They’re more likely to tell their friends and take the time to bring them up the learning curve.