The Daily Mail, Vice Media and Snapchat, the messaging app once mainly known for sexting, might seem unlikely allies in shaping the future of media distribution. But in the frenetic search for the next big social media platform, it seems media organisations are prepared to accept unlikely bedfellows in the name of necessity.
Such was the case last week when Vice and Mail Online joined CNN, Cosmopolitan, National Geographic and other media brands in launching Snapchat’s new Discover feature. Media partners create what Snapchat calls “editions” – bundles of stories that disappear after 24 hours – for the new platform, with Snapchat’s fledgling editorial team also providing content.
Discover is unusual as one of the first formal alliances between traditional media companies and new-style social media apps such as Line, WhatsApp and Snapchat, which host one-to-one messaging, rather than the one-to-many or many-to-many interactions of Twitter and Facebook. Yet its launch could also be seen as extensions of media organisations’ existing collaborations with these next-generation social media, which include the Oxford Mail launching a WhatsApp news service and the BBC experimenting with news via WhatsApp and WeChat in India, in a search for the “new Facebook” and the associated traffic.
Some media companies are already reporting positive results for sharing content via messaging: in February 2014 BuzzFeed president Jon Steinberg told Re/code that his company was seeing more shares to WhatsApp than to Twitter on iPhones, after integrating WhatsApp’s share button the previous October.
The attraction for media companies is simple. Messaging apps provide vast scale, with WhatsApp alone said to have 700 million active users, more than double the number on Twitter. Snapchat is shy about sharing numbers but in December 2014 TechCrunch reported it had close to 200 million monthly average users, up from 100 million in August, with the company valued at at least $10bn. This may be far from Facebook’s 1.39 billion active user base but Snapchat appeals to the kind of youthful audience that Facebook is said to be failing: Business Insider claims the majority of Snapchat’s users are female and between the ages of 13 and 25, based on statements from Snapchat’s executives.
“Snapchat’s Discover news partnership is very exciting,” says Sue Llewellyn, a social media consultant for the BBC and other media organisations. “The way people consume news has changed beyond belief, particularly the younger generation. People don’t want to sit and wait for a news bulletin, they want news now: online, on-demand and above all on their mobiles, so news organisations must adapt to changing behaviour and technology, or die.”
Media analyst Ken Doctor reckons Discover “challenges Facebook as a supplier of news” and Snapchat’s value will grow incrementally for media companies. But whereas Facebook and Twitter make no bones about the importance of news to their audience – Twitter’s global media boss Katie Jacobs Stanton recently compared it to an “operating system for news” – Snapchat appears to be playing things a little cooler. Discover isn’t getting the hard sell.
Giuseppe Crosti, marketing strategist at social media agency Social Providence, says messaging platforms such as Snapchat are “very, very user-focused” and will take great care when introducing a new feature. “You can see that in the way Snapchat has rolled out this feature [Discover],” he adds. “It’s just a small button at the top right of the screen, it’s not in your face.”
Yet there’s a vast difference between the sprawling, all-sharing, all-commenting nature of media organisations on Facebook and Twitter, where users can largely publish what they please, and finite, ephemeral Discover. Indeed, some experts believe media companies could face problems in scaling their operations on messaging apps that are, at their core, one-to-one communication services. The Oxford Mail may have exceeded its expectations in attracting 1,200 users to its Whatsapp news service in six months but this is still a modest figure in the world of social media, where the Mail’s own Twitter feed has nearly 25,000 followers.
Discover is an intriguing experiment from a rapidly platform. But it is just that – an experiment, like Snapcash or Stories before it – and whether it endures will depend largely on how users react. Equally, no matter how big Snapchat gets, it will never be the fabled “new Facebook/new Twitter” that media companies crave if it doesn’t prove to be an important traffic source.
In any event, Snapchat Discover is unlikely to be the last time news organisations throw themselves into the search for the next big thing in social media.
“What we’re seeing is classic segmentation now in social media and the thirst for something new – as in Discover – is a universal need, in digital or analogue times,” Doctor says. “For news companies, testing these approaches and then measuring what works best is the price of admission for the mobile social age.”
“If traditional media companies aren’t experimenting with messaging apps they’re missing a massive trick,” says Llewellyn. “Here’s an opportunity to deliver your hand-picked content direct to vast user bases of younger, harder-to-reach, audiences. You’d be utterly mad to ignore them.”