In the 12 months since Snap popped on the NY stock market, the company has invested heavily in its advertising offering, but questions remain as to its real value as a digital media buy and where it fits into the mix.
There’s no denying it’s been a tough few months for Snap’s flagship app in the run-up to its IPO anniversary. While it posted better than expected results during the December quarter, recent headlines have highlighted its struggle to graduate from being in the test-and-learn arena to become a force to rival Facebook or Instagram.
Earlier this month, a tweet from reality TV star Kylie Jenner to her 24.5 million followers lamented the fact she rarely opens Snapchat anymore after a controversial redesign. This single tweet instantly wiped $1.3bn off its parent group’s value, though its stock price slowly crept back.
Then, on Thursday (1 March), Sir Martin Sorrell revealed that WPP agencies invested less than $500m on behalf of brands in Snap across the whole of 2017. To put that in context, the conglomerate said its spend with Facebook and Google will likely run into the billions. Snapchat ranked below Oath, Twitter and Chinese firm Tencent for spend out of the biggest advertising group in the world.
At the turn of the year, Snapchat was also embroiled in the brand safety crisis that has long dogged YouTube and Facebook, with alcohol behemoth Diageo pulling spend from the platform following an ASA ruling that questioned the efficacy of app's age verification policy.
While Snap said it had updated its age-gating options since the campaign ran, Diageo confirmed to The Drum this week that it has still not resumed spend with the app.
To Snapchat’s credit, improving its advertising offering has been priority number one since its IPO, launching a number of self-serve creative, tech and marketing tools over the past year in a bid to siphon spend from the big boys. On top of this, it opened up new technologies like its AR-focused World Lenses format to brands to like BMW and Netflix.
The business has also responded to concerns from advertisers and investors around its measurement and analytics capabilities, boosting cross-platform tracking capabilities and rolling out third-party measurement schemes with the likes of Nielsen.
Time again, Snap has outlined its vision to be identified as a camera company, releasing hardware in the form of its Specs product – but, since going public has it made its original app a valuable enough buy for advertisers?
How marketers see Snapchat
For the last three months of 2017 Snap generated $285.7m in revenue; a rise of 72% year-over-year, with ad revenue accounting for the biggest slice of the pie at $281m. Full, year-on-year revenue clocked in at $824.9m, up 18% since 2016.
What has evolved too is the way brands are using Snapchat. It has gone from being a tightly controlled offering to having a more sophisticated adtech stack, with the company claiming to have more than doubled the number brands purchasing ads using auction models since going public.
Brands like Asos have taken advantage of Snap's vertical video offering, where ads are slotted between publisher content in the Discover section of the app, over the past 12 months. Others, like Adidas and BMW have used more innovate formats like gamified slots and 'try before you buy' AR lenses.
Despite making headway in courting a wider range of advertisers and assuaging some investor jitters, the view from the industry is that for many brands Snapchat is still a postscript.
“From the brands that I speak to, hear from, and read about – Snapchat executions of big brand ideas are indeed very much still an afterthought," said James Whatley, planning partner at Ogilvy.
He added that while there are some verticals, like entertainment, which are a strong fit for wholesale campaigns, Snapchat still isn’t a “front-of-mind platform”, especially for performance-led brand marketers.
Recent data from MediaRadar suggested that when it came to spend on video ad slots on Snapchat (which it claimed 397 brands have purchased in the past three months) investment was highly concentrated in entertainment (48%), with tech (13%) and retail (12%) coming in a distant second and third.
Forecasts from eMarketer have estimated that Snapchat’s revenues could hit $2.7bn by 2019. Yet principal analyst for the research firm, Debra Aho Williamson, suggested Snapchat has its work cut out if it wants to move out of the experimental bucket for brands and cut through the noise to become a go-to distribution platform.
It takes “a long time” for marketers to feel comfortable with any platform, she said, pointing to Facebook as an example.
“Facebook spent several years in the experimental bucket itself, especially in the years surrounding its IPO, when its ability to generate mobile ad revenue was unclear."
After Facebook floated in 2012, she observed, it ended the most recent financial year post-IPO year with almost $7bn according to eMarketer's numbers.
The same figures anticipate Snapchat to garner $1.5bn in its first full fiscal post-IPO year, but she highlighted that comparisons could perhaps be unfair since when Facebook went public it had "a much larger ad business than Snapchat".
Flawed by design?
Away from competition from digital rivals, a recent backlash to Snapchat's redesign – which grouped users' incoming private messages and broadcasts from friends in the same section – has the potential to make it a harder sell for brands.
Snapchat has a famously young audience, claiming around 187 million users, but it was forced to issue a statement last week after 1.2 million people signed a Change.org petition to revert to the old version of the app.
Brands even got in on the action, with cosmetics giant Maybelline asking its Twitter followers in a now-deleted post if Snapchat was "still worth it" saying that its views on the platform has "dropped dramatically". The company later released a statement saying the post was from an individual staff member and didn't reflect its "strong partnership" with Snap but it did little to quell buzz online.
Snap too swiftly issued a response to the user petition, explaining the philosophy behind the redesign and promising more changes in the coming weeks to alleviate issues, but WPP's media arm GroupM has admitted to The Drum is it "monitoring metrics closely at this time" to see if the backlash from fans has had any effect on brand interest.
Sensor Tower data shows the redesign has actually inspired a new wave of users to try the app, with first-time installs up 55% in the week after the redesign rollout.
"The redesign was a distraction," continued Whatley. "Kylie Jenner and Maybelline both publicly (redacted or otherwise) questioning the platform’s worth? Coincidence. If we keep seeing these things happen? Well then that’s a pattern."
He added that the "vacuum" these headlines happen in is what will ultimately put pressure on Snapchat: "The Zuck machine is waiting in the wings to pick up the users, influencers, publishers, and brands that fall out."
EMarketer's Williamson was more optimistic: "I think Snapchat’s users will eventually come around. For advertisers, the redesign will likely open up new ad formats and placements that weren’t possible before the redesign."
Innovation and e-commerce
Beth Carroll, social content director at Iris, which counts KFC and Adidas among its clients, argued that Snap's challenges for the year ahead won't come from its redesign, but instead from the ongoing race to innovate between platforms.
Pointing to Snap's ventures in the e-commerce arena, which have included a tie-up with Nike and investment in AR tech, she said: "[These ventures] continue to offer brands new ways to connect with and now sell to the platform’s audiences.
"However, in the past whenever they’ve seen success with a new feature, other platforms have been quick to replicate and even improve upon their innovations –think Instagram stories."
E-commerce has been a tough sell for some of the bigger platfoms with sites like Twitter retiring the 'buy' button: it's not even clear at this stage whether there is a consumer appetite for making purchases on social media.
Whatley noted that while the industry might still be talking about the Nike tie-up, in 12 months time it will come to be known as the exception rather than the rule.
"As the investment in digital marketing continues to grow, I have no doubt Snap’s revenue will grow with it – but only incrementally. The bigger fish are getting involved in what makes Snapchat unique – and they’ve got money to spend too."
One thing is for certain is that over the next 12 months media agencies and their brands will be watching with interest to see if Snapchat can take on the big boys and make itself a more valuable player. Whether that's done through innovation, design or otherwise remains to be seen.