Every year or so, it seems like a new social media platform is declared the future of journalism. First it was Facebook, then Twitter stole the mantle until we were all told to start pinning items on Pinterest, and posting our photos on Instagram.
So this year, if you’re a newsroom editor or reporter tasked with trying to reach those long-allusive younger readers, I’m sure you’ve heard one word repeated over and over again— Snapchat.
Why has Snapchat become the next darling of the media world? Simple—it’s popular with a group of users not normally associated with the news, teens and millennials. Not only did Snapchat fly past Twitter to become the third most popular social media app among 18 to 34-year-olds, the app hosts close to 200 million monthly active users who send roughly 800 million “snaps” (either a photo or a short video) a day.
Snapchat was initially created as a visual-texting app that would automatically delete a snap once your friend viewed it. In that way, its popularity mimics communication in the real world. You know, back when people were simply content to have a conversation without sharing it to the world. The intimacy of a private moment shared between a small number of people (or just one) is what Snapchat has built its popularity around.
Since then, Snapchat has grown from a novelty to a full-blown media platform thanks to two recent features: Stories, which allows users to create narratives by linking together snaps; and Discover, which includes full articles and video (along with advertising revenue sharing) from a handful of media companies, including CNN, ESPN and the Daily Mail.
As someone outside of that millennial demographic, I had no experience with Snapchat before writing this column, other than the occasional photo shown to me by a co-worker. In fact, I feel like I was starting to turn into the “get off my lawn” guy every time I’d read a new story about the app. After finally downloading Snapchat and consuming content, there are a lot of things that I was impressed with, and was left with the feeling there is a great deal of upside for enterprising newsrooms.
First, all the stories presented by media companies through the Snapchat’s Discover feature were sharp and diverse, and offered an impressive but unobtrusive mixture of video and text. For example, CNN’s offerings on the day I plodded through the app included an interactive story about a bank heist by hackers, an inspirational Michael Jordan quote and a photo/music collage about Kanye West’s new sneaker for Adidas.
Second, the idea of being notified when I had new content waiting to be viewed seemed orderly and serene compared to the fire hose of content that both Facebook and Twitter force down your throat. I think it’s that intimate experience that sets the app apart from its competitors, especially among its younger users, who have grown up in an age of constant information.
For now, media companies not invited to take part in Snapchat’s Discover feature are left to figure out how to make the platform work for their needs. The inability to offer linkbacks and the idea of having to build a new following from scratch create real barriers for resource-crunched newsrooms. In addition, Snapchat doesn’t make a number of simple metrics available, such as the number of followers.
So what, if anything, does Snapchat offer newspapers?
“I think I feel about it the same way I do Instagram and Vine—it makes sense for brand awareness,” said Erica Palan, the social media product manager for Philly.com, where I spend my days drawing sports cartoons. “You can’t underestimate that people are on Snapchat looking for content, and putting your work in front of them, even if you aren’t seeing any direct traffic or revenue, speaks to get Philly.com in their brains.”
Philly.com is one of the few traditional newsrooms I found (it encompasses content from three newsrooms, including the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News) experimenting on Snapchat. They used the app most recently to cover the locally popular and bizarrely-unique buffalo wing eating competition Wing Bowl, and plan to create unique content for both the upcoming Broad Street Run and Democratic National Convention.
“I’d love to do something where we get one of our sports reporters to do a 24-hour Snapchat Story, sort-of a day in the life of a beat writer,” Palan said. “Something where we can convey the vibe of the day.”
The Washington Post has also dipped his digital toe into the Snapchat phenomenon. Last year, they created a Postpolitics account in an attempt to engage with younger users leading up to the midterm elections.
“People treat us like their weird friend that cares about politics,” Masuma Ahuja, the national digital editor and manager of Postpolitics on Snapchat, told listeners during the 2014 Online News Association conference. Early on, Ahuja and her crew realized the professional-quality content most associated with the Post didn’t match the general vibe on Snapchat, so they switched to bite-sized bits and hand-drawn graphics, and judge success through the number of users who snap back.
The Post has also experimented with the interactive social aspect of Snapchat—receiving snaps from users. A week before the midterms, editors asked users to share how they were feeling, encouraging them to send their snaps to the papers Postpolitics Snapchat account. Users responded, sending the paper a combination of selfies and emojis they could share with their desktop and mobile users.
“That was fun for us: direct engagement in the moment from someone else experiencing the same thing we were,” Cory Haik, the Post’s senior editor for digital news, told Nieman Lab. “We think this engagement piece has a lot of unseen potential.”
As a consumer, NPR’s approach to Snapchat most resonated with me. Every day, they share a Fact of the Day, which features a short video and a newsroom personality. I also saw snaps featuring 10-second book reviews, a brief movie review and footage from its Tiny Desk concerts.
Snapchat also created its own media division, led by former News Corp. senior vice president Nick Bell, which creates and shares its own news content. For now, that includes a “Daily 3” round-up of mostly celebrity-based briefs and some rich media pieces, which included a look back at Woodstock and a short video of a pair of newborn red pandas.
I think newsrooms could also learn from how different brands are using Snapchat. The New Orleans Saints football team showed behind-the-scenes footage from some of its games. Audi partnered with The Onion to Snapchat the Super Bowl live with funny images, increasing their following by more than 5,000 people. Cast members from HBO’s “Girls” posted snaps from the season three premiere, and shared exclusive content regularly throughout the season.
Personally, I see a big opportunity for newsrooms to use Snapchat to promote contests and special engagements that would interest younger fans. Not only is there a natural overlap between content younger people like that newspapers are producing, it also offers incentive for younger readers to actually visit your website.
That’s just one idea. Snapchat, like countless apps before it, aren’t going to grow your website’s traffic or unleash a giant revenue stream. But neither does Twitter, and your newsroom finds it useful, right?
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.