Snapchat’s Disappearing Downloads Spell Trouble


 
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By Alex Bussani


Those in tech world collectively raised their eyebrows some when it was recently reported that year-over-year downloads of the popular app Snapchat are down by 22%, including a 40% drop among iOS users, over the past three months. So what exactly is going on with the app that has become a mainstay in the app drawers of so many U.S. smartphones over the past few years?

Snapchat (now a subsidiary of the parent company Snap, Inc.) enjoyed a rapid rise to the top of the Android and iOS app charts shortly after its release, largely growing as a smaller app with a limited, but incredibly useful set of a features. The core feature was the ability to send a photo or video which would disappear forever after a maximum of 10 seconds.

As the users poured in by the millions, Snapchat implemented the "My Story" feature, which allows for a photo or video that stays viewable to all a users' friends for 24 hours before disappearing. They've also incorporated additions outside of their core feature set, such as live news stories and digital magazine articles, which have been met with mixed success. Even more recently, the company added a 'Maps' feature, which can show where you and your Snapchat friends have taken snaps, placing the location of various snap stories on a map immediately upon being uploaded.

It all comes down, though, to the core features: Disappearing photos, videos, and the 'My Story' functionality. Evan Spiegel, the Company's CEO, and his partners early on were brilliant to think of this niche, and their execution early on was tremendous. However, the reason they've struck gold may be the same reason they increasingly run the risk of striking out.

Limited, But Useful

Early on, this was the best way to describe what Snapchat was: An app where you couldn't do a whole lot, but the little you could do had become wildly popular. Using it never instilled a sense in the user that they were using an actual platform like Facebook or Instagram. But, if people wanted to send disappearing photos, they had to download Snapchat - so they did, by the millions.

However, the app lacked an identity beyond it's features. It was no more than the sum of its parts. So as it continued to grow, it did so as a limited but useful app, and not as a platform. Users loved the features and what the app could do, but they didn't develop any loyalty to Snapchat itself. As a result, there may now exist an army of digital storytellers and photo-senders who now expect these features to be readily available on their smartphones, and who need to regularly use them, but don't necessarily need Snapchat to be the vessel through which they do so.

There's also an inherent long-term engagement problem that an app centered around disappearing photos creates. When the content on your app is constantly disappearing, you lose a critical piece of leverage you have against users who consider leaving your platform: All the content they'd otherwise have saved on your platform.

Sure, snappers can save edited photos and videos they create to a personal 'Memories' section, but those can't be viewed by others. There exists no user profile of any kind, something which is difficult if not counter-intuitive to fit into an app which centers around privacy and things that disappear, but nevertheless presents a real challenge to maintaining active users.

Most other large apps enjoy built-in mechanisms that keep people coming back.

Facebook

Thinking of leaving it? You'll likely second-guess yourself quite a bit once you realize how it's the sole way to communicate with some of your family members that live far away. You'll also think of the countless albums of photos dating back up to 10 years that you have saved and frequently go through.

Instagram

Consider leaving and you'll think of the many filter-enhanced masterpieces that have garnered a ton of likes - which you'll probably like to keep around. There's also the measurable follower count and follower ratio, which people perhaps spend a little too much time focused on, but still, this is a legitimate audience, and a way to connect with people en masse.

Twitter

It's a deeply engaging platform where several have built large audiences and use it to receive breaking news and comment on a wide variety of subjects. It's tough to walk away from a large audience, especially when the capabilities of the platform and its importance to news, brands, and communication at large seem so infinite - ranging from anonymous eggs tweeting about penny stocks, to daily media rants by the President of the United States.

What is keeping people from leaving Snapchat?

There is really nothing, though, that would stop someone from leaving Snapchat — and things could cascade particularly quickly if their friends start abandoning it. With Instagram copying the 'My Story' feature, and the more recent news that more people are now using Instagram Stories than the original My Story on Snapchat, there now exists legitimate concern for Spiegel & Co.

There is also the widely known fact that millennials have little loyalty when it comes to social media — just take a look at where MySpace.com is these days for evidence of that.

Snapchat's creators probably never intended for it to be as public or as complex as the platforms mentioned above. They found a niche - disappearing photos - which they knew would be a challenge to turn into a full platform. But, by fending off multiple attempts from Facebook to buy them out, they had effectively gone all-in, and with the IPO and the creation of Snap, Inc., they had without a doubt gone all in.

The challenge is clear, but surely there's a plan. The Snapchat Maps feature is new and interesting, and maybe a part of that plan: It's an intriguing way to perhaps bring location — which hasn't gotten a ton of attention since geofilters — back into the fold.

Whether it was a "we're still here" response to Instagram, or part of a larger strategy, remains to be seen — and it'll be even more interesting to see what moves they make next. At some point, though, it's likely Snapchat will need to go on the attack and copy some features back from Instagram, and find a way to do them better, to round out the platform.

An inevitable path that leads to a choice.

Snapchat has been an great success story and still has immense potential. But Instagram is the more complete platform, and more importantly, seems determined to be able to do everything Snapchat can do — and it pretty much already can.

Instagram would like users to make a choice, and they've made aggressive moves to put us on an inevitable trajectory that leads to this realization: If both Instagram and Snapchat do the same thing, eventually people are going to choose just one. And with the profiles, engagement, full platform feel, and higher active user base of Instagram, it looks increasingly unlikely that Snapchat will be that choice.