Snapchat Needs To Forget User Acquisition And Start Talking About Retention

March, 22 2017

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Rowan Emslie
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Rowan Emslie

Snapchat and Instagram have been duking it out for years.

One is the chosen platform for teenagers and digital native influencers, the other is the Big Fish of image sharing. One went public in an attempt to be the 'new Facebook', the other was bought for $1 billion by Facebook. When Snapchat generates extra revenue with innovative ad features, Instagram is snapping at their heels.

Sooner or later, something has to give.

In terms of pure installs, Instagram has been on top for most of the last two years. Snapchat tends to peak after notable media campaigns - sharing coverage of the 2016 Olympics with NBC, for example - or, as with last Christmas, when they launched a new in-app game feature.

user acquisition campaigns aren't enough

Snapchats' Olympics spike in downloads.

Games don't tend to stick around, so Snapchat's subsequent decline should come as no surprise. UX designer Austin Knight observed back in 2015 that, despite the fact that 59% of apps downloaded were games, there were no game apps in the top 25% most used apps:

"This is likely due to the fact that games tend to spike in popularity and then decline, while apps from publishers like Facebook and Google are more here to stay."

And Snapchat's game related growth in downloads did turn out to be short lived. Very short lived.

user acquisition campaigns stop working

Christmas Day was a great day for Snapchat. The rest of December, not so much.

While this may have been predictable from market trends, Snapchat have to try new things to keep Instagram on the back foot: all the time they spend maintaining features is simply more time for the people at Instagram to copy what they don't have.

The danger of competing stories

The two apps have been going back and forth on features for months. Most recently, Snapchat's Stories feature was cloned into Instagram's service. Right away, the tactic paid off.

user acquisition is the wrong narrative for Snapchat

Instagram snuffs out Snapchat's moves quickly and effectively.

During the Christmas spike, Snapchat only trailed in weekly Google Play Store downloads by 1.4 million. Since then, Snapchat has trended down while Instagram maintains steady growth. By the first week of March, the gap had more than doubled to 3.1 million.

Instagram passed the 600 million user mark in December. Snapchat hasn't passed 200 million and its growth is slowing. Without the draw of a unique feature, users probably don't feel the need to switch apps. Instagram is well equipped to match whatever features Snapchat develops to maintain its lead.

In short, the longer Snapchat is compared to Instagram in terms of sheer volume, it's going to lose.

Flipping the script

The smartest option might be to redefine success.

Medium has been touting its own internal measure of Total Time Reading (TTR) for years now. Their original Data Lab post described the measure as a measure of engagement, rather than the more simplistic tallying of unique visitors.

"We measure every user interaction with every post. Most of this is done by periodically recording scroll positions. We pipe this data into our data warehouse, where offline processing aggregates the time spent reading (or our best guess of it): we infer when a reader started reading, when they paused, and when they stopped altogether."

By talking about TTR, Medium was trying to get away from being compared to Facebook or Twitter. It was also undermining major online content publishers who could boast bigger traffic statistics like The Huffington Post or Buzzfeed. TTR was a way of branding Medium: Who cares if you have more visitors? Ours actually read what we publish.

Snapchat could learn from this. By spending time and resources developing short lived features they are playing into Instagram's hands. Taking a look at the download numbers over time, it is quickly obvious that Instagram has always maintained the upper hand in this app war. And yet the fights keeps going on and on. How many more bruising rounds can Snapchat take?

Instagram is too big and too adaptable to allow its size advantage to slip. Rather than launching campaigns in search of greater volume, Snapchat could be optimizing their app for engagement or some other measure that their competitors don't already dominate.

As Ev Williams put it,

"Most Internet companies would build better things and create more value if they paid more attention to depth than breadth."
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