The not-so-secret appeal of Snapchat's fleeting stories

A purpose-altering feature shows how the infant company might actually be ready to stand up and start walking around like a real business.

Snapchat's new office in Venice, Calif., is more discrete than its old locale just a few blocks away. Jennifer Van Grove/CNET

Now the hard work begins for Evan Spiegel and his team at Snapchat.

After figuring out how to induce people to "snap" -- sending pictures or videos that vanish within 10 seconds -- hundreds of millions of times a day, Snapchat is ready to tackle what may even be a bigger challenge for the 2-year-old company.

The plot twist came alongside Snapchat Stories, a months-old feature that lets members broadcast snaps to all their friends, though still from behind a curtain that protects them from unwanted scrutiny.

For the company, Snapchat Stories will help write a new chapter, one in which Snapchat might actually be ready to stand up and start walking around like a real business.

Turning the page
Launched in October, Snapchat Stories give members a simple way to deliver their snaps to all their friends, or even followers, with a click of a button, instead of just one or two people at a time. Each snap added to a story sticks around for 24 hours, with subsequent story snaps playing in sequential order. With stories, people can beam their daily updates to friends, and brands can build narratives to share with followers, and everyone with access can view the temporary photo and video posts in the order they happened.

"We built a new way to share in a format that makes sense -- every Story has a beginning, middle, and end, unlike traditional social media, where the newest content is always at the top of the feed," Spiegel, Snapchat's 23-year-old CEO, told CNET.

Though flying under the radar in the media, Snapchat Stories are viewed by more than 50 percent of the startup's daily active users, a company spokesperson said. Snapchat has never revealed the exact size of its audience and remains silent on that front.

Still, with half of its most active users peeking over to this other side of the app, the company has created a theater of sorts where brands and marketers, arguably the most important audience members of all, can now put on a private show for followers and see just how many people are viewing their story snaps.

Brands in wonderland
Like Hannah Horvath, the protagonist of HBO's hit series Girls, now in its third season, Snapchat feels like the voice of our generation, or at least a voice of a generation. It's no surprise, then, that the critically acclaimed series has found the app, and the Stories feature in particular, to be the perfect vehicle to give fans an unprocessed view of the show's characters, actors, music, red carpet events, and emerging plot lines.

Jemima Kirke and Lena Dunham at the Girls season-three red carpet event. HBO Girls

"Snapchat is a fantastic demographic match for Girls' target audience," Lindsey Pearl, director of digital and social media for HBO, told CNET. "We have been fans of Snapchat since its inception...and when it came time to think about what we wanted to do for season three, Snapchat seemed like a natural fit."

Pearl says that the Girls account (username: girlshbo), said to be one of the most-followed accounts on Snapchat, tries to speak to viewers in their language, minus the marketing mumbo jumbo characteristic of posts by brands on more public social platforms. Pearl's Snapchat snap strategy can be boiled down to this: think like a fan. The strategy manifests itself in the form of amusing, goofy, and off-kilter snaps.

The HBO Girls account started its Snapchat existence with snaps live from its season-three red carpet event. Snaps were posted to an ongoing story that expanded into a 200-second photo and video montage of the night. Not only did snaps seem raw and unscripted, but they brought followers as close to their Girls crushes as conceivable. Pics snapped from the red carpet, for instance, were handed over to cast members who then doodled on their images, making them edgier than the glossies you'd find in the celebrity rags, and much more personal than the pics shared on Twitter or Instagram.

"It's amazing how quickly [Snapchat] has become as important as well-established stalwarts," Pearl said of the Girls' approach to using social networks to connect with fans. Her team turns to Snapchat every Sunday to tease the new episode with hints of what's to come, as well as to debut songs from the show's second soundtrack.

Zosia Mamet doodles on a red carpet Snapchat selfie for followers. HBO Girls

What starts as a story viewable to all followers turns into an opportunity for one-on-one interaction with fans. When fans reply back to the show's story snaps, often with doodles of their own, Girls will open the snap and take a screenshot, an act that notifies the sender that his or her snap was seen or heard. Sometimes the show will even reply back.

"The engagement rates that we see on Snapchat Stories are well above what we see on other platforms," Pearl said, without sharing specifics. "They are exceedingly high."

It's as if experimental brands like Girls think that Snapchat, more than say Twitter or Instagram, can bring fans closer into their fold. And that extra digital intimacy seemingly makes trade-offs like a much smaller viewing audience worth it.

So believes Alex Restrepo, the Web and social media manager for the New Orleans Saints. The football team was the first in the NFL to set up training camp on the app, kicking off its presence just days after Snapchat Stories were unveiled.

Snapchat's audience is too big to ignore, Restrepo told CNET.

Fans view snaps from the Saints (username: saints) as more personal than tweets or Instagram photos, Restrepo said. "Fans see Snapchat as almost a text, where it's direct, one-on-one communication. So even though it's a story, they see it as: this is a personal message, for me, from the Saints."

Alex Restrepo snaps Saints quarterback Drew Brees at a press conference. New Orleans Saints

Restrepo, who travels with the team and maintains solid relationships with players, said he knew his access would provide him with compelling content to share with fans. When the season was still in full swing, he would often snap photos of the athletes getting ready in the locker room, post videos from the field, capture the pregame huddle, and share video shout-outs from the players. Drew Brees, the team's star quarterback, made frequent appearances in Restrepo's snaps.

Currently, the Saints have 37,000 followers on Snapchat, and the team's story snaps average 21,000 views, Restrepo said. Though we're now in the off-season, the NFL team's account remains active, though story snaps are fewer and farther between.

Restrepo, directly or otherwise, has inspired other sports organizations to test Snapchat's private-ish waters. Among NFL teams, the Philadelphia Eagles (username: eagles) were second to embrace the app. The team's account, which added 8,000 followers in the first few days after it appeared, breaks news in a sense in that introduces newly signed players to its followers on Snapchat first, before doing so elsewhere.

The New York Jets have since followed suit. The NBA, which just started its own official Snapchat account, sports at least two teams, the Washington Wizards and Dallas Mavericks, on the Snapchat roster. The Los Angeles Galaxy professional soccer team is also kicking its way around the app's stories feature. Even the National Hockey League's Washington Capitals are jockeying for position on the trendy service.

As the brands trickle in, so to do the celebrities and other professionals with aspirations of developing a following for their transient stories. Dutch musician and DJ Tiesto, who snaps his stories while DJing from massive events like the X Games concert in Aspen, is a bit of a Snapchat legend. He amassed 100,000 followers overnight, according to a Snapchat spokesperson.

A field of dreams
If Snapchat Stories become one of the preferred ways for people to keep tabs on their favorite brands, teams, and celebrities, then the application has a viable chance at turning what is now just an experimental use case into an important money-making opportunity.

Stories, which lack sophisticated analytics, can't evolve into an immediate revenue play for the company if the people and brands who create them are to remain appealing to Snapchat's audience, but they do represent the startup's move into the realm of brand advertising.

The Saints try out Snapchat Stories for marketing purposes. New Orleans Saints

Take the ever-experimental Restrepo, who again tested the waters with a Snapchat contest in December. The Saints accounts asked Snapchat followers to e-mail a screenshot of a snap for a chance to win a photo autographed by tight end Jimmy Graham. The contest received 3,700 entries in 24 hours, Restrepo said, adding that these numbers would be sufficient if the team ever chose to pitch a sponsor to get involved in the future.

Restrepo's snapped-together marketing campaign demonstrates a veritable digital field of dreams: if you build it, the budgets will come.

Happy ending?
But Snapchat needs to crawl before it can walk in the business world. Brand and celebrity accounts are impossible to find if you don't know the exact username to search for, which means their stories are a little too obscured from public view.

The even bigger issue, though, is one of getting organizations, who want the most bang for their buck and already maintain a variety of social accounts, to grasp the appeal of ephemeral photos and videos. "The impression I am gathering is that teams are worried about using an app where the content disappears," Restrepo said.

Snapchat Stories haven't exactly secured a fairy tale future for the company, but the intriguing element does add a touch of brand magic to an app that's largely been perceived as impossible to profit from.

 

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