High-Risk, High-Reward: Snapchat’s Advertising Revolution

Mobile advertising requires striking what can seem like an impossible balance: attracting users’ attention without interrupting whatever else they are doing.

Mobile advertising requires striking what can seem like an impossible balance: attracting users’ attention without interrupting whatever else they are doing. The trick is to be interruptive through engaging, well-placed advertising without interrupting.

Although mobile advertising has evolved over the past 10 years away from SMS messages and pop-ups to informative, relevant banners and native ads, media companies are still struggling to find the best balance of ads that resonate without disrupting the user experience.

Take The Next Web, which launched a new ad format that pushes articles out of the way and automatically starts playing a video ad that is nearly impossible to exit. One commenter called it “the most infuriating hide-the-content ad ploy I’ve ever seen.”

Or consider The Atlantic, which found itself embroiled in a controversy for publishing sponsored content in the form of an advertorial from the Church of Scientology.

Mistakes like these make consumers feel annoyed, deceived and unfavorable toward brands. This is especially true for millennials, and impactful advertisers and publishers are adapting their strategies in an effort to achieve more than simply the default “not annoying.”

Today, they are striving to deliver ads that are relevant, engaging and even interactive. In a world where advertisers hunger for millennial eyeballs and dollars, relevant and engaging means delivering ads that are “authentic.”

Snapchat realized that if ads are not authentic and sharable, they are unsuccessful, and it is ushering in a new era of advertising through a wealth of new ad formats that blur the lines between advertising and content.

In what some are calling a pre-initial public offering push, Snapchat has unveiled sponsored creation tools for brands to create ads with facial-recognition selfie lenses and geofilters. It is also offering the services of its creative partners to help brands build snap ads, including new formats like “expandable” snap ads.

The Snapchat advertising revolution underscores that advertising is becoming content and brands are creating content in the hope that it will get shared, maybe even go viral, which in turn makes the brand relevant by association.

Authenticity: Advertising’s secret sauce (and Achilles’ heel)

No segment of the population values authenticity more than millennials. This presents a challenge to brands because millennials perceive ads as unauthentic.

Forbes conducted a study with Elite Daily, which revealed that just 1 percent of millennials say a compelling advertisement would make them trust a brand more. They believe that advertising is all spin, so they ignore ads completely.

Some brands try to fabricate authenticity by paying “influencers” to feature their products in ways that seem natural.

Chiara Ferragni, the woman behind wildly popular fashion blog The Blonde Salad, formed partnerships with Burberry and Dior.

Famed food blogger Joy Wilson (a.k.a. Joy the Baker) published a post on how to make buttermilk biscuits in conjunction with Land O Lakes European Style Super Premium Butter, using the product in her recipe.

While this strategy may seem to work out well for brands and influencers, many consumers see through it. They are the latest incarnation of celebrity endorsements, and their luster is beginning to fade. In fact, according to a recent survey by Collective Bias, 70 percent of 18- through-34-year-olds prefer peer endorsements over celebrity endorsement, the former of which is perceived as true and valid versus fake and manufactured. It is clear that Joy the Baker is being paid to feature Land O Lakes, which makes the reader doubt whether the butter, is in fact, “fantastic.”

Fabricating authenticity?

Advertisers face a Catch-22: Authenticity is clearly driving millennials’ purchases and loyalty to brands, but it’s not exactly something that can be manufactured. When brands try, there’s a high chance that it will come off forced and inauthentic, which drives millennials away for good.

Take Mountain Dew’s “twerking” commercial. Twerking may have emerged as a viral internet phenomenon, but Mountain Dew didn’t win any points for its bizarre ads with inanimate objects twerking in a basement. Or Dunkin Donuts’ attempt to leverage the hashtag and Generation Z slang with #BreakfastWhenevs”–not only are consumers unlikely to share these ads, but they can have a negative impact on the brand.

The key to creating a successful ad campaign in today’s world lies in a brand’s ability to offer an experience that users genuinely want to engage with and share. This content is not heavy-handed or overtly promotional, and many of the best, most successful examples are emerging in mobile ad campaigns on Snapchat, which has pioneered what has been called “crowd-distributed advertising.”

Gatorade created an interactive Snapchat filter during the Super Bowl that let users take a “Gatorade shower” by pouring a virtual Gatorade cooler over other people’s snaps. The campaign generated an astounding 160 million impressions, more than the 115 million people who tuned into the game.

Why? Because users chose to share the brand instead of being paid to do it. The filter was, quite simply, fun and social. It reflected an understanding of who the users are and what they like, and in the process showcased Snapchat as a platform for brands to reach new audiences. It also enabled users to participate in an iconic Super Bowl moment using their mobile device.

The World Wildlife Fund is another example. The nonprofit waged the #LastSelife campaign in order to raise awareness about animal populations at risk of extinction. The idea was to leverage the ephemerality of Snapchats as a way to emphasize the fact that species are disappearing. Moreover, the animal images tugged at the heartstrings, an effect that was heightened when the image disappeared. The combination of emotion and millennials’ interest in social causes packed a powerful punch.

Brands are also using Snapchat in innovative ways to engage users with exclusive content. Heineken sponsored a stage at Coachella and used Snapchat to send people clues about surprise shows during the festival. Users who responded quickly with the right band or artist got an early confirmation of the act on their smartphones. Again, this campaign was not overtly promotional and imparted real value to users. Festival goers were motivated to engage with Heineken because they got something they cared about in return.

All of the examples of successes and failures outlined above demonstrate the importance of authenticity, as well as of providing value. If you are going to interrupt someone as they browse on social media or read a news article, then it better be for good reason.

Millennials are not going to engage with content for the sake of engaging with content. There has to be a point. They have to find the content funny or poignant, or gain something from interacting with it. They are less interested in being passive consumers than they are in being active participants, and Snapchat provides an invaluable opportunity for brands to begin building a two-way relationship

If you are able to create something people love, like Gatorade did, you’ll knock it out of the park. If not, your ad campaign may end up being unwelcome and invisible.

Ragnar Kruse is the founder and CEO of mobile ad platform Smaato.