They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. For the past couple of years, Facebook and Instagram’s product teams have relentlessly chipped away at Snapchat, copying features like stories, stickers and lenses to appeal to teens and younger users to its platforms. But with stalling growth and growing pressure from investors, Snapchat is now the one stealing … sorry, borrowing from Facebook.
On Wednesday, Snapchat finally unveiled a look at its new major redesign, which separates friends’ posts from the polished Discover content that publishers like CNN, BuzzFeed and Hearst crank out daily when users open the app. More interestingly though, an algorithm will surface content based on what Snaps someone opens and the content that they look at—just like how Facebook’s curation tools determine the order of how posts are slotted into a newsfeed.
In an op-ed letter on Axios, CEO and co-founder Evan Spiegel described the forthcoming algorithm as more akin to Netflix’s recommendation engine than Facebook and other newsfeeds. Spiegel first announced the algorithm on Snap’s recent earnings call to offset analysts’ persistent concerns that the app is not growing as quickly as they would like, particularly in comparison to Facebook.
“The Snapchat solution is to rely on algorithms based on your interests—not on the interests of ‘friends’—and to make sure media companies also profit off the content they produce for our Discover platform,” he wrote. “We think this helps guard against fake news and mindless scrambles for friends or unworthy distractions.”
Still, Snapchat is clearly taking a page from Facebook’s newsfeed—which has made the company hundreds of millions—to draw more users to the platform. Some experts question how much the changes will scare off Snapchat’s core group of loyal users.
“They can’t appeal to investors without appealing to users, so Snap has to remain popular with the install base—all social platforms function on algorithms,” said Rebecca Lieb, an analyst and co-founder at Kaleido Insights. “This is very analogous to the TV being invented but the 30-minute sitcom didn’t come along until decades later. The medium and then the right packaging of the right sorts of content for that medium are not necessarily born simultaneously.”
As Twitter has shown, the results from algorithms can be promising. Also faced with stalling growth, the micro-blogging site rolled out an algorithm last year. Twitter added 2 million monthly active users during the fourth quarter while daily active users grew 11 percent.
Similar to how marketers cracked Facebook’s newsfeed 10 years ago, “marketers and advertisers are going to have to earn their place in the feed by creating and sharing better content that’s more compelling,” she added.
The verdict is still out on whether an algorithm will boost Snapchat’s users, but Sherwin Su, social activation director at Essence, said that he’s looking for growth in two numbers: Time spent and retention rate. Both those metrics are key in helping Snapchat win over the hundreds of smaller advertisers and businesses that Snap has aggressively targeted over the past year with retargeting, a self-serve platform and new analytic tools.
“We’ll be looking into ‘are we scaling the reach because of this redesign, that we equate to more attention with the platform?’” he said. “The behavior that people take on the platform will equate to certain types of mindsets.”
According to Su, Snapchat is still best for splashy branding campaigns that attract advertisers like movie studios and other big-spending clients, meaning that Snap still has a ways to go in catching up to Facebook’s more than 5 million advertisers that are primarily made up of smaller businesses.
“They are definitely still at the infancy stage when it comes to their direct-response capabilities,” Su said.
Going forward, Snapchat needs to continue to pick away at more of Facebook’s features to build a bona fide social platform and prove that it’s not a flash in the pan.
In tech, it’s often better to build than to borrow. Even though Facebook borrows, sorry, steals from Snap, they still own their key technology.
Which path will Snap take?