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Snapchat: How I learned to stop worrying and love it

by Jim Louderback | March 22, 2015March 22, 2015 6:00 am PDT

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I’m fascinated by Snapchat, the social network where private and public posts last for just 24 hours before disappearing. Back in December I had a feeling it would become the next great media platform. But since I’m not 15, I just didn’t understand the service at all. In fact most 15 year olds would argue that it already was the “IT” platform.

Then in late January the company launched “Discover” with 11 media partners and my hunch became more real. So I decided it was time to learn this strange service – and I did it the only way I knew how. By becoming one with it.

February was my month of Snapchat. I connected with as many friends as I could – no small feat, given the difficulty to actually find those friends inside the service. I enlisted the help of a few guides who were already deep into the service – my 15 year old son, his 20 year old cousin, and a YouTube influencer I respected, Olga Kay.

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And by enlisted, I mean I followed them. Luckily they all opted to let me into their Snapchat channels and stories.

Those stories are the heart of Snapchat as a media platform. Sure you can do one-to-one chats on the service, but it’s through the one-to-many features of “Stories” that Snapchat gains its true power. Here’s how it works: You first snap a picture, or a video up to 9 seconds in length. You can then annotate those pictures with text, funny keyboard images, or hand-drawn scribbles. Once you’re happy, simply post that “snap” to your “My Story” channel. Then, for the next 24 hours any of your friends – or if you wish, anyone on the service – can watch your little creation.

The true power, though, comes from building a series of snaps into a story. You can do this yourself, layering multiple photo and video snaps together to create a narrative. And Snapchat and others are building more expansive “Story” channels that combine snaps from multiple users to tell a broader story. As I write this, the editors at Snapchat are pulling together the best St. Patricks Day snaps, along with another focusing on “LA Life”. Spring Break, NY’s Snowmagedden, and many other temporal events have been curated into their own “Stories” by the Snapchat team. And now others are getting in on the act.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. So in February I decided to create a daily “Story” of some sort. It wasn’t easy. As a long-time content creator in print, video and radio I was convinced that every little thing I did was magic – and it deserved to live FOREVER. I couldn’t imagine working in a medium where everything vanished after a day. My stuff is so great, it deserves to LIVE UNTIL TIME ITSELF STOPS!

But I gritted my teeth and decided to give it a go. “What content”, I thought, “was so ephemeral that you’d only want to watch it the day its created?” Weather Reports! So I decided to become the Snapchat weatherman for one of my favorite spots – the new Devils Slide Hiking trail on the California coast just south of my house in Pacifica.

So each day I’d trudge up the trail and stop and do a short, 9 second weather report. As I got going, I’d start layering in additional snaps when cool things happened. One day, for instance, I saw two peregrine falcons mating. I couldn’t get a great picture of it – but after annotating the snap with words and circle, I added them to My Story. “The Devils Slide Weather Report” was becoming a thing.

And as I got better at learning Snapchat, I expanded my story arcs. I went to the San Francisco Ferry Building one day in mid-February, and crafted a culinary tour-de-force of me walking through the building, buying amazing cheese and bread, and ultimately stopping to ogle the white truffles from Italy.

And I began to realize that vanishing media had a power all its own. I became less interested in crafting the perfect snap, and more interested in building a flow. And I realized that permanent media, in fact, is a pretty new development. Heck, before the printing press almost everything was ephemeral. And in the early days of TV nothing was recorded. And before podcasting even most radio shows were in the ether and gone.

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And then I stumbled upon the true power of Snapchat’s media potential. It’s addicting – in a good way. Think about it: the holy grail for a media property is to so enchant a reader or viewer that they fall deeply in love with your content – and have to get their fix every day. Websites even have a metric that tracks that – “Visits per User per Month”. If you’re a fan of a particular snapchatter (snapper?) you are absolutely, 100% compelled to come check out what they are doing EVERY DAY. Because if you don’t, you’re going to miss something. FOMO sits at the center of the experience. This transient nature of Snapchat makes it among the most powerful of any media platforms.

And now there are real businesses being built on SnapChat as well. A few days ago I caught up with Dan Altmann, founder of startup Narativ. We’d initially gotten to know each other in the early stages of his startup, when he was building an awards platform for video creators. But he’s spent the last six months pivoting – and is now running the first MCN/Influencer network on the Snapchat platform.

He’s got something going. Narativ has signed up over 100 Snapchatters, and its numbers are incredible. These creators deliver between 100,000 to 40 million views a day on their stories. And the view-through ratios are incredible too. For example, Narativ has been working with ABC Family to develop a channel around its show “Pretty Little Liars”. According to Dan, The PLL channel has 600,000 followers, and drives nearly that many views every day the show is on – the open rate approaches 100%!

Sure, Snapchat is used for a variety of distasteful purposes. Teens use it to share provocative images with friends, and a newly divorced pal of mine explained how cheating middle-aged spouses use it to arrange trysts with their lovers. But it’s much more than a sneaky way to hide your tracks. Clearly big venture firms think something’s happening here, as the company is raising money at valuations as high as 19 billion dollars.

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It’s not perfect. The product could use some help, as its one of the less intuitive apps amongst its cohorts. The camera functionality is rudimentary at best. And a recent outflow of top executives seems to point to some upheaval in the ranks. The “story” mechanism is interesting, but there’s no backchannel to build community and conversation.

But those are just growing pains. There’s clearly an audience, there’s definitely engagement, and a ton of great (and not so great) media is being created and consumed every day. Count me as a fan – and you should be too.

If you want to see my weather report – and other random stories – on Snapchat, just snap my unique identifier below – and I’ll see you inside the future of media.

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Jim Louderback

Jim Louderback joined Revision3 as the CEO in July 2007, and guided the company to a 20-fold increase in viewers, a 12x increase in revenue, 39 new...

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