Are brands not ready for Snapchat, or vice versa?

Experts see problems ahead for brand advertising, but opportunities too

If all you read is the tech press, you might think that advertisers are dying to get in on the world’s hottest social network. One hundred million highly engaged users who watch 7 billion video clips every day? What marketer wouldn’t want a piece?

Yet in spite of all the hype around Snapchat — and all the investor cash being thrown at it ($1.2 billion at last count) — Canadian advertisers have been hesitant, if not downright disinterested, in the platform. A few brands like Tresemmé, Air Canada and Ford (all clients of Mindshare) have started experimenting, but we’ve not seen anything on the scale of U.S. early adopters like Taco Bell or Sour Patch Kids.

It’s no secret Canadian brands tend to be slower to accept new technology. Smaller budgets mean Canadian marketers are more ROI-sensitive, and they tend to need a higher level of proof to make a commitment. So is that what’s happening here? Are Canadian brands just showing their habitual caution? The sheer size of the commitment required from Snapchat sure makes it seem that way. As of last January, the company was reportedly asking for a $750,000-per-day minimum spend for its ads, way out of the ballpark for a lot of Canadian clients.

Marketing took the question to the experts, and the consensus was that in this case, it’s more about the platform than the adopters. Snapchat still has a lot of work to do to be a viable advertising channel, the experts said, and reports that it’s ready to steal ad dollars away from Facebook are mostly bluster.

Canadian marketers have proven themselves capable of transitioning to newer social networks such as Instagram and Pinterest. But the distance from Facebook to Instagram is a lot shorter than that between, say, Instagram and Snapchat. Snapchat just isn’t like other social networks, and there’s a whole new lexicon to get familiar with before brands can feel comfortable taking up residence there.

Perhaps most daunting to brands is the raw, unfinished feel of snapping. Something like Instagram or Pinterest is a natural fit for advertisers, who by and large prefer to present a polished, professional brand image. Snaps, by contrast, are supposed to be silly, slapdash and of-the-moment — a much harder space for brands to interpret themselves in. Snaps are, in part, a rejection of what many users have come to see as a false authenticity to platforms like Instagram, where a 10-second selfie can take an hour to get right.

That level of exposure can be very scary for brands, said content marketer Peter Coish, founder of Kuration. “Every brand has to choose carefully. They have to reflect on who they are and what their personality is, so it doesn’t come off as contrived,” he said. “Kids can spot that from a mile away — just look at what happened to Stephen Harper on Instagram. You don’t want to be Stephen Harper on Snapchat.”

Statistically speaking, marketers and agency strategists aren’t likely to be using Snapchat themselves. The median age of on the platform is 18. “A common objection, at least for the brands I work with, is Snapchat skews a lot younger,” said Sonia Gorczynski, digital strategist at Touché. Although the audience is large, it’s still fairly narrow and it’s hard to picture a big auto brand or a bank investing in.

“I think that’s creating a block for advertisers,” Gorczynski says, adding that it’s a common complaint for newer platforms that haven’t seen cross-generational adoption yet.

There aren’t a lot of obvious places for brands to insert themselves on Snapchat. Brand opportunities have mainly focused on the relatively new Discover channel, where publishers create and share content. But Discover is much more out of the way than Facebook’s newsfeed or Twitter’s homefeed.

“I can live in Snapchat and never go to the Discover content,” explained David Jones, founder of Social Lab. “I can use the device for what it was intended, and the other stuff is just over there. It’s cool, there’s some good stuff there, but I don’t think that’s the reason that most people go to Snapchat.”

In Jones’ thinking, the obvious next move for Snapchat is to insert skippable promoted snaps into user stories, since that’s where brands can best take advantage. But that might prove too intrusive for Snapchat. It’s a much more intimate experience than the noisy community hub of Facebook.

Without an easy, public place to broadcast themselves, promoting brands on Snapchat and building up follower counts can be very difficult. “It’s so hard to find anything on the platform, other than just connecting to your friends,” said Jones. “You can’t just type in a brand name and look for suggestions, unless their brand is exactly their name on Snapchat, which isn’t always the case.” Ironically, some brands have found the easiest way to build an audience on Snapchat is to share their snapcode on Twitter and Facebook.

Snapchat doesn’t provide much in the way of tools for ad targeting and measurement yet, either. Country-level geo-fencing was recently added so that brands could target only users in Canada. But age, gender and demographic targeting are still absent. Although there are third-party analytics vendors, Snapchat’s onboard tools for measuring campaigns are pretty limited. As recently reported by The Wall Street Journal, in some cases influencers that work with brands are having to email screenshots of how much traffic their posts are getting.

That could be about to change. Snapchat is reportedly working on an API (application programming interface) that will allow marketers and outside vendors to plug their own software into the platform to collect data on campaign performance.

Releasing an API is a big step on the road to maturity for any social platform, and if the reports are accurate, then Snapchat is getting ready to do it much earlier than predecessors like Instagram. According to Re/code, Snapchat may be looking to bootstrap development of its API by acquiring an ad tech company with automated sales and audience targeting technology. If all goes according to plan, Snapchat could have a scalable brand platform up and running by the end of this quarter.

Damien Lemaître, vice-president of media at Isobar, predicts that six months from now, once the API is published and Snapchat has refined its ad strategy, Canadian brands will be on the platform in full force. “It’s crazy how fast it’s developing,” he said.

Though he has his qualms with the service (many of them shared above by other experts), the few Snapchat campaigns Isobar has run have seen engagement rates and cost-per-completed-view metrics blow other platforms out of the water. As on YouTube, Snapchatters have the option to skip branded video, but they generally don’t, Jones said. Not if the content is relevant.

Snapchat has to contend with a lot of challenges that predecessors like Facebook and Twitter didn’t, like social media fragmentation. It’s competing not only with the established players but against upstart rivals like Periscope and Kik.

But it’s also got a big advantage in that it’s following a social media playbook that’s already been written.

“Snapchat is benefitting from the early social media players in the industry, and trying to duplicate all these efforts very quickly,” Lemaître says. “We need to be patient in Canada.”

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