If you want to find an example of both the challenges and opportunities present in digital advertising then look no further than Snapchat. The transient messaging app has long been balancing its need for monetization with the satisfaction of its users, an experimental saga that’s seen the company even reverse unpopular decisions. The latest update sees the newly renamed Snap Inc. remove autoplay - a feature that meant users’ stories played one after the other, in chronological order.
Autoplay was a largely unpopular feature when it was rolled out, sparking an online backlash so loud the company must have eventually taken note. The move made sense to the startup. Firstly, it would’ve significantly increased the amount of content users consume on the app, a figure helpful when negotiating with advertisers or investors. Secondly, the feature made keeping up to date with your contacts’ stories more convenient, with just one tap necessary to watch all users’ updates. The idea, then, is that convenience encourages users to watch stories they may otherwise pass by, to engage with content they initially feel they can go without.
The problem with autoplay is that it represents something many marketing departments and digital advertisers have to grapple with: it affects only vanity metrics. As any Snapchat user will know, autoplay essentially just means occasionally watching the stories of users you care about whilst flicking through the ones you don’t. Engagement in stories that users aren’t interested in doesn’t significantly rise. Autoplay can increase the number of views a piece of content put out on Snapchat garners, but will do little to build organic views from loyal brand advocates.
And, ultimately, this is what Snapchat offers. The app’s Discover tab and sponsored filters are the reserve of big brands, with deals worth reported six-figure sums, but if a brand can build up a following then the engagement can be entirely organic. It’s a straight meritocracy in many ways; if a user finds value in the content your brand produces, they’ll watch your stories in future. If they don’t, they won’t. Clocking views as users skip through content to reach the stories they care about will raise the numbers but achieve very little in terms of actual ROI and brand loyalty.
It’s because of this that brands aren’t panicking. ’Our Snapchat views have decreased a bit since the change, but we’re not changing our strategy because engagement actually hasn’t decreased for us,’ one online retailer told Digiday. ‘We’re still seeing the same number of followers who are chatting us directly or taking screenshots of our Snaps.’ Another said: ‘Snapchat is unlike Facebook because it never promises organic reach while Facebook made a big switch on that. If you are looking for valuable engagement, Snapchat is the place to go.’
Venture capitalist Hunter Walk tweeted a 33% loss in his views on the app since the change, and Twitter user Alex Brooks reported that a brand he worked for had seen a 35-40% decline. Any digital marketers that are panicking are missing the point, though. Marketers should focus on building quality campaigns that offer value to the user rather than hoping to interrupt a user’s story feed. As pointed out by Marketing Dive, the removal of autoplay actually suggests that Snap ‘is taking marketing seriously and wants to ensure a quality user experience’ whilst also encouraging engagement with brands. Whether Snap is looking to introduce a pay-for-play model akin to that of Facebook or is just responding to user dissatisfaction over an ill-judged feature, the removal of autoplay doesn’t need panic, just a rethink of the metrics that are important.