In the week since Snap’s first earnings announcement as a public company, I’ve heard a lot of interesting discussions about the company, the innovator’s dilemma they face, and the future of Snapchat as a viable revenue generating app.
As an individual investor, I believe Snap presents a conundrum. On the one hand, it is one of the largest consumer technology IPOs since Facebook — and who wouldn’t want to own some $FB at the opening price of $38 today? On the other hand, investors interested in this space are also well familiar with the story of Twitter and how slowing user growth and unimpressive revenues have hurt that investment.
Underlying this conundrum is the possible existential threat that Snapchat faces: as Facebook continues to relentlessly copy and implement clones of Snapchat features across all of their properties and billions of users, how does one discern if $SNAP will go the way of the birds (maybe at this point better said the fail whale) or step up to challenge the already proven digital media companies like Facebook and Google? Can investors look at $SNAP as a long term buy?
My initial gut reaction when Facebook began rolling out it’s stragegy of deploying stories across Instagram, Messenger, Facebook and Whatsapp was: this will spell the end for Snapchat in the long term. Beating out a critical mass of 1.8 billion and growing users seems damn near impossible. Moreover Facebook’s ability to manage it’s costs by owning it’s own data centers seems to give it that much more leverage over making their story products profit centers rather than financial handcuffs. However this view of Snap’s immediate woes as a business may be too superficial.
While on the surface it feels like Facebook’s ability to clone Snapchat is as simple as sticking whatever cool new feature Snapchat adds at the top of the newsfeed, I believe this classic case of the innovator’s dilemma might not play out as poorly for Snap as initial signals indicate. To give credit where credit is due, a major part my thinking here is shaped by the argument posted by a16z’s Ben Evans.
It's hard to design products like this with metrics - you don't already know what those products would be and your…ben-evans.com
Here, Evans argues that while the two largest drivers of internet consumption today — Google and Facebook — carry a significant amount of influence over which content we consume on the internet, they do not influence what content is created. Instead they are each an index of the internet; a map that helps guide users through the myriad of content.
You tell Google explicitly what you want and you don’t think you tell Facebook, but actually you’ve spent months and years telling it, through everything you’ve interacted with or ignored. Facebook makes technical, mechanistic judgments about what will be in your newsfeed that are just as bound by things beyond its control — by the internet — as Google’s are. It’s an index of its users.
In contrast, Snapchat is fundamentally about user (and brand) generated creation. Instead of depending on usage data to feed you the content it thinks you want to consume, it asks you to create that content, every time you open the app. What I find interesting in this distinction is that it embodies a fundamentally different kind of social graph that the traditional social network Facebook created.
In Snapchat, less is more. As a starting point, it is a communication platform so rather than getting bombarded by an overgrown (and often irrelevant) graph of acquaintances and interests in your newsfeed, Snapchat users inherently decide with whom and what they want to communicate. Additionally, instead of hiding behind the mask of anonymity while perusing this index of content, Snapchat users have complete ownership over their audience, and creation is done out in the open (users can see who views their story or saves their image). Ironically, for an app that had it’s origins in disappearing messages, one of Snapchat’s biggest competitive advantages might be how freely its users create and consume content.
As a consequence of this shift from a passive to active social graph, the level of engagement of Snapchat users is significantly higher than most comparable social apps. This has big implications for the value of Snapchat users to advertisers and Snap’s ability to monetize us. The intentional nature of engagement on Snapchat (not to mention the skew towards a younger demographic) makes it’s users especially valuable to brands. In the age of cord-cutting and abandonment of traditional live TV watching, one of the most valuable platforms to reach audiences is becoming more and more elusive. Snapchat has the opportunity to capture those marketing dollars, as evidenced by it’s recent deal with network television giants like NBCUniversal, Turner, A+E Networks, Discovery, BBC, ABC, ESPN, Vice Media, Vertical Networks, and the NFL to produce original, Snapchat-native shows.
Snap Inc.'s ambitious effort to create television-like content has old and new media companies alike clamoring to learn…www.wsj.com
If Snap can lead the way to capturing the media minutes consumed by millennials and mobile-first audiences by providing original content, they could continue to pave the way as a first mover in the future of how media is consumed and grab some serious big-dollar brand budgets along the way. One of the biggest questions for Snap in the long term, then, ultimately comes back to scale. Evans summarizes it well again here:
So, one question for Snapchat is whether you can get to a billion users without being an index, no matter how many new things you create? Is the risk not that it gets overtaken by Facebook but that it can’t generalise enough?
If the value of Snapchat’s users is implied by their deep level of engagement, and this engagement stems from a fundamentally different kind of social graph where users engage with actively rather than passively, can this value proposition scale beyond 150 million to billions? Given that the Snapchat graph lacks the same kind of ‘network’ effects Facebook and Twitter see, this could pose a significant challenge. But if they can find a way to capture a significant chunk of the viewership share of users abandoning cable, their prospect of growing into their $25 billion market valuation and beyond does not seem out of the question. While Snap’s substantial amount of operating expenses seem to bode negatively for it’s performance as a public company in the near term, I wouldn’t be surprised if 2–3 years from now many investors are looking at their portfolios wishing they had taken a bigger stake early on.
PS. as a personal appeal to Facebook — look I get it, as a product manager I understand you have have a strategic business desire to crush Snapchat and you’re willing to leverage every one of your users to do so. But 1) if I have never posted a story to my Facebook newsfeed since you released the feature, can you please consider hiding it from my newsfeed all together? And 2) if no one in my network has posted a story, you have to understand that my Mom and Dad are probably the last two people in it who are going to.