Millennials Captured Through a Different Lens

Chicago Tribune, Blue Sky photos

They’re cashed up, cynical and oh so media savvy, and advertisers want nothing more than to capture their hearts. One powerful social media icon has found a way, with Snapchat Lenses.

Snapchat burst onto the social media scene in 2011, enticing users with the ability to share photos and videos that self-destruct after just 10 seconds. The company rapidly achieved fame as its disappearing images lent a thrilling layer of anonymity to the constantly photographed millennial generation.

Since then, the platform has grown exponentially, and the 2017 Initial Public Offering of parent company, Snap Inc., saw the self-professed “camera company” valued at $19 — $22 billion. Since then, Snapchat has been striving to justify this valuation through increased profits and earning potential.

With 158 million daily active users creating 2.5 billion snaps daily, Snapchat’s greatest asset is its advertising reach, particularly because its most engaged users fall into the desirable millennial demographic, of roughly 13 to 35 years.

Snapchat has been quick to monetize its success, offering revolutionary, big-budget advertising options to some of the best known brands in the world — including 20th Century Fox, Taco Bell, and L’Oréal Paris — in the form of Snapchat Lenses.

In a clever application of the transience that characterizes the Snapchat brand, Snapchat Lenses are highly interactive filters that superimpose graphics over users’ photos. No doubt you’re familiar with the ubiquitous rainbow-puking unicorn and licking brown dog.

Users predominantly apply these filters to selfies, taken with their phones’ front-facing cameras. Lenses fit themselves to a user’s face, triggering animation when the user follows a prompt such as “open your mouth” or “raise your eyebrows.”

Because of their interactivity, they represent not just animation, but augmented reality — a concept that other social media platforms are only starting to experiment with recently.
TechCrunch — Rainbow-puking Snapchat Lens

The company offers a range of free lenses to users, with around a dozen lenses available at any time. Some are almost always available (like the dog), and some increase their value by popping up only occasionally (like the noir-style detective).

Most critically for advertisers, Snapchat offers branded lenses, and Snapchat’s developers work intensively with advertisers to make sure that these branded lenses are fun, interactive, and on message. Reportedly, branded lenses receive the full service from Snapchat’s creative developers, and each takes around six weeks to develop.

A branded lens will cost you a cool $450,000 — much more on special days, such as holidays — and if the price tag doesn’t put you off, it’s worth bearing in mind that branded lens campaigns are only available nationally.

The pivotal factor in the success of advertising with lenses is that each lens lasts only 24 hours. For Snapchat, the strictly limited availability of branded lenses ensures these campaigns don’t compromise the Snapchat brand — and in fact augment it through playing on the impermanence that underpins the company’s message. For advertisers, the appeal is even more striking. Besides adding a unique way for potential customers to engage with a product, the fleeting nature of each lens-based promotion lends the release of the lens itself the air of a special event.

When applied to events such as the Super Bowl, Snapchat claims that its real-time social media marketing promises to give audiences direct access and an authentic view of live events and launches.

And it is belonging and authenticity that millennials crave above all else.

Leading brands have been quick to capitalize on the unique success of this advertising platform. Sports drink company, Gatorade, pushed it over the goal line with its sponsored 2016 Super Bowl lens. The lens mimicked the brand’s constructed tradition of the Super Bowl Dunk, in which the sports drink is poured over the winning coach’s head. While experiencing this iconic celebratory act had formerly been restricted to a few lucky, and sticky, coaches, the groundbreaking lens featured a variety of Gatorade colors being poured over the user. The 24-hour campaign attracted 160 million views on Snapchat — 45 million more than those who tuned into the game itself — and went on to create waves across social media platforms as users shared photos and videos.

SnapAd — Gatorade Sponsored Lens

While Gatorade’s effort was unarguably the most colorful application of a lens, you don’t have to look far to see other big-name applications of the advertising strategy.

  • 20th Century Fox was the first brand to sponsor a Snapchat lens during Halloween 2015, promoting its new Peanuts movie, at a reported cost of $750,000. Six additional studios soon took up the challenge, sponsoring summer blockbusters aimed at millennials such as Finding Dory.
  • With their 2016 Cinco de Mayo lens, Taco Bell beat previous records for sponsored lens metrics, with 224 million views over the 24-hour period of its campaign. The lens was supremely silly while keeping the branding (fairly) subtle, turning user’s heads into tacos while playing the company’s signature “bell” sound. The average user interacted with the Taco Bell lens on their own for quite some time before snapping a photo or video and sending it to their friends. According to Snapchat, this added up to an astounding 12.5 years of play in just one day.
  • Since then, beauty brands L’Oréal Paris, Benefit Cosmetics and Urban Decay have sponsored lenses that apply makeup to users’ pics, and luxury brands such as Michael Kors have also entered the game. Michael Kors sponsored a lens on National Sunglasses Day 2016 that allowed users to try on a pair of the designer’s glasses while transporting them to exotic locations, including the beach and a bustling city. Snapchat reported the Michael Kors lens resulted in an 18% increase in ad awareness and a 12.5% lift in sunglass preference for the brand.

Most recently, 20th Century Fox enacted the first lens “takeover” where all available lenses were sponsored on campaign day, and none of Snapchat’s regular lenses or any other sponsored lenses were available for the day. The campaign — rumored to cost upwards of 7 figures — gave users the choice of becoming nine different X-Men: Apocalypse characters ahead of the movie’s release. According to Snapchat, users played with the lenses for an average of 109 seconds, and their intention to see the movie in the theater was increased by 25%.

Snapchat’s X-Men Filters — Jason Lederman

Snapchat Lenses are eminently accessible. They’re compatible with most Android and iOS devices, and they’re easy to use. Users simply hold their phones as if preparing to take a selfie, then tap and hold the screen until a mesh appears on screen, mapping their face. A row of lenses will appear beside the capture button, and with a tap these can be activated. If a sponsored lens is available it will be the first in line. So, why do they work?

The antithesis of traditional advertising, Snapchat Lenses are frivolous, require no labor or emotional investment from the user and, like everything associated with the Snapchat brand, are gone in a flash. And this is their ultimate power.

Undoubtedly, their brevity appeals to millennials, who’ve grown up in a truly post-modern world, where nothing is permanent, and little is even real. The utter impermanence of these lenses — available only 24 hours, with which users play for well under two minutes — could be the key to their success.

Snapchat itself admits facing “significant competition” in many aspects of its business, and Facebook-owned Instagram Stories is a key contender here, with 200 million users daily, versus the 158 million who access the Snapchat app every day. Yet the essence of the Snapchat brand is its elusiveness. While Instagram Stories mimic this by having their Stories disappear after 24 hours, without Snapchat’s ephemeral branding this temporality appears oddly misplaced, even hollow, as social media platforms face down criticism over retention of users’ data and the online availability of personal information.

Snapchat recognizes that its users’ lives are mediated by cameras in an unprecedented way. For millennials, whose entire lives are digitized, and about whom nothing is secret or sacred, it is perhaps the essence of the disappearing brand, rather than the act of disappearing itself, that fosters allegiance.

Another factor holding Snapchat apart is that, unlike Facebook and Instagram, Snapchat’s users access the site solely via mobile, an influential factor in its success with the younger demographic. In fact, younger Snapchat users identify the app as a means of communicating with their peers, reserving other social media platforms for messaging “adults”.

Source: ALPHR

Since their introduction in 2015, Snapchat Lenses have proven that, as users play with their lenses, sending their photos and videos to friends, viral marketing principles are invoked, leading to positive brand association and increased awareness. The Snapchat app currently has 301 million monthly users watching 10 billion user-generated videos daily. Crucially, 63% of these users are aged 13–24. While these figures are indeed impressive, the power of Snapchat Lenses is not how many plays a lens itself receives, but how many times the content created by a Snapchat lens-user is viewed.

The viral capacity of lenses is staggering, with secondary views of a single sponsored lens potentially reaching the tens of billions.

Millennials are smart. They know they are being courted by every big brand and they understand why but, like all of us, they long to be a part of something bigger than themselves, and they want to take charge.

Viral marketing depends on the power of early adopters and influential peers. By limiting the availability of lens campaigns to 24 hours, everyone who shares a photo or video of themselves is an early adopter, and the earlier after the release of the lens a selfie is shared, the more influential a user is in propagating its use.


Then, maybe it is the pull of an augmented reality that is so attractive. Through its lenses, Snapchat has harnessed the power of AR-driven viral marketing to the millennial generation, who won’t be sold to or told, and whose reality is already augmented in so many ways. Lenses offer millennials the power of co-creation, a sense of control. The playful, low tech appearance of most lenses lends power to this myth, in much the same way that the uncomplicated, home-recorded sound of hip-hop fosters loyalty in music fans and would-be stars. And the approach works. Snapchat’s user base has exhibited a strong investment in the brand, with 60% of users creating content daily.

Snapchat Introducing 3D Real World Lenses

In April, Snapchat released Real World Lenses, which enable users to overlay three dimensional images into scenes taken with their phones’ rear cameras. These 3D lenses are spatially aware, augmenting reality in the groundbreaking way the Pokémon Go game did in 2016, and allow users to place objects into their own environments, for example by planting flowers and watching them grow over a landscape of their choice.

Sony Pictures’ Ghostbusters promotion was the first campaign to apply lenses to pictures taken with both a phone’s front- and rear-facing cameras. The lens produced three dimensional images of the film’s character Slimer, and allowed users to shoot him with a proton pack, while being “slimed” to the iconic Ghostbusters tune.

Watching videos of Snapchat users posing against impossible landscapes and warping their faces, brings to mind a bevy of dystopian Barbie dolls. Back in the ’50s, when marketers could sell anything — even cigarettes — with the authoritative phrase “doctors recommend”, kids began to play with Barbie. Back then it was enough to dress the doll and pose her in the lavish surroundings of her mansion. Over the years, marketing has shifted the nature of play, in good ways and bad. Now the user is the doll, with some compelling and disturbing results — take a look at plastic surgery apps such as Plastic Surgery Simulator, for example. Millennial “dolls” are still draped across exotic landscapes, still chasing an idealized appearance, but instead of dreaming of becoming impossibly thin, these users are morphing into unicorns, puppies… and tacos.

In a cynical, monetized world, the sheer innocence of playing at being turned into a puppy is startling.

Whatever the reason, Snapchat’s lenses are big business. For large brands with vast financial and creative resources, a Snapchat lens campaign is a cutting-edge way to increase brand awareness nationally and promote a product, and a cleverly interactive way to engage the millennial crowd.

So, if you find yourself sitting at work, secretly eyeing your phone with a taco on your head, you’re not alone.


Even if your business can’t invest in Snapchat advertising, keeping up an active presence on the platform is an inexpensive way to reach potential clients or customers, and show the world what you have to offer. If you’re a digital marketer, and you want to master social media marketing, feel free to download our 28 proven Social Media Marketing tips for 2017.