A Motion Designer’s Guide to Snapchat Discover

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When I first agreed to design motion graphics for a client’s Snapchat Discover channel, I did what any other designer confronted with an unfamiliar platform would do: I ctrl-T’d a new Chrome tab and typed out the following:

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Besides one marketing blog peddling its geofilter monetization, a handful of designer portfolios, and Snap’s official “Creative Best Practices for Advertisers” webpage (my client was not an advertiser), I couldn’t find any results relating Snapchat to graphic design or animation.

Clearly there were other designers working with Snapchat Discover. The app’s curated and branded “right-half” has existed since 2015 and is filled with content from world-class publishers like the New York Times (edit: as of 2019 the NYT has discontinued their Snapchat Publisher channel), Vice, and BuzzFeed. You’re telling me that none of the professional designers hired by these publishers were sharing their thoughts online?

Call us lazy and unoriginal, but designers (at least the designers I know) love stealing each other’s work. We’re practically a profession trained by YouTube tutorials and Dribble buckets, so it makes sense that vicarious education and work-sharing is so ubiquitous. Considering the prevalence of Snapchat, as well as the uniqueness of its vertically-oriented linear video content (less unique now that Instagram offers the same features and is slowly (arguably) killing Snapchat as a social media platform altogether), I was surprised to find practically no relevant discussion of Snapchat and its relation to motion design. But after a few months of trial and error, and thanks to a client who valued experimentation as much as data-driven design, I think I have developed a solid understanding of this platform and am happy to share my design tips for making the most of Snapchat’s 10-second micro-videos.


Faces, Micro-Impressions & Visual Simplicity

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A collection of tiles I designed for Wave TV

The tile is the gatekeeper to your story’s success, because no matter how engaging and thought-out your slides are, they will remain unseen unless people actually tap into your story. (Some viewers may auto-advance, but you shouldn’t rely on this viewership, as their click-away rate tends to be significantly higher.) Give Snapchatters a reason to watch your story, and do it quickly. An important concept here is the micro-impression. Basically, the rate at which users scroll through their Discover feed does not allow time for careful sensory intake. Your tile needs to grab their attention the way a stop sign or a billboard would. A loud, simplistic visual centerpiece is the calling card of a successful tile. If your tile is complex and has more than one or two visual elements, then its chances of an impactful micro-impression decrease dramatically. Faces (especially recognizable faces, i.e. celebrities) work well in tiles, because users are predisposed to seek out recognizable people on social media.

A couple of thoughts regarding “clickbait”…

Discover’s tile-system has been criticized for pressuring publishers into attention-grabbing methods that would normally be considered “clickbait.” These criticisms are definitely fair, but Snapchat recently implemented guidelines to inhibit the more dishonest forms of clickbait. In my opinion, clickbait can be an art unto itself, and your audience will respond well to an eye-catching, but honest tile.

PRO TIP: Take advantage of Snapchat’s “Tile Optimizer” feature, which allows you to upload up to four distinct tiles for every story. Snap’s algorithm will automatically test each tile on an initial sample audience, producing a leaderboard that you can review and use to design better tiles down the road.

(#2) SLIDES (aka “TOPSNAPS”)

The Power of Linear Storytelling

Snapchat Discover is — first and foremost — a linear platform. A user taps into a story, is directed to the first slide or topsnap of said story, and then may choose to either tap through the remaining slides or simply swipe the story away. (Tapping backwards is also possible.) Logistically-speaking, each topsnap is an independent, looping vertical video with a maximum single-run length of 10s and an aspect ratio of 1080x1920, but from a storytelling perspective, a topsnap should never be considered in isolation. Each video-slide is one piece in your narrative puzzle, and it needs to fit neatly into the following, as well as preceding slides. The best Snapchat stories build up to a crescendo, gradually (and sometimes suddenly) revealing the narrative as the user taps through each consecutive slide. A slide’s aesthetic should parallel this narrative development, introducing new visual elements sparingly and with purpose.

How to start your story…

As with any piece of design, a user’s first impression can make or break a Snapchat story. In general, there are two approaches to a successful opener. The first should be relatively apparent, and could be termed the “Story-First” approach. The idea here is that most Snapchatters tap into your story because they are interested in the content hinted at by your tile. If the first slide is something unrelated to the core story, then users may feel misled and decide to swipe away. Story-First is a relatively safe approach to opening slides, but a popular alternative is to lead with a highly-shareable and potentially viral piece of content (e.g. a meme). This approach can pay off big time if the viral content was well-chosen, as users will share the first slide, boosting the story’s performance early on.

PRO TIP: Every slide should be designed to help the viewer locate themselves within the story’s linear space. Implementing simple graphic counters and/or slide numbers is one intuitive solution.

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Square counters used by Complex and circle counters used by Vulture help place the slide within the encompassing story.


Social Media & the “Fourth Wall”

Silicon Valley zealots love preaching the interactive potential of new media platforms, and to some degree, I share their excitement. Social media has given viewers an unprecedented ability to engage with content. In particular, Snapchat Discover offers a variety of unique tools for encouraging the active viewer:

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Attachment Options, as of April 2019

These slide attachments can add a subtle 3rd-dimension to a normally linear story, as the user must swipe up on a particular slide to reveal the extra content. Since Snapchat Discover doesn’t allow comments, attachments are your best chance at engaging directly with viewers, hearing their opinions, and even testing them.

Getting viewers to swipe up…

Perhaps the greatest design challenge associated with slide attachments is getting viewers to actually notice them. By default, once an attachment is added to a slide, Snap overlays a small arrow/text sticker at the bottom of the user’s screen. (See example below.) The overlay is pretty minimal, leaving plenty of room for a well-designed graphic to guide the viewer’s eye. Most commonly, this graphic borrows a handle or pull-tab look common to UI design. A simple animated shape lifted by a drop-shadow is the standard, but feel free to get more creative. Just don’t forget to take into account the default text/arrow combo that will end up sitting on top of your design.

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“READ” Overlay with swipe-up graphic (credit: Complex)

(#4) SOUND

The “Silence-First” Approach

When designing mobile-friendly video, here’s a safe assumption you need to consider: 50 to 80 percent of your viewers do not have their sound on. I don’t know the official figure for Snapchat, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were on the high end. For a motion designer who loves pacing animation to a slick music bed, this can take some adjusting. Music and the occasional sound effect shouldn’t be neglected, but relying too heavily on audio for effective motion design can be counter-productive when a majority of your audience is effectively deaf. My advice is simple: either animate before adding music or—while you’re animating—periodically mute any audio tracks to see if your pacing still makes sense. Your graphics and their movement should have an independent rhythm that progresses smoothly without the need for auditory cues.

If spoken dialogue is essential to your story, then you need to include captions. If the audio is itself relevant (e.g. a funny animal noise), then I’d recommend including some sort of graphic that tells the viewer “Hey! Turn your audio on! You’re gonna wanna hear this...” (An animated speaker icon usually does the trick.)

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The ubiquitous speaker icon (credit: WorldStarHipHop)


How to Make Your .PNG’s Breathe

One of Snapchat’s greatest advantages over traditional news media is the ability to give normally static elements a burst of animated life. Text can write itself, backgrounds can wiggle and loop, and even still images can learn to walk via subtle “Ken Burns”-esque zooms and pans. I like to imagine Snapchat as if it were a newspaper from Harry Potter, except instead of a deranged Sirius Black screaming at you, it’s a GIF of Kanye West shaking hands with Donald Trump (equally frightening). My advice: make the most of Snapchat’s magic. Bring your slides to life with GIF’s, videos, type animation, and anything else that would make print media jealous.

How over-animating can hurt your design…

Adding motion to graphic elements is a powerful tool for directing the viewer’s attention, but when applied recklessly, jumbled animations can also confuse the viewer. “Dynamic Contrast” is basically a term I made up for the idea that when everything moves at the same time, visual contrast is diminished, but when only one element moves while others are static (or when the movement of multiple elements is staggered), visual contrast is increased. Use this concept to your advantage, but if you decide to stagger your animations, remember that you only have 10 seconds per slide, and that most of your viewers probably won’t last longer than 3…

PRO TIP: If your slide features video or any other time-based content, then a simple timer graphic informs the viewer that what they are watching is still unfolding. (It’s also an effective way to increase average watch time.)

Vertical timer bar (credit: Wave)


The Metrics That Matter

Let’s talk about money. At the end of the day, free-to-use media platforms like Snapchat Discover, IGTV, Facebook Studio, and YouTube rely almost entirely on ad revenue for their survival. Social media marketing isn’t exactly my area of expertise, but I do know that pricing digital ads is still a notoriously unstandardized process. “One view never equals one view,” is a common adage amongst digital marketers and ad agencies. Luckily for us content-creators, selling ads isn’t our primary concern, and when it comes to analytics, the most relevant numbers are those that teach us about our audience and help rationalize the successes (or failures) of our content. Total views—while a fine measurement of general content popularity—doesn’t reveal much about the effectiveness of your content’s structure, and it certainly doesn’t reveal how viewers engaged with this content. A single view of a single slide for a single second still counts as a “view” in the broadest sense, but that certainly doesn’t imply a healthy story.

Snapchat-specific metrics…

From an analytics perspective, a Snapchat story’s success is heavily based on two fundamental metrics: how many slides a user views, and how long they view them for. From just these two basic metrics, Snap can extrapolate a portfolio’s-worth of useful statistics for advertisers, and this data can likewise help you improve your channel’s content. For the sake of space, I’ll limit my discussion to three such extrapolations (and one additional metric that I find particularly important).

(1) Snap Drop-off Rate

Other than unique views, drop-off rate is generally touted as THE metric that defines a successful story. Snap’s ultimate goal is maximizing user engagement and as a consequence—ad revenue. If a user doesn’t make it past the first slide, this is a clear marker for disinterest, and since ads are only displayed every three slides, this means their view produced a whopping zero ad impressions: two convincing reasons for the Discover algorithm to stop promoting your story. With that said, Snap interprets first slide drop-off rate with a grain of salt... Since so many users auto-advance into stories, the first slide drop-off rate tends to be inflated. (Don’t be shocked if your drop-off is as high as 30–40% starting out.)

(2) Avg. Time Watched

More than perhaps any other metric, watch-time reflects a viewer’s interest in your story. The average Snapchatter has the attention span of a goldfish. This is a generalization, but not of the “lazy Millennials don’t like to read”-type. It’s a matter of practicality: Your viewers are flooded with digital content from the moment they unlock their phones. A “short attention span” is a necessary adaptation for sifting through terabytes of garbage looking for that one article or meme or video that is actually relevant to you. So what makes your Snapchat story relevant? Does it educate viewers and introduce them to new ideas? Tell a trending story from a unique perspective? Or does it list off generic facts without commentary? Grasp for easy laughs by reposting the most popular memes?

Here’s a quote from Snapchat’s official content guidelines that I think is worth taking to heart:

Snapchatters are curious about the world. They want to experience what’s important, not just what’s popular. They want to see new things, hear unique stories from credible voices, and experience varied perspectives.

(3) Share Rate

On Snapchat, measuring “shareability” is as easy as dividing a slide’s unique views by its shares. But what makes a piece of media “viral” is a field of study unto itself. (I mean that literally: The MIT Media Lab has an entire department committed to researching “Viral Communications.”) Every digital content producer, from mega-brands to small-time influencers, would love to know the secret recipe for viral content—The Philosopher’s Stone of social media. I don’t have any magic tips here, but it’s worth mentioning that a shareable Snapchat slide has to stand alone. What I mean by this is, the emotional impact of the slide (be it humor, surprise, or intellectual satisfaction) shouldn’t rely on the preceding or following slides. Memes are an easy example of this, but don’t let that limit your creativity.

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Three examples of shareable slides that are NOT memes (credit: BuzzFeed and MTV)

(4) Subscribe Rate

The dream of any serial creator is to build a loyal following, but keeping your audience happy without diluting your content takes finesse. Comments and DM’s might seem useful, but they can be a double-edged sword, creating more confusion than legitimate feedback. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) Snapchat doesn’t support comments, so if you want a general feel for viewer satisfaction, take a look at your subscriber data. Subscribe rate (unique views divided by subscribers added) implies what proportion of those who saw your story would like to see similar content in the future. Just be careful not to over-interpret this metric, because other factors can also influence how many subscribers were added (e.g. how many viewers actually made it to the end of your story, which is where the option to subscribe is located.)


But Doesn’t Snapchat Suck?

I won’t argue that Snapchat is (or ever will be) the champion of new media publishers. Users despised the Discover section upon its release, and growth has stagnated in all of the app’s core markets since 2018. And as for the quality of Snapchat-hosted content… Well, that’s a discussion for another post. What I will say is that vertical video isn’t going anywhere. And from a creator’s perspective, Snapchat has developed a unique approach to delivering short-form video content while maximizing the potential real-estate of the vertically-oriented mobile screen.

Don’t neglect the power of 191 million active users, the majority of whom are young and hungry for engaging media. Snap is a quick-moving company with a history of rapid innovation. (Who invented the “Story,” after all?) By introducing “Snap Originals,” the company has even established themselves as a production label, à la Netflix. “Bringing Up Bhabie” had 10M unique viewers watching its first episode. “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” attracts around 20% of that figure per episode. Does this sound like a dying platform to you?

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Videomaker, Motion Designer

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