Forget Spectacles: As Snap earnings arrive, focus on forced-view ads and that redesign

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An employee holds Snapchat Spectacles by Snap Inc. at the company's pop-up store in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Tuesday, March 14, 2017.
An employee holds Snapchat Spectacles by Snap Inc. at the company's pop-up store in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Tuesday, March 14, 2017. Credit: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

No one will be focused on Snapchat's second-generation video sunglasses when the company reveals quarterly results on Tuesday.

The glasses, known as Spectacles, are mostly a sideshow to what everyone really cares about: Has Snapchat's redesigned app had any impact on usage, and is the ad business still growing?

Last week, Snapchat introduced the new glasses, with sleeker frames and less conspicuous cameras, priced at $150.

"There are too many questions around the core business to even worry about this," says Rich Greenfield, analyst at BTIG, referring to Spectacles. "The real question is, is the Snapchat product getting better or worse? Do users find it better or worse?"

What investors should be looking at is Snapchat's double-take on its redesign, which could be an admission that its original attempt was not so successful.

Snapchat is also making big changes to its ad business, testing forced-view ads that can't be skipped.

On Tuesday, Snapchat is expected to post an estimated $245 million in ad revenue from the first quarter, up from $150 million during last year's first quarter, and report at least 190 million daily users, up from 187 million in the fourth quarter, according to analyst forecasts.

Here's what Snapchat watchers should be looking for to understand that state of the business:

Do glasses matter?

These camera glasses seem like a distraction from the main business, and they've certainly been a drain so far. Last year, Snapchat tallied a $40 million loss on lackluster sales of the product, which is why a number of people are wondering why the company is still in the hardware game.

But Snapchat is investing in a future where advertising doesn't have to be its only path to growth. The company's culture revolves around the idea that CEO Evan Spiegel is a transformational figure, akin to Steve Jobs, and a revolutionary gadget would cement that legacy.

"I'm assuming they genuinely want multiple revenue streams," says Brian Wieser, analyst with Pivotal Research.

So Snapchat doesn't consider Spectacles a side project, and will apparently keep devoting resources to them. The camera glasses can only take videos and photos now, but Snapchat likely envisions a face computer that incorporates all the app's features, like augmented reality and communication.

If Spiegel is right that people will eventually clamor for AR glasses, then he will have defied all the skeptics.

Redesign redesign

Snapchat in the first quarter rolled out a redesign "separating friends from media" that's since become relatively infamous. The app put personal messages on one side of the app, a left swipe from the camera screen, and media on the other side, a swipe to the right.

The new layout was meant to create a dedicated hub for media, under Snapchat's Discover section, where TV networks, studios and publishers create video programs. The new Discover is ruled by an algorithm like the Facebook News Feed and can serve personalized content to people, ideally getting them more hooked on the Snapchat content and showing more ads in the process.

Just three months into the redesign, however, and Snapchat already is testing a new new look that seems to walk back its promise to stop mixing friends and professional media. It is experimenting with putting personal messages on the Discover page—posts like video Stories from friends, which had become harder to find in the initial redesign.

Some analysts consider that an admission the redesign has not worked.

"I have no idea what the product plan is," Greenfield says.

Snapchat, for its part, claims the redesign never fully removed friends Stories from the Discover section, and the new design test just elevates those Stories to a position of greater prominence.

Still, the confusion is there, and only the metrics on daily user activity will tell if Snapchat's changes are working.

Commercials coming

A big change is coming to Snapchat's ad business: forced-view ads.

Earlier this year, AdAge reported Snapchat was considering trying out ads that would only offer the option to skip after 3 seconds.

Last week, it was revealed that Snapchat would go further, running 6-second ads that cannot be skipped at all, unlike every other Snapchat ad. Snapchat will only show the 6-second ads inside Shows, the episodic video programs produced by top studios and publishers. Digiday was the first to report the news.

The unskippable if brief commercials represent a big departure for the company that insisted ads should be purely voluntary for the viewer. But many advertisers have not been happy with the performance of their Snapchat ads.

"The average view times are still around two seconds or less," says a top Snapchat advertiser, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "So six seconds will be good."

That's not the only changes to the ad business Snapchat is rolling out, either. Last month, Snapchat unveiled animated selfie filters—called Lenses—that can lead to e-commerce transactions. Snapchat calls it "shoppable augmented reality."

This week, Snapchat also started selling Story Ads programmatically, which means advertisers could buy the relatively new ad format through its ad platform instead of having to go directly through its sales team. Story Ads are sponsored versions of Stories that premium publishers post on Discover.

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