Snapchat creators say the platform is losing its appeal

Some of its biggest stars complain the company has not lived up to promises to help their community thrive.

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Shaun McBride, aka Shonduras.
Shaun McBride, aka Shonduras. Credit: Shaun McBride

Some of Snapchat's most popular users say the company has fallen short of its promise to welcome its creator community as partners, with one of its most popular users threatening to quit the app entirely.

Shaun McBride, also known by his Snapchat handle Shonduras, was one of the platform's first stars and has been as much a part of Snapchat's evolution as any user could be. "I am a Snapchat guy," McBride says during a recent phone interview.

That makes what he said next all the more surprising.

"They suck," McBride says. "They always sucked. They've never been nice to us. They literally sucked from day one."

For five years, McBride, who lives in Utah, has been involved in that exclusive internet celebrity community known as influencers, who can sell their online fame to sponsors for serious money. At one point, McBride was charging $30,000 just to send a Snapchat video with a brand mentioned in it.

"I love Snapchat as an app and I hope it gets fixed," McBride says. "But I am now at a point where I am so far beyond Snapchat that I don't really care."

A spokesperson for the company said Snapchat is more committed than ever to its creator community. The company is even developing programs that will allow some of them to earn money, the spokesperson said by email. Snapchat is working on shows—its most polished video programs that run commercials—with a handful of creators, who will share in the revenue, the spokesperson said.

"We're working hard to support our creators and create monetization opportunities," the spokesperson said. "This year, we focused on turning their feedback into action, including establishing multiple pro-creator programs, and we'll continue to listen and make supporting our creators a priority in 2019."

McBride, meanwhile, is building his own companies focused on digital marketing and influencers. One of his ventures in esports is called Spacestation Gaming, which serves a community of gamers. He also branched out from his Snapchat account, which has about 1.5 million subscribers, and is seeing more promise on rival services like Instagram and YouTube, he says.

Only lately has Snapchat made creators a priority, after years of keeping them at arm's length so as not to entangle the company's fortunes with fickle personalities who come and go. The discontent in the creator community comes at a time when Snapchat has been struggling to reach its next level of success.

Ad revenue is growing, but not as fast as it once was -- it reached close to $300 million in the third quarter of this year, a 43 percent increase from the prior year. At the same time, daily users have been declining, from 191 million at the start of the year, to 186 million daily users in the third quarter. And the company has seen significant turnover in its executive ranks of late.

'They still have a long way to go'

Snapchat has two creator paths, one for people like McBride who are considered "storytellers," known for being able to make use of the app's most creative tools and video features. The second creative set involves lenses, augmented reality filters that people put on their selfies. Lenses can be fun playful animations and include gaming elements, too.

Snapchat has helped these creators by naming them preferred partners so brands can request their services through an online referral program. Snapchat also distributes their lenses on its app, which has a section for people to explore the most popular ones from the community. The creators say being featured in the explore section can propel lenses to extraordinary success, generating millions of views.

In May, Snapchat hosted its first summit for creators, which served as a kickoff for a storytellers partners program, where Snapchat could develop closer relationships with the creators who had felt neglected for some time.

McBride was at the summit with a dozen other creators, but he says he felt they were being used to help Snapchat workshop its problems rather than solve the creators' business needs.

"They were just using us as a free consultation," McBride says.

Another popular Snapchat personality at the summit was Cyrene Quiamco. The 29-year-old, known on Snapchat as CyreneQ, has more than 100,000 followers, but still says it's a struggle working with the company.

"For a long time, Snapchat didn't really acknowledge us," Quiamco says, speaking by phone from her home in Little Rock, Ark. Last month, Quiamco attended Snapchat's second summit at its headquarters in Santa Monica, Calif., this one for lenses creators. "They wanted to do a 180 with creators, but they still have a long way to go, because after those summits not a lot really happened."

One recent incident in particular forced Quiamco to question Snapchat's commitment. Last month, Snapchat featured a lens that virtually fogged up the screen like frost on a window, and Quiamco noticed it was the same type of lens as one designed by a fellow creator Jye Trudinger, who goes by Jinnie the Wew on Snapchat. Quiamco went on Twitter to say she felt the company had missed an opportunity to work with a creator and instead appeared to have stolen an idea. Snapchat has since assured her that the competing lenses were just a coincidence, but it left her questioning why Snapchat would share brands with creators if the company could just do the creating itself. "Is Snapchat for creators or is Snapchat for themselves," Quiamco says. "It's a conflict."

Despite this incident, the lens creator, Trudinger, said he still holds Snapchat in high regard.

"There has been a bit of creative conflict through the controversy over alleged copied ideas, but that doesn't fuss me too much," Trudinger said in a recent interview over Twitter direct messages. "The biggest downside would have to be the lack of monetization. With the views that I get on my Lenses, on any other platform I'd be most likely getting heavily compensated."

Wither the brands?

Snapchat has said it wants to help creators flourish on the service, help that could come in many forms—it could build more tools for them to grow followers, ad products through which they could share the wealth, deals with brands Snapchat could broker. These are the types of services other platforms have built for creators, with YouTube being perhaps the most famous example.

On YouTube, which is owned by Google, and where relations with homegrown stars can also be strained, there is a clear ad-sharing deal that drives dollars every month to stars that make hit videos. And this year Instagram and Facebook built an automated service where brands can connect with internet stars to set up sponsorship deals called Brands Collabs Manager.

Not everyone is dissatisfied with the platform's efforts. Michael Nicoll, the founder of his own augmented reality shop called BLNK Digital, does credit Snapchat with helping him find success creating lenses for brands, particularly in the music industry. Nicoll is an official lens partner, a program that only fully launched last month at the creator summit for the lenses community.

"In the past year, I've seen Snapchat's support grow immensely," Nicoll says during a recent phone interview. "The larger goal is to turn augmented reality into a mass adopted technology and Snapchat wants to be the one to move that forward."

Nicoll is now working on 10 projects a month whereas he used to only have about two, and says Snapchat has helped drive business his way. In April, he created a lens for actor Jared Leto's band 30 Seconds to Mars, a project he worked closely with Snapchat to complete, he says.

But others are still trying to understand the company's approach. Paper Triangles, a Los Angeles-based digital creative agency, is also one of Snapchat's creative lens partners. Frank Shi, co-founder of Paper Triangles, says Snapchat has helped the firm by making introductions to brands, but it hasn't yet led to new business.

"They told us about being lens creative partners and official lens creators, but at the end of the day I don't really know what that means," Shi says.

Quiamco, the Snapchat personality, has created lenses with Fanta, and Warner Music Group, which cost the brands $15,000 for each lens, she says. Yet none of those brand relationships came through Snapchat, she says.

Even if Snap figures out how to connect its creator community more effectively with monetization opportunities, there is potentially another question emerging for the company: Will the platform still be desirable to brands? Brands want Instagram and YouTube, McBride says, and he's already seen signs that brands are less interested in hiring his services for Snapchat. Both of these rivals have adopted similar vertical video offerings on mobile and are pushing into augmented reality, two spaces that Snapchat was first to recognize as transformational.

"I just built a skate park in my backyard, and that all came from Snapchat, so I owe that to them," McBride says. "But they should know that if they don't help creators, they will fail."

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