Snapchat Upgrades Self-Serve Ad Tech as Next Quarterly Report Looms

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Credit: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Shinesty, a mail-order novelty clothing retailer that offers American flag bikinis and leopard-print "party suits," wants to advertise anywhere it might find an interested buyer. It's been playing with Snapchat since a new self-serve tool gave smaller spenders an entrée earlier this year.

"Any time anything new comes out we'll test it," said Jens Nicolaysen, chief marketing officer of Shinesty. "We'll test Twitter or Pinterest. We'll test ads on porn websites. We'll test anything, but usually it's not compelling enough to continue advertising."

Its ads on Snapchat, however, performed five times better than elsewhere, Nicolaysen said. The ad tech has proved compelling -- if a little rudimentary.

Now Snapchat is entering the next stage of its ad tech roadmap to satisfy marketers like Shinesty and broaden its pool of ad buyers. The company on Friday is opening what it calls Advanced Mode self-serve, hopefully fixing some of the shortcomings in its inaugural software.

The first version let agencies, brands and startups make their own Snapchat buys without having to go through with the company sales team or its ad-tech partners.

"The initial barrier to investment is very high," said Brittany Richter, VP-social at digital agency iProspect, of Snapchat's price tag when it sells ad programs directly. "So anytime you switch to self-serve, some advertisers that couldn't meet that threshold begin spending."

The advanced tools, Snapchat's answer to Facebook's Power Editor, give advertisers "bulk creation" capabilities that cut down on the manual work of setting up multiple campaigns, according to a Snapchat spokesman. Snapchat also built an ad targeting library to store audience data and a media library to hold creative assets.

"There's a lot of time savings in there," Nicolaysen said. "Bulk creation is for people that create a lot of ads and need a lot of control."

Nicoalysen and other marketers said Snapchat is taking the right steps but has further to go to even approach Facebook's level of ad tech.

The ad tech improvements come at a crucial time for Snapchat. On Thursday, it is set to release its second-quarter results, the second time it's reported since going public and becoming subject to the demands of Wall Street.

It faces a growing challenge from Instagram, which has lifted its style of video and now offers advertisers a format similar to Snapchat's once-unique vertical video ads. Instagram's Snapchat-like Stories have seen massive adoption by viewers, to the tune of 250 million a day, according to the company.

Snapchat investors will be watching its user numbers in the latest results. Growth has slowed, and stands at 166 million daily users.

Even with all those problems, ad infrastructure could be its most pressing test.

"They've got a challenge because Facebook ad tech is fantastic," said Manning Field, chief commercial officer of Acorns, a finance app that helps 2 million investors build stock portfolios. "Still, we continue to invest more and more every day at Snapchat, but is it at a level where Facebook is at? No."

One soft spot has been building "lookalike" audiences on Snapchat that resemble a company's most loyal customers, according to buyers. And some marketing partners said they want Snapchat to develop a pixel, or tag, that they can put on their websites to detect when consumers arrive via Snapchat ads.

The Snapchat spokesman said it has moved aggressively to build up its measurement capabilities, striking partnerships with third-party auditors that help brands see how ads perform. It's also working on a pixel-like product that would help track conversions. "We're currently exploring our own proprietary web-based measurement solution to further prove the effectiveness of our advertising," the spokesman said.

The new advanced ads kit comes with more sophisticated lookalike tools, according to the spokesman. "We added the ability for advertisers to specify a variety of lookalike goals, deciding if they prioritize reach or accuracy," he said. "This was an advertiser request."

The Snapchat ad auction has been friendly terrain for Acorns' style of marketing, Field said. Acorns tests creative assets on Snapchat, find the ones that work and then runs them on Facebook. "Snapchat has been much more responsive to creative testing," Field said.

"From when we started working with them last November, Snapchat has covered remarkable ground," Field said. "But it's still moving a little bit slower than expected."

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