Specifically, I've been having flashbacks to circa 2008-2009, when Twitter was becoming a media chattering-class obsession and felt like it was on the verge of going mainstream. At the time, I wrote a couple columns for Ad Age simultaneously declaring my love for my Twitter (as a user) and expressing my fears about its long-term prospects. Because I wasn't seeing much in the way of a convincing business model from Twitter management; the revenue that Twitter was drawing from marketers often seemed to fall into the experimental bucket plus "look at us embracing the hottest new platforms" us-too-ism.
Back then, there was enough starry-eyed optimism about any and all social media that readers roasted me for daring to question Twitter's long-term growth, because surely something as awesome as Twitter would be able to somehow make money on such an awesome user base, which was then growing exponentially. One British reader even angrily called me a "muppet" -- i.e., an unthinking puppet mouthing the sour sentiments of, I gathered, Luddites and other cranky technophobes.
Today, Twitter is a lively global conversation board for hundreds of millions and is the preferred megaphone for the president of the United States. But it remains unprofitable, and quarterly year-over-year growth in monthly users has fallen below 5%. So it's understandable if there's a little less eagerness to gulp the Kool-Aid about social media's Next Big Thing. And regarding Snapchat, well, just see my colleague George Slefo's recent post about a marketer survey by RBC Capital Markets in conjunction with Ad Age. On the question about return on investment, respondents rated only AOL below Snapchat, with Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google, Yahoo and YouTube ranking higher. Other results were discouraging as well.
Snapchat counters that the survey included many smaller brands that have yet to be educated about how to best deploy Snapchat. And I get that -- Snapchat is still a toddler (it went live in September 2011) and there's a certain cultural code among its primary millennial and postmillennial user base that is hard for a lot of marketers to crack.
But at the same time, I'd argue that Snapchat has some fundamental structural issues, at least in its current configuration, that profoundly limit its utility as a marketing platform. Remember that Snapchat is at its heart a messaging app -- and one that celebrates stream-of-consciousness ephemerality.
In the early days of Snapchat, there was much hand-wringing among parents and other scolds who feared (correctly) that their kids were probably using what was being billed as a disappearing-photo-and-video app for sexting. Over time, Snapchat smartly moved away from that skeevy rep by incorporating features such as Memories, Stories and Our Stories, which lets users make their photo/video montages public and findable through Snapchat's newly beefed-up search functionality.
On March 31, Snapchat proudly touted the fact (in a press release) that "you can search over one million unique Stories on Snapchat! In addition to our professionally curated Stories, you can watch a local basketball game, check out the scene at your favorite bar, view your favorite Fashion Week shows, get inspired by a faraway place, or simply tap through a Story full of puppies -- there's a Story for everything!"
Yeah, well, there's already an internet (and a Facebook) for everything. There is no shortage of Fashion Week stuff and faraway places and puppies absolutely everywhere else online -- and all that content is easy to find and share. As for scenes from your favorite bar and nearby basketball games, cool -- but how do you bundle up and monetize stuff that's that hyperlocal?
As for Snapchat's professionally produced content, it generally depresses me. Every day, Snapchat serves me headlines such as "Meet the Women Swearing Off Straight Men" (from Vice), "This Little Girl Ruled Crazy Hair Day" (Now This), "Here's How Hip-Hop Made Baseball Caps Cool" (ESPN) and "Pics to Send Someone Who Loves Puns" (BuzzFeed) -- the sort of stuff that's hardly in short supply elsewhere. So much of it feels vaguely desperate and pandering (Hey, fellow kids! We've got things you care about, like gender fluidity and crazy hair days and hip-hop!), and it all just gets in the way of why I'm really on Snapchat: to check out my far-flung's friends' crummy, goofy, tossed-off pics and videos.
With its content partners and searchable public Stories, it's almost as if, five years in (and, ahem, newly post-IPO), Snapchat is suddenly realizing a basic, largely immutable law of internet media: Selling ads against content requires an ever-growing catalog of sticky, searchable, shareable stuff. And a critical mass of that stuff needs to be relatively predictable and brand-safe. As one social media exec recently told my colleague Garett Sloane (as quoted in his story "On Snapchat, Nudes Can Be Followed by a Word From Our Sponsor"), "There is always a fear running ads between people's Stories on Snapchat. God knows what people are showing in Stories."
How does Snapchat move past that and find the balance between its deeply personal core messaging functionality and its ambitions to be a place for brands to spend big to reach rapt consumers? God knows that's a challenge that Snapchat's spiritual forebear, 11-year-old Twitter, has yet to truly figure out.
Simon Dumenco, aka Media Guy, is an Ad Age editor-at-large. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.