On the rise of transience in social technologies

This is the second cross-post in a series we’re putting up this week from the tech column we’ve written for Marketing magazine over the course of this year. This post looks at the rise of Snapchat and the implications for marketers, it appeared in Marketing in July. Think of it as a sister post to Jason’s recent post here ‘Why the ephemeral is here to stay‘.

Image: Bert Stern for Smirnoff via rafaelroa.net

Image: Bert Stern for Smirnoff, via rafaelroa.net

Reading of the recent death of Bert Stern, the photographer most famous for his ‘last sitting’ photographs of Marilyn Monroe and, closer to home, the advertising shots he took for Smirnoff in the 1950s, you cannot help but admire how iconic the work was. A perfect cocktail glass stands on sand, reflecting an inverted Pyramid of Giza as the sun glides down behind it. Carefully crafted, pure, timeless allure.

Juxtapose that with the news that Snapchat, the free app that let’s you share video and photos that self-destruct in a matter of seconds, has been valued at a cool $800m during its latest round of funding. Unsurprising, perhaps, given its meteoric usage growth curve (200m images shared daily in June, up from 60m in February, according to Snapchat figures) and yet still somehow staggering. As the Financial Times pointed out, this is more than Instagram’s final sale price ($700m) after Facebook stock slumped. And this in the same week Instagram introduced 15 second video to compete with Vine’s even more microvideo service, not to mention Facebook’s own Poke, questionably – but deliberately – identical to Snapchat, launched at the end of last year.

So is this super-light touch, technological transience nothing more than a superficial bubble, or a signifier of something deeper that marketers should pay attention to?

Time will tell, of course. But, as any user of Snapchat will tell you (13-24 yr olds are the app’s current centre of gravity in age terms), it does offer a solution to a very modern problem. Evan Spiegel, Snapchat’s founder, says the service was designed deliberately to offer an alternative to the pressure social media can bring to bear on users to present an idealised version of themselves. Against a backdrop of carefully curated streams of perfect holiday pictures, users want to share the real, the immediate, the silly side to their lives without the photographic evidence remaining on Facebook to haunt them forever. And, yes, no doubt there’s sexting too but, as Spiegel is at pains to point out, the app is most often used to share what’s happening now; the extreme transience of the service “doesn’t actually make sense” in a sexting context.

Brands seeking to reach a younger demographic are experimenting in the space, although inevitably the activity is largely promotions-based on what is still a nascent platform. Snapchat themselves are reported to be considering in-app transactions and native advertising as a route to monetisation in the medium term.

Certainly the fleeting immediacy here may feel like an anathema to traditional marketing ideas that so often value carefully planned permanence over pertinence, but I can’t help but think that it’s healthy for us to explore technology that help brands get closer to the naturally transitory nature of users’ real lives.

Perhaps what we are witnessing is a second wave in social media, where we recognise that users don’t want their every move and word captured and held in static perpetuity. If Snapchat doesn’t fit your brand’s value set, then witness the altogether more grown-up Tumblr.

In his speech at Cannes this year, Tumblr’s CEO David Karp made a point of distinguishing the platform from the likes of Facebook or Twitter. In short, Tumblr values great content over constant social interaction “You can keep it small and do it in a campaign-orientated way”, versus the 24/7 newsroom approach brands feel they need to adopt on other platforms. Karp stressed the fact there are few publicly visible metrics on Tumblr, versus the follower/friend count on Facebook and Twitter: it’s a place brands can house content they can share with audiences, without feeling like they’re under constant scrutiny or trying to meet unrealistic expectations. Suddenly, brands seem remarkably like their users.

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