You already know about Snapchat even if you aren't on it. The network for sending pics and videos that disappear shortly after viewing now has
100 million daily users, including an incredible 77% of college students. Those users log 10 billion daily video views, surpassing even Facebook’s numbers. Snapchat has even won unprecedented rights to show Olympic highlights this summer. One thing is clear: It isn't going anywhere, and it’s definitely not just for teens anymore.
Not surprisingly, businesses are finding creative ways to harness Snapchat, too. Unlike Twitter or Facebook, the network isn’t necessarily a numbers game or about amassing an enormous following—just one reason why some companies find it a tricky platform to break into, when they try to break into it at all. Ignoring Snapchat is no longer an option. With that in mind, here's what you need to know to get started.
Snapchat's real power for brands lies in building deep personal connections with users through image- and video-based storytelling. Early adopters like Taco Bell and Disney combine zany artwork, text overlays, and video cameos from Internet stars to delight followers. Special "disappearing" promos and video teasers can generate high engagement and build brand awareness.
But there’s at least one big hiccup for companies hoping to get started. Snapchat isn’t exactly intuitive. Opening the app, it’s not immediately clear how to use it or even what it’s for: How do I take and share a snap? What’s a "story"? How do you use these special "lenses"? What’s the point of doodling over a photo, anyway? For users who aren't in Snapchat’s target 24-and-under demographic, the app can be anything but DIY.
But the biggest challenge, in my estimation, is just finding people to follow and share content with. Snapchat does mine your address book to find users in your existing contacts, but—if you’re like me—that probably only yields a handful of newbies. Whereas Facebook and Twitter are constantly suggesting followers based on your profile and interests, Snapchat offers no real "discovery" tool. You can search for users by handle, but unless you specifically know the handle you’re looking for, you won’t get very far.
All this matters because, honestly, the easiest way to learn how to use Snapchat is by observing others who do it well. In the end, it’s hardly rocket science to take a snap. (Lots of beginners’ guides can walk you through it.) But doing it effectively is a different story. There’s an art to using text overlays and integrating features like "stories" (montages of your snaps over the last 24 hours, viewable by all your friends).
Getting engagement depends on speaking a playful visual language of emojis, animations, colors, and images. For companies testing the waters, creativity is key—and it’s hard to find inspiration without role models. I’ve seen too many businesses open an account only to drop it a few months later because they never really "got it."
All of which is why the easiest way to get started on Snapchat is actually to download a different app entirely. In fact, if I hadn’t been referred to this app by a friend, I probably wouldn’t still be on Snapchat today (as Invokerr, if you’re curious), leveraging the world’s fastest-growing social network for myself and my company.
I’m talking about a free tool called GhostCodes, a brilliantly simple app that lets you find interesting people on Snapchat and helps you get discovered in turn. (A nifty app called Peek also fills the same niche, with the bonus of offering video previews from Snapchat users.) Whether you’re interested in celebrities or CEOs, GhostCodes offers up a directory of the leading users in the space. It’s essentially a cheat-sheet for following the right people and learning how to use Snapchat effectively.
You start by uploading your own "Snapcode" (your Snapchat profile image with its special built-in QR code) and creating a bio that outlines your interests. Then you’re free to search out other users based on their interests. You can dive into a couple dozen predefined categories (ranging from Artists and Foodies to Brands and Entrepreneurs) or do a simple keyword search to pull up names.
GhostCodes’s own heart-based ranking system shows how many people have "liked" different profiles, giving a quick indication of influencers and power-players. After downloading their respective Snapcodes, you can then pop back into Snapchat and start following them. Meanwhile, you should notice your own follower count start to swell almost immediately, as curious users track you down.
This may not sound like a wild innovation. On any other social platform, this kind of networking functionality would normally be built in. Which begs the question: Why doesn’t Snapchat just integrate its own discovery tool?
Snapchat purists point out that the platform isn’t intended for finding new followers and definitely shouldn’t be treated as a "popularity contest." Plenty of social networks already function that way, the argument goes, and end up being more about boasting and marketing than having a real conversation. Some critics have even gone so far as to say that the "underground network" vibe is what gives Snapchat its mojo: it’s powerful because you have to be truly invested in it to use it. GhostCodes and similar apps risk disturbing that dynamic by making it so easy to find and follow people and also "ranking" them.
I can see that point. At the same time, though, my experience on Snapchat has been enriched immeasurably by following interesting people I never would've tracked down without a discovery tool. Then there’s the writing on the wall, suggesting Snapchat is moving away from any "underground" roots it might've originated with.
"Stories"—the visual montages blasted out to friends—debuted in 2013 and marked a major transition from private messaging app to real social platform. And the network has opened itself up further with tools like the Discover channels—curated streams of content from notable publishers, ranging from National Geographic and CNN to VICE and BuzzFeed. Meanwhile, its Live Stories—the network’s own curations of the best "snaps" from special events like the Oscars to certain locations like New York City—are now viewed by 10 to 20 million people per day.
In the end, Snapchat’s own exploding popularity makes it very hard to keep it just an intimate tool for friends to trade funny pics and videos. Indeed, this kind of "growing up" (the network turns 5 in September) is probably inevitable and even desirable from Snapchat’s perspective. Its incredible $16-billion valuation, after all, rests on the platform’s potential to get very, very big and ultimately sell ads to reach all those eyeballs.
Already, businesses are finding new and creative ways to connect with customers on the maturing platform, accelerating that transformation even further. For curious Snappers-to-be, the easiest way to get started may be to simply log in and start following the experts—with a little help from discovery apps like GhostCodes.