On a late summer evening in Phoenix, a group of Alpha Chi Omega sisters sit in the stands of the Arizona Diamondbacks stadium and take selfies. They capture duck-face snaps with each other, with churros, and with each other with churros. A bored camera operator spots them in the outfield stands, and two middle-aged MLB announcers have a field day, mocking the women’s youthful self-absorption.
“That’s the best one of 300 pictures I’ve taken of myself today!” one commentator cracks.
“Here’s my first bite of the churro!” chirps his co-conspirator. “Here’s my second bite of the churro!”
“Peralta knocks it into center! . . . And nobody noticed.”
The clip went viral because, from the perspective of the MLB broadcast crew, the students seemed disconnected from events on the field. But the sorority sisters weren’t living their lives for the TV cameras. They were, in fact, having a great time at the game—via Snapchat.
Consumers, advertisers, influencers, media brands, and rivals are increasingly viewing the world through Snapchat’s lens. In the past 18 months, the photo- and video-sharing app has released a slew of bold (and brazenly imitated) features, from absurdist digital masks to face-swapping to group chat, which have vaulted it to the vanguard of social communication. Snap, as the company is now known, claims more than 150 million daily users, and it reportedly exceeded its lofty goal to generate more than $300 million in revenue for 2016. Its introduction of location-based image enhancements, known as geofilters, and Spectacles, its sunglasses that record 10 seconds of video from the wearer’s point of view, inspired genuine consumer fanaticism for augmented reality and wearable computing in a way that overhyped rivals from Magic Leap to Google haven’t matched. As Snap is expected to go public this year, deconstructing the principles underpinning its products is more important than ever. After all, the only people who underestimate Snap are those who don’t take the time to see what’s right in front of their face.
When Snapchat rebranded last September to Snap, CEO Evan Spiegel proclaimed it a camera company. At first blush, it’s a curious bit of branding—Kevin Systrom, founder of Snapchat rival Instagram, ardently argues that he runs a communications company—but Snap’s framing is intentional. Camera technologies have driven some of the most important developments in media. In 1888, Thomas Edison’s Kinetograph gave birth to motion pictures, and provided Edison with early control over the film industry. In 1957, NBC upgraded to color broadcasting, largely so its owner, RCA, could sell color TVs. Kodak, once one of the world’s most valuable brands, continues to sell off imaging patents to a new generation of camera-obsessed companies, including Facebook, Google, and Apple.
Visual information is a conduit for the digitized relationships of the modern era, and Snap effortlessly navigates this confluence of image, communication, and entertainment. Its most impressive illusion is that its app design feels casual or even random, when in fact, it’s a carefully thought-out experience, constantly being honed for maximum engagement. Whether it’s offering up cartoon ghost Snapcode Stickers for you to add a new friend or puppy-nose filters to apply to your face, Snapchat’s interface reinforces that it’s for fun. “They treat their core product like a utility, and they aren’t overly precious about it, ” says Ryan Rimsnider, Taco Bell’s senior manager of social strategy. “And if they are, they certainly don’t act like it.”
For the past two decades, user-interface design has put a premium on an intuitive placement of functions. By contrast, Snapchat forces users to play around. Its design operates like a speakeasy, requiring you to feel for the secret door or have a friend who knows the passcode to unlock the next room. Many of Snapchat’s features, such as long-pressing on your face to bring up filters or being able to convert yourself into an emoji, need to be discovered. Adding people to follow, whether they’re celebrities or your friends, is another clandestine game, one that rewards good creators rather than merely famous people. And Snap doesn’t generally issue press releases announcing app updates, preferring that users are surprised when they find new features on their own. Snapchat is therefore free to experiment more aggressively than competitors with UI shifts and features—and even break its own rules without breaking the app. This is why Snapchat has been able to evolve from only allowing photos taken in the moment, which would disappear in 10 seconds, to adding Memories, which makes old content searchable, without a revolt.
Ultimately, what Snap offers users is control. “They just want to provide crazy tools that enable fans to create stories with no end,” says Rimsnider. Take Snapchat’s augmented-reality lenses. These silly filters solve an important problem: They give people something to do when they share. Puking a digital rainbow, one of Snapchat’s photo enhancements, is a prop to overcome stage fright when messaging friends.
Stories, a collection of images and video that capture a user’s day and last 24 hours, has become the centerpiece of the Snapchat experience. “Snapchat is the reality show about your life that you shoot and edit yourself,” says Jason Stein, CEO of both the marketing agency Laundry Service and Cycle, a media startup. Indeed, some of the most renowned Snapchatters, such as Julz Goddard (better known as YesJulz), effectively use the app to produce a series starring themselves. “I was talking to different networks about a reality show, but I wasn’t really excited about other people having creative control over my content and my image,” Goddard says. “Then I was like, Wow, this Snapchat is incredible. Everyone in the world can have their very own television network.”
Snap is watching what its users create and deploying those insights to woo Hollywood talent to embrace the platform as a new entertainment medium. The company is in talks with talent agencies and media companies to create scripted and unscripted “Snapchat shows” for the platform. The Snap twist, according to one Hollywood insider: The four-minute-long series would be divided into 10- to 60-second chapters, much like users’ Stories are structured. When Snap internally produced its own test program—the election-year series Good Luck America—it even had the crew shoot host Peter Hamby off-center, at arm’s length, to create the impression that he was filming himself. In dealings with traditional media partners such as NBC, which creates The Voice on Snapchat and a recurring Jimmy Fallon segment, Snap has offered shot-by-shot analytics from Good Luck America, showing how pacing that’s too slow, or shots that are too dull, will lose viewers in the middle of a video. Ultimately, Snap sees user-generated and Hollywood content evolving codependently, with each building off the other.
Similarly, Snap’s advertising business directly benefits from the tools it creates for Snapchatters. The design team that builds Snap’s consumer features also creates its advertising products; every tool for marketers began its life delighting users. For example, Snapchat’s Discover channels, which feature original content from media brands such as National Geographic and Vice, introduced the idea that you swipe up to learn more about a given story. “After months of training the behavior,” says Kenny Mitchell, Gatorade’s director of consumer engagement, “Snapchat then launched Snap Ads that allow for consumers to swipe up to get more info.”
Snap’s most intriguing ad product has been sponsored lenses, which has attracted the world’s best brand marketers, including Disney, McDonald’s, and Starbucks. For Cinco de Mayo, Taco Bell released a filter that turned people’s heads into, yes, giant tacos. By most estimates, Taco Bell spent between $500,000 and $750,000 on a filter that was viewed 224 million times in a single day. That’s double the views of a Super Bowl ad for one-tenth the price, and, unlike TV viewers, Snapchat’s audience is actively using, sharing, and having fun with an ad.
Users are already accustomed to adorning their faces with gags to make their friends laugh, so it doesn’t matter that the gag is sponsored. Snap goes so far as to measure what it calls “play time”—how long a user might toy with a giant taco on their face, even if they never take a photo wearing it. Because it’s still valuable engagement. “They’re really trying to make social ads suck less,” says Winston Binch, chief digital officer of Deutsch North America, which works closely with Taco Bell’s social strategy team. “They’re not trying to reappropriate other digital advertising norms. They want to maintain the integrity of the experience.”
In November, Snap introduced yet another strategy to make its platform even more addictive, capable, and advertiser-friendly: hardware. Snap Spectacles transform Snapchat the app into a brash sunglasses-camera that takes circular videos. Spectacles, or Specs, as Snap employees call them, eliminate that final point of friction of pulling a phone from one’s pocket to capture life’s spontaneity. They encourage sharing by design: When they initially pair with your phone, Specs actually film your first snap without warning. (After that, a tap of the frame initiates recording.) “Having a pair has already made a dent in the type of content I’m making,” says Mike Platco, a Snapchat artist and influencer. “It has made me more excited to post ‘in the moment’ videos that are less focused on a large narrative and more about bringing my audience in on the cool stuff I get to do.”
Recently I wore Specs during a Chicago birthday bar crawl, capturing scenes that I’d never have filmed with my phone. Walking into each dive felt Scorsese-esque as I filmed it, as if I was shooting my own Goodfellas, but grittier. With both of my hands free to stuff my face, I captured a late-night tamale run as a tube of masa flying right below the camera. If I wanted a selfie, I had to have one of those cinematic moments of staring placidly into a bathroom mirror. Unlike Google Glass, which prompted “Glasshole” bans at New York and San Francisco bars, Specs are designed to be nonthreatening. (A playfully twirling LED light broadcasts that they’re filming.)
Spectacles ingeniously package this face camera into something that people might actually want to wear. “It’s a classic shape reinvented,” says fashion designer Rebecca Minkoff of the Ray-Ban–inspired shades, which come in black, coral, and teal. She thought Glass was hideous, but compares Spectacles to a party dress or shoes, an overt piece of flair that calls attention to its intent rather than hiding it.
Specs, which Snap conspicuously branded a “toy” when it announced them last fall, are likely just the first physical camera that the company will introduce. Reports have circulated that it has considered other forms of wearable cameras, as well as drones. Snap has already tested selling a number of pieces of official merchandise, such as beach towels and backpacks, that hint at how the company thinks about bridging the real and digital worlds. When Snapchat introduced official playing cards, they were more or less a normal deck of cards, save for one thing: They came with instructions for a game called SnapKings. To play, a group of friends in the same room sets the cards on the table, but the game unfolds on Snapchat itself. If you draw a 3, you are instructed to “Snap yourself while making your grossest selfie face.” If you pull out a 9, you have to “Bust a rhyme for a 10-second Snap.” Much as with lenses, the cards initiate a Snap session, transforming a mellow Friday night into fodder for an expanding universe of good times.
Despite Snap’s relentless creativity and distinct perspective, its future success isn’t assured. Facebook has been rapidly adding Snapchat-like features into Facebook, WhatsApp, and, most notably, Instagram. The rise of Instagram Stories, the 24-hour video-sharing tool that blatantly mimics Snapchat Stories, precipitated Snap’s decision to pursue an IPO, according to one source. “It definitely caught them off guard,” says a person who does business with Snap. “It’s a huge threat.” With Facebook trying to choke off its rival’s global expansion, investors could also inhibit Snap’s progress by dogging its stock if user and revenue growth don’t exceed the high bar Facebook set for social media.
But Spiegel and company understand instinctually that power has shifted. The kids know what they’re doing. They know what they like. And Snap isn’t afraid to tell media companies and advertisers, Hey, shoot this more like the kids do. What those career baseball broadcasters missed as they jeered the Alpha Chi sisters? Those duck-faced women were now the ones in control of the cameras, and they have countless stories to tell.
Additional reporting/writing by Jeff Beer, Claire Dodson, and Nicole LaPorte.
This article is part of our coverage of the World’s Most Innovative Companies of 2017.