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Evan Spiegel: Brands on Snapchat have been more willing to experiment with AR since COVID-19

The pandemic changed the way people use Snapchat. It will also shape Snap’s future.

Evan Spiegel: Brands on Snapchat have been more willing to experiment with AR since COVID-19
Evan Spiegel [Photo: J. Emilio Flores/Corbis/Getty Images]
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Evan Spiegel has reason to be optimistic. Despite the havoc wreaked by the coronavirus pandemic, his company Snap Inc. saw record growth last year. Snapchat reached 265 million daily active users in the fourth quarter of 2020, and Spotlight—its newly launched TikTok-like service—grew to 100 million daily active users in just a few months. Meanwhile, a whopping 90% of Gen Z in the United States watched Snap original content in the last month, and the company projects 50% annual revenue growth for the next several years.

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As the world shrunk for most people over the last year, Snapchat proved to be one way to safely reopen it—at least through your screen. Still, the way people used Snap changed in reaction to the current moment.

“Snapchat reflects the relationships you have with your friends and those behaviors,” Spiegel said Tuesday during a virtual event at Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies Summit. “So during the pandemic, people made fewer new friends because they weren’t out and about and in the world, and instead, they really focused on their close group of friends and communicating, sharing, and expressing with them.”

Spiegel spoke with senior writer Mark Wilson for a one-on-one conversation, during which the Snap CEO and cofounder discussed what the social media platform has learned from the past year, and what the future holds for the company.

Besides affecting who people sent Snaps to, pandemic life also changed what users captured. Lockdowns and restrictions on in-person events meant fewer snaps of brunches with friends, and more content creation at home.

And this should come as no surprise: Spiegel says Snap has learned that young people are ready to get back into the world. The company has been quietly prepping for those shifting use cases by expanding a key feature: its map.

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“We’ve used this time to be thoughtful about what might happen as things start normalizing a little bit and really investing ahead so that our products like the map are ready,” says Spiegel. The company has recently added around 35 million places to the map, according to Spiegel, which differs from Google or Apple maps by tailoring the map visually to landmarks that are important to you.

Spiegel also found that the restrictions of the pandemic have made both brands and consumers more open to the idea of augmented reality in e-commerce and the retail space. “We had a hard time convincing brands to experiment with AR try-on, for example, but the pandemic accelerated a lot of that because stores weren’t open, so retailers couldn’t put their products physically into people’s hands,” explains Spiegel.

Brands became more willing to experiment with the tech as a way of building brand connections at home. Hundreds of millions of people use AR features on Snapchat every day, according to Spiegel, who says that AR “can be a really, really big business just on the smartphone alone.” The company plans to add AR hardware products over time, he says.

But with screen time at record highs, should we really be investing in technology that will give users yet another reason to stare at that plate of glass a foot from their face?

Spiegel hedged, saying “we have to avoid categorizing technology as good or bad because it obviously comes down to the way that it’s being used.” He added that he thinks there’s huge opportunity for AR to benefit education, for instance. But as for how else the company plans to utilize AR over the coming years, we’ll have to wait and see.

About the author

Lilly Smith is an associate editor of Co.Design. She was previously the editor of Design Observer, and a contributing writer to AIGA Eye on Design.

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