Media

Why Snapchat Is Already Giving Up on Not Being ‘Creepy’

By Dillon Baker September 15th, 2016

When Snapchat released 3V advertising, its core ad product, last June, founder and CEO Evan Spiegel was pretty clear about the philosophy behind it.

“In the early days of internet advertising, marketers relied on things like targeting to help differentiate ad products that weren’t very engaging,” he said in a video promoting the release. “But today, with beautiful full-screen video on mobile, we can build ad products that respect our community and their privacy. That’s something that’s really important to us.”

At the time, Snapchat repeatedly brought up this anti-targeting stance as a way to differentiate itself from competitors like Google and Facebook.

For example, during a 2015 interview at Cannes, VentureBeat reported that Spiegel harped on that fact that he didn’t want his platform to be “creepy” (subtext: unlike those other guys):

Rather than leaning on gobs of data to personalize ad experiences and finely slice targeting, Spiegel insisted that Snapchat is not amassing large data sets on individual users’ personal information. Spiegel said he has an intense dislike of the kind of targeted ads that are becoming more prevalent.

“I got an ad this morning for something I was thinking about buying yesterday,” he said. “And it’s really annoying.”

He added:

“We care about not being creepy. That’s something that’s really important to us.”

Apparently, it wasn’t that important. On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Snapchat is introducing three new targeting options for advertisers, each of which are similar to more advanced targeting features offered by Google and Facebook.

The first feature, Snap Audience Match, enables “marketers to take existing lists of email addresses and mobile device IDs, and anonymously match that data with Snapchat’s own pool of consumer data, allowing enhanced ad targeting,” according to the Journal. In other words, Snapchat will now allow for what’s known as “remarketing”—a sibling of retargeting—in which companies can upload email addresses and other identifying features to re-engage those same users.

The second, Snapchat Lifestyle Categories, “lets brands direct ads to people who consume certain types of videos (like sports or gaming content).” This is the same kind of audience categorization offered by Facebook and YouTube. The feature is based on behavior: Now, advertisers can directly target people who Snapchat has determined enjoy video game content, rather than just advertising on IGN’s Discover channel.

The final is Lookalikes, a corollary of Facebook’s “Lookalike audiences” that lets advertisers target ads to users similar to those who have previously engaged with the brand.

These new features mean Snapchat is close to contradicting its original position against “creepy” ad technology—if it hasn’t already.

It’s important to clarify that Snapchat already had basic targeting before this announcement. In August, Business Insider reported that targeting on the platform was available for six factors: age, gender, location, device and operating system, mobile carrier, and “content affinity” (i.e., placing ads in certain Discover channels).

Since the initial 3V announcement, the company’s stance has carefully evolved from anti-targeting to pro-relevancy—but still anti-retargeting. Its Privacy Center notes that balancing relevancy and privacy is difficult: “We want to understand what’s relevant to you and your life, and we want to show you things that you’ll care about. At the same time, we don’t want to serve ads that are so custom-tailored that they feel invasive or uncomfortable.”

These new features, however, mean Snapchat is close to contradicting its original position against “creepy” ad technology—if it hasn’t already.

The differences between remarketing and retargeting are slim, and according to Business Insider, Snapchat began testing external logins (signing into a separate service or website with your Snapchat profile) back in July. Facebook and Google both extensively use external logins as a way to sell better retargeting to ad partners. It may only be a matter of time before Snapchat offers similar retargeting options.

From creepy to necessary

Even though it’s obvious Snapchat changed its philosophy on ad targeting, it’s hard to fault the company for doing so.

After Spiegel rejected Facebook’s 2013 offer to buy his company for $3 billion, providing better targeting to advertisers is a necessity for Snapchat if it wants to stay competitive in an industry that places a premium on data.

Unlike in the TV space—where data is scant, and targeting doesn’t go much beyond what Snapchat offered before debuting these new features—advertisers expect digital ad networks to provide hard ROI metrics and highly specialized targeting. Brands will certainly benefit from the improved attribution and spend efficiency that should come with Snapchat’s updates.

Snapchat’s bottom line should benefit as well. eMarketer predicts the company’s ad revenue will skyrocket, in large part thanks to better targeting, attribution, and its recent introduction of an advertising API.

Still, it’s not hard to imagine that Spiegel may be disappointed in how Snapchat’s ad platform has evolved. Snapchat’s quick embrace of targeting and advanced ad technology shows that the founder’s original vision of building TV advertising’s ad model on mobile—complete with less creepy targeting—simply wasn’t working.

Bundled with July’s new Memories feature, which allows users to save photos within Snapchat’s walls, Snapchat appears to be moving further away from its early reputation as a safe space for users paranoid of watchful eyes (both parental and brand).

The tendency is to draw in users with a good experience and then delicately overhaul that experience in order to monetize.

That’s just the lifecycle of communication apps built on scale. The tendency is to draw in users with a good experience and then delicately overhaul that experience in order to monetize. We saw that earlier this year with WhatsApp, which experienced backlash when it abandoned its longstanding privacy stance by collecting users’ phone numbers and packaging them to Facebook (its parent company) and its advertising partners.

Of course, it’s difficult to imagine anyone but the most hardcore digital security wonk abandoning Snapchat or WhatsApp over these changes. WhatsApp is still going strong, as are Facebook and Google. Talking about digital privacy makes for a good sound bite, but in the end, advertisers and platforms know we’re all going to keep snapping anyway.

Image by Shutterstock
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