2016 will be the Meerkat election. Or maybe the Periscope election, referring to the other streaming video app you might not have heard of. Or maybe it's going to be the Facebook election. There are lots of options in a political world that has a habit of treating any new technology as a skeleton key for electoral victory.
One thing we know it will not be is the Snapchat election. That's because given the opportunity by Stephen Colbert to brand it as such, Snapchat chief executive Evan Spiegel declined.
"18-to-24-year olds," Colbert said. "More of them were involved or watched the debate or followed the Republican debate on Snapchat than CNN or on Fox News when there are broadcasts there. Is this the Snapchat election?"
"It's definitely not the Snapchat election," Spiegel replied. "The thing that excited us is we really saw an opportunity to not only help politicians reach constituents, but really to help people learn about politics in a way that goes beyond just knowledge, like just reading about it or hearing from a singular newscaster."
Which leads to another reason that 2016 won't be the Snapchat election: It's not clear how useful Snapchat is as an outreach method, particularly for politics.
If you aren't familiar with Snapchat, a quick explanation: Originally predicated on sharing photos that vanished after a set period of time, the app — and it is just a phone app — quickly became a preferred communications mechanism for young people thanks to the drawing and text tools it included and that sense of impermanence.
Snapchat was able to expand what it did in a way that many publishers couldn't, adding video and reorganizing how people could share "stories" — groups of photos or brief videos — more widely. It's now a phenomenon with millions of users, and thanks to the fact that those millions of users are largely young, it's much sought-after by advertisers and media outlets.
In May, a Businessweek cover article reported that Snapchat had 100 million users. Which is a lot, but only about half of the 200 million daily users that Business Insider speculated were on the service ... in January.
Internet companies are notoriously loathe to share specific numbers about their user bases. It's hard to blame them; the figures are impossible to independently verify and are often critical to the companies' valuation. But Snapchat's opacity goes even deeper than that.
At Twitter, you can see how many followers and tweets users have, or how many retweets a tweet has gotten. At Facebook, you can see the number of "likes" and followers of an account. There are vendors that aggregate that information and allow companies to track how much interaction their social media offerings are generating.
Which is something that you can't do with Snapchat. Users — even most media outlets — see only how many times their snaps (as the photos and videos are called) were seen or screen-captured.
What's more, with Twitter and Facebook you can gauge (sometimes only roughly) how often people came from Twitter or Facebook to your Web site. Snapchat doesn't allow linking, so if you put a URL in a snap, you have no way of knowing when Snapchat users actually go to the site. You're entirely dependent on Snapchat to tell you how you're doing.
There's one exception, it seems. Earlier this year, Snapchat introduced "Discover," a feature that highlighted media outlets on their own page within the app. (We'll note at this point that Snapchat's user interface can be completely baffling to novices and appears to be the design equivalent of that audio frequency that only teens can hear.) Outlets that partner with Snapchat on the Discover tab report huge viewership numbers — which they also get from Snapchat. Snapchat provides those partners with the number of unique viewers (that is, separate Snapchat users), the time spent watching content and the number of times snaps were opened. Slightly more data, but again, hard to verify.
John Herrman, who writes the exceptional "Content Wars" column about modern media for the Awl, thinks it's fair to take Snapchat's numbers at face value — at least as much as you might with any social media platform.
"I don't think they have to lie or mislead people," he said, when we spoke by phone Thursday. In fact: "I think they have so much attention that they're now thinking: How do we put the brands into this? How do we somehow harness this huge audience?"
Which is why they created Discover. Herrman compares Snapchat's interface with Facebook's. Open Facebook, and you've got a whole layout of content and links and bad baby photos with some ads mixed in. Snapchat opens up onto the camera. There's not much of a way to splice advertising in front of that.
Discover uses a "field of dreams" strategy. The company built a way for media outlets to be featured, and the however-many-tens-of-millions of users arrived. When Discover was first deployed, Snapchat's minimal UI had an obvious new feature with a little purple button. Users pressed the shiny purple button and then watched some branded content. Herrman points out that it didn't even really matter what the content was — people watched.
Discover tosses media companies in front of users sort of in the way a national anthem singer is tossed in front of a Super Bowl audience. At launch, Snapchat included Warner Music, allowing the label to show music videos. Millions of people watched. But, "It's not like people were clamoring for 'Warner Music' content," Herrman points out. "It's not like in any other context, people are clicking on the Warner Music name or logo to get into something. They were sort of the purest example of Snapchat's ability to direct people to these publications or media brands. It's just raw power." It might not have staying power, but it works for now. (Not for Warner, though; they're no longer a partner.)
"By opening up Discover and putting these [media] names in front of an enormous number of people, Snapchat created the conditions for unbelievable metrics," Hermann said, meaning unbelievable in the figurative sense.
That's the value proposition for Discover partners, and — despite the fact that partners can't direct users anywhere easily — it's a good one. But politicians are not Discover partners, and non-Discover Snapchat content, as we've noted, can be hard to surface.
For a politician, then, you either need to get kids to add you on Snapchat (good luck), to buy ads with Discover partners or to buy ads in Snapchat Live Stories. Live Stories are collections of snaps curated by the company that all originate from a geographical location. The image at the top of this article is from the daily Live Story created for New York City. Most of those young people that saw the debate on Snapchat likely saw the debate Live Story. (In fact, it's what Spiegel goes on to talk about after the clip above.)
But remember: You don't get a link in that ad. So in some ways, a Snapchat ad for a campaign is like a lawn sign, with the sole upgrade of telling you how many people looked at it and for how long. It's visibility, not targeting.
That is, with the sole exception that Snapchat is mostly used by young people, as Stephen Colbert pointed out. The media tracking company ComScore created this graphic earlier this year estimating that nearly half of Snapchat's over-18 audience is under 25. (The under-18 audience, which is no doubt big, isn't tracked.)
So if you were a campaign that wanted to post a bunch of lawn signs where millions of 18-to-24-year-olds could see them, you might post on Snapchat. You can refine slightly more by targeting Live Stories in, say, Iowa or partnering with BuzzFeed to advertise in its Discover streams, as Herrman notes. This ignores that that 18-to-24-year-olds don't vote as frequently as their elders, making them a less appealing target. But, if you're putting up lawn signs, what do you care?
For a regular company, figuring out how to use Snapchat wisely is tough. For a political campaign, with different financial constraints and more specific targeting needs, it's even tougher. A number of 2016 candidates have Snapchat pages, and Rand Paul has even advertised on the platform. (He's currently in 10th place.)
Maybe one of those candidates or someone at a state or local level that polls well with 18-to-24-year-olds will figure out that it makes sense to slip a get-out-the-vote reminder into a concert Live Story the Saturday before Election Day. There are a lot of boxes that get ticked in that hypothetical, you'll note — but maybe. Maybe they'll try that! Thanks to the limited data they'll get from their investment, they won't really have any way of knowing if it worked.
A critical caveat: I don't "get" Snapchat, in the sense that I don't find it compelling. I'm not terribly old, mind you; it's just not intuitive to me. I conducted a little experiment on Thursday hoping to have a good example of how regular users could get metrics for their snaps. I tweeted out a request for people to view it.
Despite my pointing out that the snap was of my adorable little dog, only two people actually looked at it. One is a tech columnist for another newspaper. The other was my little sister.
Who, I will note, is not yet old enough to vote.