Three years ago, Nick Bell and a few colleagues at Snapchat stared at a wall of post-it notes. On them were the names of dozens of media outlets like People, Daily Mail, Billboard and The New York Times.
Snapchat wanted brands with strong voices that could connect with a 14 year old. It was up to Bell, formerly senior VP at News Corp., to convince publishers to see the light.
That was the beginning of Discover, a network of media outlets that elevated Snapchat’s credibility as a company (from a sexting app to a lifestyle brand) in exchange for a new source of revenue for publishers desperate for eyeballs.
It’s been two years since the platform went live on the app, and dozens of publishers told Mashable they want to build more. Viewership is up, from the hundreds of thousands to the millions per day with completion rates, for some, above 50 percent. Revenue is up, into the tens of millions for some. Channels are profitable. (Disclosure: Mashable is a Discover partner.)
“It started out as an experiment, but it’s become really, really real,” said Raj Mody, vice president of social media at National Geographic, one of Discover’s launch partners. “When you look at our brand we’re a leader in social media and in visual storytelling. The fact that they’re evolving the platform, that’s something that has been enormously helpful.”
For Snap, Discover has grown from 12 partners to more than 40. The name no longer applies to just magazine-like feeds. Now, there are Editions, Our Stories (formerly Live Stories) and Shows, an effort to lure TV production studios to make original series for the app. Snapchat itself has invested in a political show called Good Luck America, which returns for a second season next month.
Each of these serve Snap’s audience and, Snap says, attracts ad dollars, like the $70 billion locked into television annually. Snap boldly compares itself with TV during strategic conversations with investors and ad agencies as it preps for an initial public offering.
All the while, competitors — older and wealthier — are after the same thing.
“Right now, Facebook, Amazon, even Apple are willing to write massive checks, tens of millions, hundreds of millions, to build specific content for that platform,” said one media executive who has spoken with each of them and is not currently a Discover partner. “If producing a Snapchat show returns more than its cost, and you reach global millennials than it could make some sense, but it’s not easy.”
Few on the street recognized Peter Hamby, Snap’s head of news and host of Good Luck America, when he was a political reporter at CNN. Now, he’s the “Snapchat guy.” Exclusivity, Snapchat says, means quality.
Snapchat looked at how media used other social platforms and decided to do something different. On Facebook, publishers try to ride the site’s ever-changing and ambiguous algorithm. On Twitter, 140-characters of clickbait flies around. Snap CEO Evan Spiegel and Bell, whom he hired in April 2014, were inspired by old-school newspaper and magazine stands with a mobile twist.
When Snapchat walked into the doors of publishers, some turned them away. Others said it wasn’t the right time, and some, Snapchat says, just didn’t fit the brand: young and fun.
National Geographic committed to a contract almost immediately. “We’re willing to reach people where they’re at. We see all these experiences being additive,” Mody said.
“When you look across the major platforms, you definitely see a younger audience.”
Magazine giant Hearst offered up Cosmopolitan and saw so much immediate success (in viewership and revenue) they began to think about a new brand. A year into Discover, they launched Sweet, which now receives about 16 million unique viewers per month on the platform out of Snap’s daily audience of 150 million. That’s low on the daily average. For Sweet, that’s just fine.
“There hasn’t been anything that’s been negative,” said Ross Clark, vice president and general manager of Sweet. But he, the overseer of a Snapchat-exclusive outlet, does expect more. “What I would love to see, more interactive elements, quizzes, polls, ways to engage more deeply.”
One concern that frustrated several publishers was moving Discover content below friends’ stories. It did cause a drop in viewership, but the dip has since reversed.
Snap has not released updated metrics since mid-last year. In May 2016, Snapchat had 150 million daily active users and publishers have indeed seen an increase in audience size. Sweet, for example, is at 16 million monthly views, up from 15 million in September 2016.
After Bell’s initial pitches and Snapchat’s grand reveal on Jan. 27, 2015, publishers became hungry to be on Discover. Even when Snapchat would say no — or at least not yet — some created mock-ups anyhow, desperate for meetings.
Snapchat has since opened the platform to more publishers to get a new, wide swath of users. Discover skewed young, so in came The Wall Street Journal. Not enough male viewers, so Bleacher Report moved from the international edition to global.
Not all of these companies are seeing significant profit margins, but that isn’t what matters — at the moment — to everyone.
“For us right now the engagement and the ability to reach this young demographic that is what is incredible,” said Melissa Rosenthal Brenner, SVP of digital media at the NBA. “A high concentration of our fans are in the age of 14 to 24 on Snapchat.”
Both Snapchat and brands are still experimenting. Forbes offered up an exclusive of its 30 Under 30 List this year and Forbes said that it was “happy” with its performance — above Discover’s average for completion — but it isn’t planning to build monthly, yet.
“You have to ask why before moving forward on the platform.”
“You have to ask why before moving forward on the platform. Now with Instagram Stories and Facebook Stories, okay, we can have different approaches to different things, but we’re being very strategic about that,” said Shauna Gleason, director of social media at Forbes.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post, known for its commitment to digital, hasn’t jumped on Editions. It is a test partner for Facebook’s Snapchat Discover clone. The Post does have a Snapchat account and contributes to Stories.
“We rely on a few personalities that appear regularly on our Snap stories. Followers see familiar faces that way, which is a much closer experience to seeing their friends’ stories. These personalities can also act as hosts that then can introduce other reporters and editors,” Washington Post audience and engagement editor Ryan Kellett wrote in an email.
The same goes for NBC News, with reporters featured in Stories on Mosul and other news events. The Atlantic‘s Quartz take viewers behind the scenes of events all over the world. Both publishers have been in discussions about more formal, revenue-driven roles on Discover.
But not everyone is playing along. Mic, the self-branded millennial news site, no longer produces content for Snapchat.
In development, in the studio
Next up for Snap: Shows, a form of mobile television.
Snap, in part, convinced studios to join its push by building its own series. More than 22 million viewers watched the first season of Good Luck America, which featured interviews with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Paul Ryan and Chris Christie.
Just like how Bell served as a bridge between publishers and Snapchat, the company has been recruiting more TV-experienced executives. Michael Lynton, chief executive of Sony’s entertainment division, announced earlier this month he was stepping down from Sony to go all in to Snap.
Snap is also hiring for a shows partnership lead, someone who will “drive the expansion of Snapchat’s Discover platform through partnerships with studios, networks, and production companies,” according a recent job posting.
Facebook, with CollegeHumor co-founder Ricky Van Veen and TV news vet Campbell Brown, presents competition. The company has a Discover clone with 10 partners and is simultaneously in conversations for series with studios. Publishers, though, still see them differently.
“Snapchat for whoever is hosting, we say, ‘Go crazy, have fun.'”
“Facebook is good, engaging written content. Snapchat for whoever is hosting, we say, ‘Go crazy, have fun.’ It’s about bringing out that personality,” said Maria McKenzie, social communications manager of travel guide company Lonely Planet, which has worked with Snapchat on Stories.
“I hope that it keeps growing strong. I hope people keep engaging and just have fun it,” she continued.
A sports publisher noted Snap often says “you watch the game on television, but you experience it on Snapchat.”
A flood of Shows isn’t expected. Just like Editions, only select partners are being brought on. NBCUniversal already has introduced The Voice and E: The Rundown. ABC/Disney is in with The Bachelor. Turner Broadcasting is expected to introduce shows from TBS, Adult Swim and truTV.
While these new experiences make the mobile screen more crowded, traditional publishers were positive about the addition. “Being early in the game has definitely been a benefit,” Mody of National Geographic said. “You develop a great bond and relationship with the team over at Snapchat.”
Shows “benefit everyone by creating more of a reason to come back every day,” Clark of Sweet said.