Snapchat's new features herald big challenge to Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp

Snapchat is intent on positioning itself as the most "human" method of chatting on your phone, says the chief executive of TMW Unlimited.

Snapchat's chat feature
Snapchat's chat feature

Up until now, Snapchat has always maintained that its main target is to cannibalise use of your camera app. 

When you want to capture a moment, Snapchat was focussed on making sure you instinctively clicked the yellow ghost icon to document it, not the default grey camera icon. Heavy on "snap", lighter on "chat", if you like.

But Snapchat’s latest tranche of updates look to do something else. They’ve very pointedly designed to cannibalise the ways in which you’re communicating via your phone and messaging apps.

Up to this point, Snapchat’s chat platform has been relatively limited – it hasn’t been tempting users away from Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Viber and WeChat as a primary messaging tool. In fact, over 70 per cent of Snapchat users are regularly using Facebook Messenger to chat, according to Global Web Index.

But this massive new set of chat features firmly positions Snapchat not just as a credible rival to your phone’s camera, but as a credible rival to those two messaging giants too.

Snapchat users will have a message waiting for them from @teamsnapchat giving them the lowdown on the new features, but here are a few key headlines of what it calls Chat 2.0:

  • Video and audio calls, which can be made at any time regardless of whether the recipient is already chatting with you
  • Video and audio notes allow users to send short, looped recordings
  • Conversations that flick between video and audio calls, recorded notes, images, stickers and text at any point during a chat
  • Send photos during a video or audio call
  • Over 200 chat stickers which surface based on text you’ve typed

It’s clear that Snapchat’s intention isn’t just to replicate existing messaging app functionality though. Whilst Facebook Messenger pursues ecommerce, and WhatsApp remains, for now, focussed on simplicity of communication, Snapchat is intent on positioning itself as the most "human" method of chatting on your phone.

It describes itself as "second only to hanging out face-to-face", evidenced by the seamless transitioning between messaging behaviours - through audio, video, text, images, live, recorded, listening, watching or participating.

In theory, it’s the closest thing on your device to truly ‘natural’ communication, uninhibited by rigid conversation format silos. And of course, just like "hanging out face-to-face", for better or worse there’s no written record of your conversation history.

In its current form, no part of this communication suite Snapchat is building has anything to do with monetisation directly. Rather, it’s an attempt to retain users within the app by being as much of a one-stop-shop as possible. Naturally, the more time people are spending within the app chatting, the more likely they are to wander through to the Discover channels and Live Stories which are rich in commercial content and the best opportunity for credible brands right now.

That isn’t going to cut it though for the large portions of the marketing industry who are sceptical as to whether Snapchat can build an effective business model to connect marketers and brands to its huge user base.

With other messaging apps trialling customer service initiatives, Facebook Messenger allowing users to order an Uber in-conversation, and others experimenting with payment systems, these latest updates won’t do anything to alleviate the scrutiny Snapchat is under to prove itself as a marketing engagement platform.

Interestingly enough there are plenty of users complaining already about the "auto advance" feature for stories and no guarantees that users will embrace this latest suite of changes as universally positive, never mind brands.

As it stands, we’re no closer to understanding whether Snapchat has a clear roadmap on monetisation, or if it’s just continuing to enthusiastically grow its user base without one, in the hope it can be bolted on later.

Chris Pearce is the chief executive at TMW Unlimited

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