In the past few months, the mobile messaging app Snapchat has been generating buzz unlike any it has before. Despite years of high engagement and growing usership, Snapchat has only recently shed the bad reputation with which it had long been saddled. (Gary Vaynerchuk wrote a great retrospective on Snapchat’s journey yesterday.) Finally convinced that Snapchat is a legitimate social platform, brands are flocking to reach its coveted millennial audience.
In order to do that, marketers are hard at work trying to pinpoint what makes Snapchat so alluring to young people. That’s easier said than done. We millennials are the most elusive marketing demographic in history; we “must be sold to on [our] terms,” as one trade publication put it, and we resent anything that seems to be cloying. But the Snapchat marketing revolution is here, ready or not. As big advertising money starts to line up, the question has become pressing. What is it about Snapchat that millennials love?
The answer: agencies might want to start getting good at making very short ads.
As AdWeek suggests, Snapchat’s success stems from its status as “The King of Millennial Micro-Moments.” Young users prefer digital media to be short. It’s a format that feels more natural to digital natives than long, high-stakes content. Microlearning, which is the use of micro content for educational purposes, engages learners using some of the same principles that power Snapchat. And it’s the only way to meet millennials on our terms.
Forget sexting. It’s about spontaneity.
For most of Snapchat’s history, the app was an enigma to the non-millennial world. When it exploded onto the scene in 2012, pearl-clutching journalists assumed one use for an app that let its mostly-young users take self-deleting pictures. The New York Times spelled out the horror.
Three percent of teenagers admit to sending sexually explicit content [using a smartphone]. All of this sexting, as the practice is known, creates an opening for technology that might make the photos less likely to end up in wide circulation.
This is where a free and increasingly popular iPhone app called Snapchat comes in.
Is that where Snapchat comes in? Because 3% of a subset of the population isn’t that many people. Certainly not enough of a critical mass to make an app the biggest of its generation. Truth is, the notion that Snapchat took off due to mass prurience runs counter to what users and product data have consistently reported. One study found that just 2% of Snapchatters primarily use the app to send risqué material, while 60% use it to send “funny stuff” to their friends. Other user polls have reported the same finding, and the company’s usership data corroborates it: 80% of all content is sent during the day. Sub-optimal sexting hours for any generation.
Dirty old journalists aside, the allure of Snapchat does have to do with carefree abandon—but in a different way.
Millennials grew up with social media as part of our generational DNA. We’ve profoundly internalized the need for curated public profiles. Micro content—in this case a photo or video that deletes itself—frees users from the need to overanalyze what they’re posting. That makes it more fun. Jordan Crook, writing in TechCrunch, explains.
The pressure to maintain an appropriate, attractive presence on the Internet has weighed on me since college. It’s been with [my sister] for her entire life. She’s 19, and will force our family to stand in 100-degree weather for hours to get the perfect shot of her smile. [But] the snaps she sends me could be called ugly—her on the porch, in the dark, with a goofy look on her face.
If she was posting this on Facebook, or Instagram, or even sending it to me on MMS, it wouldn’t be the same picture… There’s an intimacy that comes with Snapchat that makes those pictures safe, and much more enjoyable.
The liberation of low stakes also benefits microlearning. When a learner is faced with the prospect of watching a short video instead of slogging through a long piece of training content, they’re more likely to do it—and to like it. Micro lessons don’t disappear, but you can see what you need to see and get on with life. Just like a snap.
Being in the moment means more engagement
Snapchat’s light-hearted take on social media helps users stay in the moment, which is an important principle in microlearning. “Just-in-time learning” means getting information the moment you need it, in a way you can use, without disrupting your workflow. It’s only really possible to achieve with micro material. Anything longer would either be distracting or not be worth the time you’d need to learn.
Just-in-time also translates to more learning, and Snapchat illustrates why. Because the app only lets you create a short video or one-line photo annotation, there’s less of a chance to deliberate your post. That makes the barrier to user engagement low. The result? Snapchat hosts 5 times as many posts as Instagram every day—despite having a quarter of the user base. Micro media powers this level of engagement with learning, too.
Micro enables flexible storytelling
In 2013, Snapchat launched Stories, an innovation that went on to revolutionize their product. This feature allows users to string several individual snaps into a bigger story about a weekend trip, a night out, a party, and so on. Stories bring together disparate, sometimes unrelated snippets of a person’s life into a single bricolage that somehow ends up carrying a deeper narrative than any status update or tweet.
You may have seen this game on TV. But you didn’t see it like this.
This is essentially how microlearning works. A micro approach lets you organize content in endless permutations, telling endless “stories.” The ability to repurpose content as the learning objective dictates is part of what makes microlearning more scalable for organizations and more personal to learners.
Shorter media, happier users
Obviously, Snapchat is not designed to be a learning tool. (Case in point—one of the most important elements of effective microlearning is repetition, which is pretty well precluded by disappearing content.)
But there’s a reason Snapchat’s user engagement blows other apps out of the water, and there’s a reason it makes users happier than any other social media platform: micro content is more accessible than any other content format. The pressure is lower. Spontaneity is easier. It’s a more honest and more fun viewpoint than what you see in the strangled PR of Facebook. All of these qualities derive from Snapchat’s use of micro content.
Psychologically, socially, and technologically, this is how millennials prefer our content. We seek it out and engage with it more. And if the success of both Snapchat and microlearning is any indication, we may just be onto something.
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