It feels like just yesterday that Instagram egregiously "borrowed" the Snapchat features and design elements when it rolled out Instagram Stories. It was right around the time influencers started going #viral with their own inputs, Twitter was getting louder than normal, and everyone around our office (a technology company) started to get this glaring feeling: "Snapchat is dead."
That feeling lingered as bankers and nontechies would ask me, "So, Ben, what do you think of Snapchat?" I stayed consistent even through Snapchat's $3.4 billion raise in its IPO round. "They won't make it a year. Facebook is going to destroy them," I said.
Ten months and some changes later, I'm starting to reconsider my past sentiments. Snapchat may no longer be the coolest social network around, but I think it's a big mistake to say it's out of the race.
Fickle players make an interesting game
You see, it's not the advisers, lawyers, or analysts that matter. It's the 15-year-old nonbinary introvert who's currently obsessed with Musical.ly, fame, and motivational quotes on Instagram. A social media power user who flip-flops more than any presidential candidate and is harder to read than last year's World Series of Poker champion. But there's one thing about them that's certainly true, and that they've got in common with Millennials: They have zero loyalty.
As of late, Instagram has been catching some major "L's," as the youngsters like to say. Between leaks of manipulation, bots, and influencers breaking FTC laws to promote products or music festivals in their posts, we've seen some interesting turns with Facebook's protégé. You wonder how long a Goliath can continue to stay relevant before "taking an L" in today's fast-paced world.
Millennials can smell a rat
So, what was the latest L thrown? Well, it was by one of the most notorious lifestyle influencers on Instagram, Jay Alvarrez. He's a promoter out of Hawaii who manufactured an "Insta famous" content creator career overnight with now ex-girlfriend Alexis Ren.
Jay is notorious for his perfect life traveling the globe, his hot girlfriend, his six-pack, and his manbun. According to sources, the 21-year-old has raked in more than $1.6 million in earnings from YouTube payouts and brand sponsorships. I presume that figure is a lot higher now since his latest stunt in Dubai.
Last week, Jay published a new video sponsored by Dubai and the United Arab Emirates in which he brags about the blank-check budget he had to fly in his friends from L.A., borrow some Saudi royalty Lamborghinis for the shoot, and act extremely recklessly in the sand dunes of the UAE. You can't shoot this without some borrowed lions and tigers hanging from the passenger side of the car.
The whole video reeked of sponsored content and was really underwhelming. I mean, think about the possibilities when a Saudi prince gives you a blank check to shoot some content.
Well, Jay's followers felt the same way as soon as it went viral. Let's just say they turned on him real quick, and the hate spread like a cancer all over Instagram. He even had to publish a "mixed feelings" memo almost instantaneously to react to all the hate.
The backlash spread so fast that within five days he actually decided to sell his $110,000 tricked-out Mercedes SUV and move from L.A. to cleanse his soul, as he writes on his last Instagram post on his way to Moscow. This should be a reminder that you can't trick Generation Z with subliminal sponsored content: They will roast you quicker than any Reddit troll can organize. They know their ads.
Nobody's out of the race
With events like this becoming more and more common, social media influencers have taken to new platforms to start promoting original content.
Take Snapchat. Gary Vaynerchuk, influencer extraordinaire, was one of the first to start promoting or repromoting his Snapchat over the weekend. He even included his own Bitmoji. Something about the UI and the ephemerality gives Snapchat something of a more personalized feel, and it's not as easy to manipulate with bots and other tools as other platforms. Snapchat forces content creators to express themselves in a more authentic way.
Nobody ever doubted whether Snapchat could innovate. It has bled innovation ever since its early days of expiring nude selfies. It rebranded, released a hardware product, and went public all in a single year. It operates pretty nimbly for a startup tech unicorn.
The challenge has always been whether Snapchat would be able to retain its users and keep up with the engagement and eyeballs that Instagram has been sniping from it.
At first, I had my mind made up about the Instagram vs. Snapchat debate: Instagram will trounce Snapchat in the end. With the deep pockets of Facebook and peripheral access to a record-shattering user base of two billion, Instagram seemed like the clear-cut victor.
Now, though, I'm not so sure.
Snapchat is a hard company to predict, and while its innovations sometimes seem frivolous, they're often wins for the brand, even if they're not wins financially. It's hard to know if that will be enough to keep Snapchat going, but its history has been one of continuous surprises -- so for now, I'm open to being surprised.
I, for one, am going to enjoy this ride and possibly even put my bet on Snapchat for this round. When parents join Instagram, it's a sign to run away and never look back, but personally, I don't know many parents who have even figured out how the interface on Snapchat works. And according to App Annie, we're still seeing a pretty nice trajectory of user downloads on Snapchat.
So, what's the lesson to be learned from all this? Never call the race before you see the photo. Goliath may seem like he's in control, but Gen-Zers are near clairvoyant with ads and have zero loyalty. Make them mad, and they'll torch a billion-dollar platform overnight and bring convoys of followers with them.
It may look like the race is over -- but something tells me it's just getting started.