‘Snapchat isn’t so­cial me­dia. We con­nect deeply’

In the af­ter­math of the ‘tech­lash’, Snap Inc ex­ec­u­tive Claire Valoti tells Matthew Field why the app can’t be tarred with same brush as ri­vals

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Technology Intelligence -

If there’s one thing you need to know about Snapchat, it’s that it is dif­fer­ent from other so­cial net­works. That’s the mes­sage the com­pany’s in­ter­na­tional vice pres­i­dent, Claire Valoti, is keen to stress. At a time when fake news, dis­in­for­ma­tion, hack­ing, tax­a­tion and cor­po­rate scan­dals have en­gulfed many of Sil­i­con Val­ley’s once dar­ling tech com­pa­nies, the mes­sag­ing app’s par­ent com­pany, Snap, feels it has been tarred by the same brush as its more un­scrupu­lous com­peti­tors.

It’s a prob­lem it could do with­out. With a host of up­grades to its app

– not all well-re­ceived – a share price ham­mer­ing to its low­est level and a host of ex­ec­u­tive ex­its, 2018 has been a tu­mul­tuous year.

“It’s fair to say it’s been a busy year, but I say that with a smile,” Valoti says.

Valoti is Snap’s most se­nior fe­male ex­ec­u­tive, an up­beat, ex­u­ber­ant char­ac­ter, and a re­spected op­er­a­tor in the male-dom­i­nated world of dig­i­tal ad­ver­tis­ing and UK tech.

A key hire for Snap back in 2016, Valoti joined as one of the com­pany’s first over­seas em­ploy­ees to head up its UK and in­ter­na­tional op­er­a­tions from ri­val Face­book – a com­pany that has been ac­cused of copy­ing some of Snap’s most in­no­va­tive fea­tures.

Snap Inc, as the com­pany is now known, has come a long way from be­ing the Snapchat plat­form that went vi­ral on univer­sity cam­puses and in schools seven years ago. The num­ber of Snapchat users in the UK is ex­pected to reach 16.2m this year, with 31pc be­ing be­tween 18 and 24.

The firm floated in New York in 2017 at a $24bn (£18.9bn) val­u­a­tion, one of the big­gest so­cial me­dia floats since Face­book. The app, which started as a way to send dis­ap­pear­ing pic­tures to friends and be­came pop­u­lar with teenagers and un­der­25s, was seen as a lu­cra­tive al­ter­na­tive to Face­book, which had wit­nessed user growth slow­ing.

Valoti is speak­ing to me at Snap’s hide­away of­fice in Soho. The com­pany has gar­nered a rep­u­ta­tion for se­crecy. Chief ex­ec­u­tive Evan Spiegel, the com­pany’s 28-year-old founder, is con­sid­ered a stick­ler for keep­ing the com­pany’s go­ings on pri­vate. Founded by Spiegel when he was just 21 along with Bobby Mur­phy, Snapchat was seen as an an­swer to the big net­works with hun­dreds of Face­book “friends” or thou­sands of Twit­ter fol­low­ers. Snapchat brought users back to their close con­tacts with pri­vate pic­tures and mes­sages – and had a pri­vacy fo­cus with dis­ap­pear­ing pic­tures for those Snaps that were more in­dis­creet.

Valoti joined at the height of its surg­ing growth at a time when it was busy rais­ing bil­lions of dol­lars in ven­ture fund­ing. It had seen huge suc­cess with Sto­ries – a daily video fea­ture that let users share per­sonal short videos. Valoti was to help shore up ad­ver­tiser and news part­ner­ships in Europe and over­see its rapid ex­pan­sion.

Its founders’ take on the smart­phone cam­era had quickly demon­strated to in­vestors that peo­ple were in­creas­ingly turn­ing to it as “the fastest way to com­mu­ni­cate”.

“Evan and Bobby recog­nised the value of the cam­era,” Valoti says, “Snapchat does not sit in so­cial me­dia. We are about con­nect­ing you deeper to those you are al­ready in a re­la­tion­ship with.”

Snap has tried hard to po­si­tion it­self as some­thing other than so­cial me­dia – call­ing it­self “a cam­era com­pany” in its IPO prospec­tus.

But since then, Snap’s progress has been about as rocky as its share price. The com­pany is worth just $6 per share, down from $27 at its float.

The dif­fi­cul­ties have largely stemmed from its hugely ag­gres­sive ri­val – Face­book. Mark Zucker­berg and Face­book were not sit­ting idly af­ter Spiegel turned down ac­qui­si­tion at­tempts said to be worth many bil­lions of dol­lars.

In­stead, Face­book weaponised In­sta­gram, its own pic­ture-shar­ing ef­fort, tak­ing core el­e­ments that had been key to Snap’s suc­cess, such as launch­ing its own ri­val Sto­ries fea­ture, daily videos pro­duced by users. For Snap, the mis­sion has been about show­ing its core dif­fer­ences with its big­ger ri­val. In fact, be­ing “dif­fer­ent” is some­thing Valoti is keen to stress – men­tion­ing the word 17 times in our con­ver­sa­tion.

That has led to al­most two years of ex­per­i­men­ta­tion for Snap. It re­designed its app, has launched new video con­tent in the form of orig­i­nal mo­bile-phone shows and launched hard­ware in the form of pic­ture­tak­ing Spec­ta­cles.

But it has not gone smoothly. A re­design sep­a­rated its Dis­cover sec­tion from mes­sages from friends, es­sen­tially split­ting up user-gen­er­ated con­tent and brand-and-pub­lisher con­tent. Users, in­clud­ing celebri­ties like Kylie Jen­ner, were out­raged. Jen­ner’s tweet of dis­ap­point­ment is said to have been one of the most costly of all time.

“The mis­take we made was to for­get about the im­por­tance of be­hav­iour,” Valoti says. “We were very ea­ger to get the re­design out be­cause we be­lieved it was im­por­tant

‘The mis­take we made was to for­get about the im­por­tance of be­hav­iour. We were very ea­ger to get the re­design out be­cause we wanted to sep­a­rate con­tent fron friends’

to sep­a­rate con­tent from friends.”

Snapchat is a slightly be­wil­der­ing app to use at the best of times, at least for any­one north of 25.

But ac­cord­ing to Valoti, Snap has done “an aw­ful lot” in seven years. Ex­pec­ta­tions are “higher and tougher” than they were on ri­vals. “Where other plat­forms do things they as­sume we have as well. We have to be bet­ter at ex­plain­ing our dif­fer­ences.”

Those, she says, are a com­mit­ment to user safety and pri­vacy, an ac­tive role in com­bat­ting dis­in­for­ma­tion and em­brac­ing new data laws. Snap has forged part­ner­ships with many of the UK’s lead­ing pub­lish­ers, in­clud­ing The Daily Tele­graph.

“Ev­ery­thing on Dis­cover is mod­er­ated by hu­man ed­i­tors,” Valoti says, rather than al­go­rithms. Many news or­gan­i­sa­tions now em­ploy teams of Snapchat spe­cial­ists ded­i­cated to get­ting out mo­bile-friendly news to young smart­phone users.

But while Valoti’s out­look is pos­i­tive, the chal­lenges are huge. Its ef­forts to launch its own con­tent are am­bi­tious and al­most cer­tainly ex­pen­sive, and it re­mains to be seen if this can be a hit with ad­ver­tis­ers. Snap’s in­vest­ment in con­tent was re­cently hit by the de­par­ture of top ex­ec­u­tive Nick Bell, who headed up the busi­ness line.

And the num­bers still look tricky. Snap’s shares are down 67pc from its Fe­bru­ary highs, a ma­jor fall even among the tech de­clines of re­cent months. Snap’s daily ac­tive users, a key met­ric for mea­sur­ing en­gage­ment, have fallen to around 186 mil­lion com­pared with more than 400 mil­lion on In­sta­gram.

Not all in­vestors are down in the mouth about Snap. Short-sell­ers Citron Re­search re­cently flipped its guid­ance, say­ing the stock was un­der­val­ued. There are op­por­tu­ni­ties for growth, Valoti says. Snap claims as many as 70pc of 13 to 34-year-olds in cer­tain mar­kets have used its app. Snap says it is now fo­cus­ing on the over-35 crowd to re­vive user growth.

It has big plans for aug­mented re­al­ity (AR), and could soon re­lease AR-en­abled Spec­ta­cles. It also has am­bi­tions to break into new mes­sag­ing mar­kets, hir­ing some of its first staff in In­dia to ap­peal to more An­droid smart­phone users around the world.

Tech has had a bad year. Terms like “tech­lash” and “apol­ogy tours” have spread to all cor­ners of the me­dia and plenty of for­mer tech ex­ec­u­tives them­selves.

But Valoti is con­fi­dent Snap can still come out on a high, re­mind­ing users just why they loved the app in the first place. “We have learned a lot this year,” she says. “Next year is about be­ing laser fo­cused.”

Claire Valoti, Snap Inc’s in­ter­na­tional vice pres­i­dent, at its Euro­pean head­quar­ters in Soho, London. Snap says it is now fo­cus­ing on the over-35 crowd to re­vive user growth

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.