When Snapchat first rolled out its redesigned app to a select group in January — users in Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom — it was met with an immediate backlash. The test group begged Snapchat for a way to uninstall the new version. Later, when that version was released globally, over half a million people signed a petition clamoring to get the old app back. Not long after, Kylie Jenner declared via Twitter she was “so sad” but she just doesn’t really use Snapchat anymore. The company’s valuation dropped a billion dollars — yes, that’s billion with a “b” – after her tweet.
It’s one thing to lose your favorite social network. It’s another thing entirely, though, if your job depends on Snapchat. Just ask the social-media managers and producers working on Snapchat Discover stories in partnership with the company. Since the app was redesigned, publishers say numbers have been disconcertingly all over the place — so all over the place, in fact, that Snap has quietly invited publishers on both coasts to attend daylong summits this month to hopefully sort things out. Select All spoke with a number of Snap content producers and channel managers who were granted anonymity in order to speak freely. (New York’s Vulture is a publisher on Snapchat Discover. Vulture employees who work on Snapchat Discover stories declined to comment for this piece.)
“Traffic has plummeted since the update,” one source said. “I’m sure it’s different brand-by-brand, but we’re seeing way lower numbers.” They said that the exact fluctuation varies by edition — Snap-speak for a publication’s daily or weekly content on the platform — but the source said that, in general, views have dropped by “more than half.”
Snap’s Discover media partners made over $100 million in 2017, according to the company’s Q4 earnings report. But now that Snap’s redesign separates content from friends and content from celebrities and publishers into separate sections of the app, it’s unclear if media partners can continue to expect that kind of revenue.
“It’s hard to motivate people to sink time into sick animation work when the numbers come back and it’s like, ‘oh, almost no one is seeing this,’” they said. A source at a different publication said things were similarly turned upside down for their production team when Snapchat changed its app: “All of our numbers just went haywire. Our unique views skyrocketed, but time-spent numbers sank.” As part of the Snap redesign, the app now autoplays another edition after the one a user has selected to watch ends. That means if you open the app and choose to watch an edition from Bleacher Report, you could find yourself watching Cosmopolitan’s edition automatically without ever having selected it.
Not everyone is freaking out yet. “There is some volatility, but I think that’s something you see with any sort of redesign. And the numbers have gotten more consistent recently as the machine learning gets smarter,” a third source, who is a fan of the new autoplay feature, said of their publication’s numbers post-redesign. (In layman’s terms, Snapchat’s system is supposed to train itself to identify what a user is interested in seeing.) But the metrics volatility is dovetailing troublingly with seemingly decreased internal support for partnerships. Every person Select All spoke with said their partnerships with the platform had been affected by Snapchat’s recent string of layoffs. Most recently the company let go of 100 people in its sales department, the third round of layoffs for the company this year.
For some publishers, the change was seamless — “Our contacts continue to be helpful,” said one source — but for others, the transition has been frustrating. “At this moment, we have almost no reachable contact at Snap,” another source said. “Before the layoffs, about two or three months ago, we had Discover reps who would help us workshop tile copy and gave us feedback on performance. They are now essentially all gone and we get either radio silence or a delayed response. I think because they are so overwhelmed trying to make up for lost people.”
Snapchat started partnering with publishers like BuzzFeed and CNN back in 2015, when it rolled out the “Discover” section of the app. Publishers would produce made-for-Snap — or reformatted-for-Snap — content featuring “full screen photos and videos, awesome long form layouts, and gorgeous advertising,” the company announced in a blog post at the time. In contrast to other platforms with more contentious relationships with the media industry — like the one whose CEO is currently testifying in front of Congress — Snapchat’s pitch was that it loved, respected, and would closely with established media brands. “We only work with authoritative and credible media companies, and we unashamedly have a significant team of producers, creators, and journalists,” Nick Bell, Snap’s vice president for content, told Bloomberg in 2017 when discussing Snap’s lack of a fake news problem.
Over the next two weeks, Snapchat is leaning heavily on the good relationships it’s established, hosting summits with publishers in both New York City and Los Angeles. (New York City’s kicks off with a happy hour on Thursday evening.) “We received a poll asking us detailed questions about what we’d like to address, and what we’d like to learn from other publishers,” a source said of the upcoming event.
Publishers are also, obviously, acutely concerned with whether or not Snap’s redesign and recent string of bad press are actually driving users away. Earlier this year, Rihanna refused to accept Snap’s apology after it ran an ad asking users if they would rather “slap” her or “punch Chris Brown.” Chrissy Teigen later cited the ad as one of the reasons she has stopped using the app.
The publisher summits have been in the works for months, according to a Snapchat executive. (Snap declined to provide any on-the-record information regarding the summits.) Invitations were sent out in early January and Snap says getting all their partners into a room to connect both with the company and with each other is something they’ve wanted to do for a long time. Of course, the timing is also such that those invites went out riiiiight around the same time the redesigned app launched, which Snap CEO Evan Spiegel acknowledged would likely be “disruptive,” in the short term. “We’re willing to take that risk,” he said in a letter to investors in 2017 announcing the update.
Freak-outs over major platform changes tend to follow a pretty standard timeline. The people who spoke with Select All say they are trying remain bullish that Snapchat will overcome its recent problems. “This just seems like growing pains that many social-media platforms deal with,” one said. “I still believe that Snapchat is one of the best emerging platforms if you’re looking to reach a highly engaged, new audience.”
“You kind of have to be optimistic to work with Snapchat,” another said. “There’s a fair amount of unease. At some level it’s [the app redesign] giving us room to mess around and experiment … but it’s mostly scary to feel like you’re not in control of your content’s success.”
Someone else put it a little more bluntly. “As far as job security, there’s a reason Snapchat is nowhere in my title.”