Snapchat Has One of Social’s Priciest Ad Formats and Everyone Loves It

A social media platform, looking to monetize content they give out for free, is charging brands six figures for unique 10-second ad units. And publishers are loving it. Sounds insane, right? Well, Snapchat has figured out how to monetize the impossible: social media.

Rather than artificially plummeting organic reach (Facebook) or forcing ads with low-grade creative (Instagram), Snapchat has gone in a completely different direction. Over the past year, they’ve rolled out three different sponsored opportunities for brands: geofilters, platform interstitials, and lenses. For larger publishers, they’ve also launched a “Discover” platform used to great effect by Vox, Buzzfeed, and IGN. “Discover” mimics Twitter’s “Moments” except people actually intentionally click on it.

Snapchat’s biggest success story is also its most expensive—costing anywhere between $100,000 to $750,000 for holidays and huge events, their “lenses” feature can recognize your face and apply a real-time visual (and animated) effect to it. Compare this to a 24-hour Promoted Trend on Twitter, which is comparatively cheaper at $10,000 to $50,000. Lenses are also unique to each media buy; they can’t be easily optimized like other digital ad units.

Let’s add another layer of craziness to this: not only are publishers buying these ad units (around 50 have been released since its launch) but Snapchat users are also using them. 30 million snaps use the lens feature daily and the one launched by Taco Bell for Cinco de Mayo was viewed over 224 million times in 24 hours. Not a typo. Gatorade’s Super Bowl lens was also a hit, garnering over 165 million views.

How has Snapchat succeeded where so many before them have failed? The answer’s pretty simple: Snapchat is providing a value add to their product that complements what already exists. When Twitter launched their Moments feature last year, it became clear that Twitter was attempting to curate time-delayed news stories for a platform that thrived on real-time engagement. One of Twitter’s current Moments stories is a recap of the #DemThrones hashtag, a hashtag with amusing live commentary of the latest episode of Game of Thrones (including by yours truly). #DemThrones is an of-the-moment hashtag. To truly experience it, you have to be more than just a day-after passerby.

daenerys must have listened to an early cut of lemonade before that meeting. 

In contrast, Snapchat knows exactly what it’s for: sending amusing and occasionally embarrassing pictures to your friends that you can rest assured will disappear within a few seconds (unless you have rude friends). The creative for lenses and filters gets this idea completely right: they’re fun and relevant enough that I don’t actually mind that it’s advertising Starbucks or Taco Bell.

At work, we spent five minutes getting the Cinco de Mayo lens “just right” and then other people gathered around to see what was going on. There was an exact moment where we all went “Woah, this is for Taco Bell!” And, guess what? We sent it to several people we knew.


Of course, there’s still one large problem with Snapchat’s monetization scheme: since Snapchat is a closed ecosystem by nature, it’s even harder than other forms of social media to derive ROI. The only thing a filter, lens, or ad can do right now is go viral. Taco Bell knows very well that the Cinco de Mayo snap I sent to 17 people did not lead to me buying a taco (OPEN UP ANOTHER LOCATION IN DC UNION STATION IS SO FAR AND THE ONE IN GEORGETOWN IS OPEN LIKE TWO HOURS A DAY). Still, that may be enough for now in a social media landscape that has been notoriously hard to monetize.

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