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Snapping all the way to the white house

Teenagers know it, and so does Hillary Clinton – Snapchat is a must. 60 per cent of Americans between 13 and 34 years are using the app, and several American presidential candidates are doing the same to get their message out to first-time voters. The challenge is to catch their attention in the right way, says Louise Roug from Mashable.

“There is no harder riddle to solve in politics than reaching young Americans who are very interested in the future of their country but don’t engage with traditional news,” a former advisor to President Barack Obama told the New York Times earlier this year. “Snapchat may have just made it a whole lot easier to solve this riddle.” The article posed the question: “Will 2016 be the Snapchat election?” – a question much debated since.

100 million users

First launched under the coy name “Picaboo”, Snapchat may have begun as a sexting app for teenagers. But as other ephemeral messaging apps have waned or died, Snapchat has continued to grow. Today, only four years after its launch, Snapchat has become a behemoth that neither publishers nor politicians can afford to ignore. Snapchat attracts more than 60 per cent of American smartphone users between 13 and 34 years old. It has 100 million active users, and gets more than three billion video views every day.

Given those overwhelming numbers, political candidates wanting to expand their base, especially among first-time voters, have quickly jumped on the platform. And the company itself clearly sees opportunity in political advertising. “Snapchat is all about stories, and political ads have become an important part of our nation’s storytelling,” the company said recently. “But political advertising that appears on Snapchat has to be right for our users.”

A playfull approach

Being “right” means being more fun, and several presidential candidates have tried a more playful approach on Snapchat with varying degrees of success. This summer, for example, the Republican candidate Rand Paul posted a short video in which he took a chainsaw to the United States tax code, shredding the sizable document to the soundtrack of the Star-Spangled Banner

Hillary Clinton has also been “snapping” and even joked recently about the fact that Snapchat content isn’t permanent. Referring to the controversy surrounding her use of a private server for emails during her time as Secretary of State, Clinton quipped: “You may have seen that I recently launched a Snapchat account? I love it,” she said. “Those messages disappear all by themselves.” It’s a joke – but it’s also one of the platform’s main qualities. While diaries, photo albums and social platforms such as Facebook and Instagram are places for carefully edited posts about one’s self and life, Snapchat embraces the ephemeral. “Snaps” are no more than ten seconds long and disappear after 24 hours, removing the fear that the shared content – explicit or not – will come back to haunt you. As the company writes, in a subtle dig at the competition: “Snaps are a reflection of who you are in the moment – there is no need to curate an everlasting persona.”

Immediate and intimate

Impermanence means some degree of privacy, and for a generation who has grown up under surveillance – online and in real life – that’s compelling. Snapchat is a space where you can do and say silly things – and likely not be held accountable later. (Though it is, of course, possible to screenshoot snaps.)

It’s impermanent but also immediate and intimate, allowing anyone to instantly share video and live moments to a huge audience without the filter of other networks. The result is at times silly, at times profound, but oftencompelling. It feels like a conversation among friends, peppered with short videos, photos, stickers and emojis.

Users can navigate between three different “screens” – one for messaging with your friends, one that showcases public stories and Discover – the platform’s news partnerships with carefully selected publishers that in the U.S. include BuzzFeed, the Daily Mail, Cosmopolitan, CNN and Mashable.

Mashable started publishing stories on the platform early on, and that’s paid off in terms of building a loyal audience. For the team that’s devoted to creating the animation, motion graphics and other multimedia for the Snapchat Discover channel, the strategy is simple: Be creative, authentic and always ask yourself, “how can we best get, and keep, audience attention on this on-thego platform”?

In 2008, Barack Obama famously used Facebook to mobilize younger voters, which paid off at the polls, and infused his campaign with a sense of vigor. In terms of the 2016 election, any candidate – or publisher – who wants to reach younger, tech-savvy voters will have to develop a Snapchat strategy that’s engaging and distinctly different than the one-directional messages on television networks and older social platforms since the absence of a “stream” means that, ultimately, users have to come to you.

Designed for mobile

“You have to take someone out of the conversation they’re having with their friends,” says Claire Wardle, Research Director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. Wardle believes the platform is interesting because it has shown what content designed specifically for mobile can look like, suggesting how traditional events such as Iowa State Fair, one of the earliest political events of the U.S. presidential campaign season, can be covered in more compelling ways. “It really made what should be a dull political event look interesting,” she says.

For publishers, the platform presents both an opportunity and a challenge. While it’s a place to meet new audiences, it’s still a closed system that doesn’t allow news organizations to link back to their own sites. In other words, success on Snapchat doesn’t necessarily translate into audiences “at home.”

Another challenge is that Snapchat shares little demographic data and that, unlike Facebook where publishers and politicians can target content, it’s all but impossible to get Xads or stories in front of particular users. As Wired recently wrote: “Snapchat’s entire business model is built around keeping user data private, a fact one Republican digital strategist called ’antithetical to advertising’.” (Snapchat’s CEO Evan Spiegel once described targeted ads as “creepy”.)

But perhaps the most significant challenge of them all, whether you’re a publisher or a politician, is to create content that’s informative – yet at the same time fun and engaging.

As Wardle puts it: “You don’t want to come across as the dad dancing at the wedding.”

NAME: Louise Roug

TITLE: Global News Editor, Mashable

YEARS IN SCHIBSTED: Joined us for a seminar at Schibsted Journalism Awards 2015

WHAT I'M INSPIRED BY: How digital can make us more creative storytellers

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