Photograph by Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg via Getty Images
By Mathew Ingram
March 31, 2016

It can be difficult to get a handle on Snapchat sometimes, and not just because of its notoriously user-hostile (at least for old people) design. It’s also a slippery target because it keeps changing so rapidly—the Snapchat you thought you knew six months or a year ago isn’t the same Snapchat you’ll be using tomorrow.

What is abundantly clear is the ultimate goal of all of these changes and additions, however: Namely, total domination of every relevant form of social media, using messaging as a delivery system.

The latest iteration came this week with the addition of new features including video calling, audio and video messaging, GIFs, and stickers. Unlike a lot of other messaging apps, all of the new features are blended together—users can seamlessly toggle between video and audio, send short notes, and draw on top of shared photos.

In effect, Snapchat has acquired a massive audience by starting with a single popular feature—namely, photos that disappeared automatically—and building on that with additional services that appeal to different aspects of its market. The first was Stories, collections of photos and videos that users can create and share, which last for 24 hours.

The second big feature was Discover, which allowed media companies and advertisers to create their own stories. And now it has added enhanced video and audio calling, stickers, and photo sharing, for example—features that other messaging apps such as the wildly successful WeChat in China have generated huge amounts of value from.

Messaging is seen by many as the next big springboard for communication and commerce in North America, and everyone is currently jockeying for position in that market. Facebook and Slack, the corporate messaging startup, both clearly have their sights set on the kind of dominance that WeChat has, where intelligent agents or “bots” offer everything from entertainment to shopping features through a messaging interface.

While Snapchat may not have bots yet, it clearly has the kind of messaging-focused millennial audience that other services would kill for, and the addition of chat, stickers, and other features is part of its move to dominate that market.

According to a pitch deck the company has been sharing with advertisers, Snapchat’s 100 million or so daily users already spend between 25 and 30 minutes on the service every day. That’s the kind of engagement that advertisers dream of, and it’s roughly in the same neighborhood as Facebook. Snapchat also said recently it is generating more than 8 billion video views a day, which is also roughly comparable to Facebook.

Courtesy of Snapchat
Courtesy of Snapchat

 

It’s not just chat, either. Snapchat also seems to have its eye on the emerging world of virtual or augmented reality, much like Facebook (fb) does with its Oculus Riff. Snapchat reportedly has a dozen experts in wearable technology on staff working on a top-secret project.

As it expands its feature set, Snapchat has also been beefing up its appeal to advertisers in a number of ways. It signed a deal that lets Viacom sell advertising on the service, it deepened a partnership with Nielsen to measure the effectiveness of its ads, and it recently hired two senior executives with expertise in ad measurement.

And as its ambitions have grown, so has the company’s valuation. Facebook once tried to acquire Snapchat for $3 billion and many believed that CEO Evan Spiegel made a mistake by not selling, but the company is currently valued at more than $15 billion.

Watch: “We want to make media for the way the world is today.”

On the media side, Snapchat isn’t satisfied with just allowing users to share funny videos or share marked-up photos. It hired CNN correspondent Peter Hamby last year to beef up its news operation, just announced a three-year partnership with World Wrestling Entertainment, and it has been rapidly adding media outlets to the Discover feature.

Discover now has 23 media companies distributing content through the app, and some of them have set up multi-person teams specifically to create stories for Snapchat. The Wall Street Journal has a five-person team and Fusion has 10 full and part-time staffers working on its Discover channel. Cosmopolitan has said that it gets about 19 million views a month on its channel, almost as many as its website gets.

The kind of social connection that brands can generate through Snapchat has some comparing it to reality television. According to one report, the channel that one of the Kardashian sisters distributes through Snapchat routinely gets more than 2 million views for each story she posts. The reality TV show devoted to the Kardashians has an audience of about two million viewers.

As media-industry insiders and analysts love to point out, the number of TV viewers a show gets can’t really be compared to the number of views of a Snapchat channel or a Facebook clip, because they measure viewers differently. Facebook considers a video to have been viewed if it is visible for three seconds, whereas TV measurement looks at the average audience in every minute a program is being broadcast.

In any case, whatever the specific numbers are, there is no question a huge amount of attention is being devoted to Snapchat and the content that gets distributed through it, and a large amount of that attention is coming from younger users. And that is pulling in advertising as its share of audience increases. If you are a media company of any kind, Snapchat is becoming a potentially powerful partner—but also a potentially powerful competitor as well.

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