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Snapchat Needs to Figure Out How to Serve Both the Youngs and the Olds

More than almost any other mobile app, Snapchat has developed a reputation for being difficult to use, especially for those over the age of 35—something that many blame on the video sharing app’s confusing interface. Despite this, however, there are signs that older users are taking to it in growing numbers.

Can Snapchat somehow manage to serve its loyal younger fans while also catering to the older users it needs to grow? The answer could help determine if the company is worth its theoretical $16 billion market value.

When it was launched in 2011, Snapchat’s user base appeared to be almost exclusively under the age of 20, most of whom used it to send goofy pictures and short video clips to a small group of friends—and one of the most appealing aspects of the app was that these messages automatically disappeared after 10 seconds.

This feature was the main reason why the service tended to get dismissed as just a “sexting” app, designed to appeal to teens who wanted to send racy photos of themselves to each other. But even in the early days, it was clear the company wanted to be much more than that.

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As it added features such as “Snapchat Stories”—which allows users to create collections of videos that persist for longer than the standard time limit—and the Discover section, with content from media companies such as CNN and BuzzFeed, Snapchat has expanded its reach beyond the teen and twenty-something set.

According to a recent comScore survey, Snapchat is “breaking into the mainstream,” with almost 14% of its users from the 35-and-older group. Just a few years ago, that number was 2%.

Whenever an app or service aimed at younger users starts to get adopted by an older group, there’s a concern that this will ruin what made the app special, in the same way music fans worry when songs by their favorite band start appearing in commercials. So is it possible for Snapchat to serve two masters?

We don’t have to look very far to find an example of a large and popular social service that faced a similar dilemma. Facebook (FB) was hit by similar concerns as it expanded from its original market of college students and tried to appeal to older users. The media was flooded with stories about how twenty-something users were aghast that their parents were using it, and were leaving in droves.

As it turned out, however, the number of under-35 users who gave up Facebook permanently remained relatively small. The company was able to add significant numbers of over-35 and even over-65 users—to the point where it now has more than 1.5 billion people worldwide using the network.

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Can Snapchat make the same transition? In some ways, it might be better equipped to do so because most of the sharing on the service is still one-to-one. Thus, irritating content from old relatives or friends isn’t likely to be as obvious to younger users. At the same time, however, Snapchat recently adopted a design that is getting closer to the idea of a Facebook-style “news feed,” so that could change the dynamic somewhat.

In many ways, Snapchat’s challenge is similar to Twitter’s (TWTR): The latter has been trying to grow its user base and increase engagement, but many of the things it has done in order to try and accomplish this goal have only irritated its long-time power users.

Snapchat needs to walk a fine line between adding new features that might appeal to older users—as well as mainstream media outlets and advertisers—and cluttering up the service in a way that turns off its younger fans. Otherwise, it risks killing the goose that laid the $16 billion egg.