Last month, Snapchat achieved the kind of virality most companies can only dream of.
On May 8, Snapchat released a photo filter (a “Lens” in Snapchat parlance) that, by rounding a users’ face and smoothing away their wrinkles, transforms them into a toddler. Over the next two days, Snapchat also debuted a pair of gender-swap lenses, which either gave users a square jaw and stubble to look more stereotypically masculine, or a dolled-up, soft glow to look more feminine.
The lenses unleashed a torrent of content, mostly people showing the world what they’d look like if they flipped genders. Men “joked” about being attracted to the female versions of their bros, while women trolled their boyfriends with their rugged good looks. Many engaged in catfishing “pranks” (some of which backfired spectacularly) and others professed to wanting to literally go screw themselves.
The internet usually churns through viral ephemera in a matter of days, if not hours, but the gender-swap filters have had surprising staying power. The filters have ignited discussions about the mutable nature of gender and attraction, and the arguably transphobic and sexist manner in which some people have used them.
The filters also seemed to drive a sharp increase in the daily downloads of the Snapchat app across iOS and Android. Snapchat was downloaded across the platforms an estimated 41.5 million times worldwide in May, more than twice the number of downloads from the previous month (16.8 million) and in May of last year (17.6 million), according to third party data.
Prior to the baby and gender-swap filters, Snapchat was being downloaded approximately 600,000 times per day worldwide, according to estimated data provided by Sensor Tower, a mobile app market research firm. Daily downloads doubled after the introduction of the new filters to more than 1 million per day. On three different days in May, the app was downloaded around 2 million times. (It’s unclear how many of these downloads are new users versus people coming back to the platform after abandoning and deleting the app.)
The filters are a much-needed victory for the embattled social media company, which has struggled to retain users over the past several years. (Snapchat declined to comment for this story, saying it couldn’t speak about user growth outside of earnings calls.)
And though the company is experiencing a tepid resurgence — users are holding steady, and revenue and stock price are all up — it remains to be seen whether Snapchat can maintain its momentum.
As recently as 2016, Snapchat was the fastest-growing social network in the U.S. and heralded as a viable contender to Facebook. In the intervening years, though, Facebook has used Instagram, the photo-sharing app it acquired in 2012 for $1 billion, to steal Snapchat’s thunder.
Snapchat pioneered the art of photo filters in 2015 with Lenses, only to have Facebook acquire a little-know facial imaging app called MSQRD the following year and roll out filters of its own. And in August 2016, Instagram launched its own version of Stories, Snapchat’s signature feature. According to conversations with several former Snapchat employees, the company failed to take seriously the competitive threat posed by Instagram — and suffered for it.
User growth tapered off in the second half of 2016, and the platform lost millions of users after a disastrous redesign in late 2017. The company went through multiple rounds of layoffs last year and its stock price plummeted, reaching an all-time low of less than $5 per share in December 2018.
But Snapchat has been mounting a comeback of late. Snapchat beat its projected revenue for the first quarter of 2019 and increased its daily active users by 4 million. Snapchat’s stock price has steadily increased this year. (As of this writing, Snapchat is trading at $13.92 a share.)
“We believe the monetization growth we saw in the quarter, particularly in the US, was evidence of the platform’s longer-term potential, particularly as the company continued to improve in direct response [advertising],” Goldman Sachs wrote in its latest research analysis of Snapchat. Goldman Sachs still gave Snapchat a “Neutral” rating due to “growing competition” and the stock price being potentially overvalued.
But the rebound is real, argues Rich Greenfield, a media industry analyst at investment bank BTIG. “We’re among the most bullish people on Wall Street about Snapchat,” Greenfield says of his firm. “We had a ‘sell’ on this stock back in September, and we look at it it’s one of the most exciting opportunities right now on the market in media.” Greenfield credits the rebound to Snapchat’s continued popularity among young people.
Digital ad agency Digitas has increased their Snapchat spending by approximately 15 to 20% from last year, according to Danisha Lomax, the agency’s head of paid social media advertising. “For clients who engage that younger demographic, we’ve started including Snapchat in most of our media buys,” she said.
Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel, on the company’s latest earnings call, bragged that Snapchat reaches 75% of all 13 to 34 year olds — more than Instagram, he claims.
“Instagram has crossed over — it’s used by a lot of people now,” says one advertising industry executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But Snapchat continues to be used by the post-Facebook generation. So if you want to reach young people, a highly-coveted audience, Snapchat has to be on the media plan.”
The baby and gender swap filters prove Snapchat can still dominate the online discourse on occasion, but the company has struggled to turn the popularity of its individual features into long-term, sustained success. The company has enjoyed spikes like these before: Snapchat had a viral sensation on its hands in 2017 with its dancing hot dog Lens but user interest proved fleeting — growth plateaued, and Snapchat was forced to keep looking for new gimmicks to draw users back.
Earlier this year, Snapchat announced it would integrate with other platforms to allow users to share their Story updates externally, to other apps. Its first two partners are dating app Tinder and video chat app Houseparty.
For the first time in company history, Snapchat is looking to expand its influence beyond the app itself.