Social Media

Snapchat: Useful higher ed tool or risky fad?

Photo by Evas Svammel, Flickr.

Snapchat is the latest platform to put higher ed web marketing pros in a quandary — pursue a hot service used by your target market, or resist chasing a shiny object that has raised concerns among some?

While no firm numbers exist, recent estimates put Snapchat’s number of users at 30 million. While dwarfed by the billion or so on Facebook, Snapchat’s main target market of teens to college-age adults means it falls in the wheelhouse for those trying to reach prospective and current students. Users of the service, which directly shares self-destructing videos or photos with friends or groups of friends, were sending around 150 million snaps per day in April 2013, with that number expected to continue rising.

So far, a low number of colleges have included Snapchat in their marketing plans, but efforts at institutions including the University of Houston and Eastern Washington University claim high levels of engagement.

“I never think anybody should use any platform without measurable goals, objectives, strategies and tactics,” said Chris Syme, who runs CKSyme Media Group and worked with EWU on its Snapchat campaigns.

Syme herself was skeptical when EWU approached her, in part because she wanted to ensure they had the time and personnel to effectively execute.

When EWU joined Snapchat, it was one of only three schools using the platform. “There really were no expectations of what a school on Snapchat should do (and still aren’t) so we were able to experiment, which is what I love to do,” Syme said.

“EWU used it during the FCS Football playoffs with great success at reaching college students,” Syme explained. “They used the ‘Stories’ feature which allows you to string together a bunch of snaps into a story of the event. Each snap has a 24-hour shelf life and they all make a neat little video of sorts.”

The University of Houston has jumped in and already gathered hundreds of Snapchat contacts for a wide-ranging variety of activities.

“We launched Snapchat with the idea of giving our fans the inside scoop to our offline social media activities, like our Cougar Red Friday shirt give away, where we reward our students for wearing red on Fridays,” said Kimberly Davis, social media coordinator at the University of Houston.

“It is great because it allows us to connect with our students specifically interested in those activities,” Davis said. “We have leaked the location of shirt giveaways twice now and have had students waiting for us, which is exciting.”

Liberty University uses Snapchat “as a ‘social media home’ for their mascot” while Kansas uses it “to create pre-game hype for basketball games,” Syme reported. “Wichita State has also used the Stories feature for athletic events.”

How Snapchat works

The Snapchat app allows users to take a photo or video (up to 10 seconds), then add text. Snapchatters can send these messages to anybody on their contacts list, and the messages disappear when viewed.

Snapchat’s Stories feature allows users to develop sequential narratives where every snap lives for 24 hours. Think of it as a more ephemeral version of Storify that focuses on only its own medium. Snapchat posted an example on its own blog, noting that “each Snap in your Story includes a list of everyone who views it.”

Anybody, colleges included, engaging in Snapchat does not have to follow back followers, but to go all-in and use as a two-way service would involve sending and receiving texts. Some university communicators may blanche at the thought of what kinds of snaps they may receive back from their users and only use it as a broadcast service.

Because snaps are sent out to a smartphone contact list — as opposed to accounts within a social media service — this could represent a potentially more intimate connection than other communication tools.

But that intimacy also can make it more immediate and engaging for those using Snapchat. “It is a very direct form of communication, unlike our other platforms where our messages are in feeds that update in time,” Davis said. “We received a lot of positive feedback after we recently had a few snow days at UH, when we used Snapchat to inform our followers campus was closed. It served as a quick form of communication we could answer student questions on.”

Values and concerns

Because of the tantalizing potential audience and technology, Snapchat has received positive attention in the form of suitors with deep pockets. Yet Snapchat’s owners rebuffed a $3 billion buyout offer from Facebook and a reported $4 billion offer from Google. Those figures make the $1 billion Facebook paid for a more established property in Instagram seem low.

But Snapchat is not without its flaws and critics. Of greatest concern is its security, or weaknesses therein. Snapchat had a December security breach that impacted an estimated 4.6 million users, and other hackers have publicly pointed out holes in its security. Even as Snapchat continues to insist it is on top of security weaknesses, Georgia Tech doctoral student Steven Hickson recently researched and compromised it within a half-hour, he told the media.

Snapchat also is overcoming early perception challenges as a platform used to send racy snaps, a kind of sexting service.

“I think it’s a harder sell for colleges because many still think of it as a sexting platform,” Syme said. “Another problem, frankly, is that many colleges also have a very stifling way of using social media — broadcast only with reach strategies.” Delving into Snapchat, after all, requires a willingness to send and receive texts, which means somebody has to be willing to receive … well, who knows what.

“Any social media platform can be abused, and Snapchat is no exception,” noted Jessica Brand, the University of Houston’s social media manager. “However, this platform is not designed to exclusively support those kinds of activities.”

Beyond the numbers

“Just looking at the number of followers on each platform is not the way I like to do audience research,” Syme said. “That’s only a starting point. But honestly, that’s as far as some people need to go to make a decision for their own school. They have limited resources and can only afford to be on the platforms where the most eyeballs are.”

Number of users alone does not reflect engagement, Syme noted, but EWU experienced “such high engagement with Snapchat that we thought it was worth being there,” Syme said. “And engagement was the end goal, not follower numbers. I learned long ago that engagement increases fan numbers much faster than reach strategies do alone.

“At EWU the goal was simply to portray the student fan experience from a student’s point of view by showing snaps that students would want to see,” Syme said. “I felt they really hit the goal they had set and they will continue to plow some new ground there trying to get students engaged.”

To keep the campaigns going, EWU plans to have student-athletes take over the Snapchat account for upcoming home games, a practice becoming more common in Instagram. “They have a lot of followers that aren’t students, but they (like Houston) have experienced high snap open rates which is a really good sign they are on the right track,” Syme said.

EWU “will continue to use it during basketball season and will be incorporating some interesting campaigns with Twitter,” Syme said. “Their main goal still will be to get students to games as they are a commuter school and want to engage more students with their athletic brand. It’s one specific goal (and not the only goal) of their athletics marketing, so Snapchat is a specific tool to help with that.”

The University of Houston’s ongoing efforts acknowledge the upside of the service moreso than concerns of those who misuse it. “The Snapchat platform supports fun engaging communication and we didn’t want to discount the benefits and innovations of the platform simply because of the bad reputation earned from a small percent of users,” Brand said. “That audience segment is not our target audience, and our presence there does not involve that kind of content in any way.”

Future prospects

As for resistance to Snapchat, Syme understands the brand “has a PR problem that keeps people from just jumping in. They need to shore up their privacy concerns.” But she also found contacts at Snapchat “very helpful” with data and service — and excited to work with businesses.

But Syme also thinks some reluctance is a similar pattern repeating itself. “I’ve been around long enough to remember when Twitter came along. We heard all the same arguments,” she said. “Back then it was, ‘nobody wants to know what you had for breakfast,’ because they saw that as its only use. As brands starting getting creative and finding success, people jumped on board.”

Brand explained that UH’s use of Snapchat represents part of an evolving and bold stance on social media opportunities. “Due to the endless rapid transformations of the social media landscape, we’ve become accustomed to an environment of constant change,” Brand said. “While we have no expectations for what is to come, we are ready to respond and adapt as needed.”

Syme thinks Snapchat can remain successful if the platform evolves to meet client and market needs. “Early adopters will get the biggest successes (as with any platform), and creative people will flourish there,” she said. “And there’s always the worry that when brands show up, kids will leave. But I think there will be enough of a lag in that process so that universities can find some success there–at least for a while. You just have to know when to move on.”

Photo by Evas Svammel, Flickr.

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By Tim Nekritz

Tim Nekritz is Link's Chief Editor and the director of news and media at SUNY Oswego, as well as an adjunct professor of communication studies. He welcomes questions, feedback and music recommendations.