Five years ago, Snapchat disrupted social media with its carefree, ephemeral media and augmented reality features. Fickle young users, myself included, came from Instagram in search of something more disposable, fun and interactive. At a time when social networks seemed overrun by ads and news stories, Snapchat offered a momentary escape. It was a refreshing way to share some of life’s sillier or less photogenic moments.
I first joined Snapchat when my sister went on a trip to Japan. Instead of sharing well-crafted media on Instagram and Facebook, she shared snaps—and a lot of them. I was instantly hooked and came back often, so I wouldn’t miss the latest trip update before it disappeared. I felt like I was there with her.
But I found it hard to find friends on Snapchat, and I’d always end up back on Instagram. When Instagram Stories came out in August 2016, I realized that I was only really following a handful of people on Snapchat. I left Snapchat for the convenience of having everything all in one place (and so did many users).
In hindsight, Facebook has clearly been planning this ambush for a while. Just as Snapchat was going public, Instagram Stories released an assault of new features such as slideshows and geostickers. Snapchat’s user growth has since slowed by 82 percent.
Finding a solution to Snapchat’s Innovator’s Dilemma
What’s ironic about Snapchat’s churn and growth problem is that the app itself is replaceable and easy to imitate. When Facebook has seemingly unlimited resources to innovate (or copy), it’s somewhat surprising that Snapchat hasn’t done more to fight to keep its users.
Snapchat’s trouble is a classic case of the Innovator’s Dilemma. According to Harvard Business School Professor Clay Christensen, who wrote The Innovator’s Dilemma, successful companies are those that disrupt themselves over and over again in order to survive. Disruptive innovation is a necessary step to avoid becoming redundant by the next scrappy, agile startup or well-funded, super connected global enterprise.
Successful companies continue to push innovation to its furthest limits, always looking for the next great product—even if that means cannibalizing their own products. Apple is a great example of a brand that seems to have beat the odds of decline. The iPhone disrupted the laptop and desktop market, allowing consumers to access the internet from anywhere at any time. “Yes, I think there is some cannibalization,” said Apple CEO Tim Cook. “The iPad team works on making their product the best. Same with the Mac team.”
Steve Jobs was deeply influenced by Christensen’s book, and believed that he solved the Innovator’s Dilemma by pursuing passion, not profits. “My passion has been to build an enduring company where people were motivated to make great products,” Jobs told Walter Isaacson in his authorized biography. “The products, not the profits, were the motivation.”
Focusing on making great products for people
How can market incumbents try to avoid The Innovator’s Dilemma?
Focus on creating great products that provide real value to consumers, and never stop doing it. Providing real value, however, requires a deep understanding of the attitudes, opinions and preferences of shifting user bases. In other words, decision makers, innovators and business leaders must get closer to their users.
For Snapchat co-founder and CEO Evan Spiegel, this will be especially difficult because his user base is notoriously untrusting, unloyal and unpredictable young consumers like myself. Since Snapchat is now a public company, listening to its user base should be a number one priority.
Now if a human being from Snapchat ever reached out directly to me, asking for my product or user experience feedback, I would happily respond (and probably return to the app).
What a novel idea.