Above: Moderator Kate Bulkley, Snap’s Sean Mills and NBCUniversal’s Lauren Anderson
Social app Snapchat averaged 173 million daily active users in the second quarter of this year, and brought in $181.7m of revenues during that period. Those users average more than 20 snaps a day, while in just a couple of months earlier this year, the company’s dancing hot dog character was viewed more than 1.5bn times in snaps created by users.
A social powerhouse, then, albeit one under threat from a bigger rival, Instagram, which has copied a number of its features and rolled them out to its 500 million daily active users, while aggressively courting the brands whose ad dollars are key to Snapchat’s business. Could TV-like content be one of the ways it fights back? At MIPCOM this afternoon, we heard from Snap, Inc’s senior director of content programming Sean Mills – formerly president of The Onion – who outlined the company’s video strategy. He was interviewed by journalist Kate Bulkley.
What is Snapchat? “The short answer is it’s a communication and storytelling platform,” he said. “It doesn’t look like other social platforms do. It’s essentially three screens: there’s a camera, there’s communication and there’s content.” The app opens at the camera screen in an effort to encourage people to “express themselves” rather than simply to consume other people’s content.
He added that a lot of Snapchat’s appeal is communicating with very close friends. “It’s not about one-to-many broadcasting to a large group,” said Mills, before talking about the app’s Stories feature, where users’ snaps are rolled together, then curated by Snap’s team around big events. Publishers and video partners can launch stories or shows on the app. “We moved from magazines and newspapers to imagining what does an episode of mobile television look like?” he said.
Lots of big-tech companies are getting into content in 2017: is this a natural progression? “There’s two things that are very unique about how Snapchat approaches content. We love scarcity. That stories page, that content page is a select amount of premium content, and premium partners. It’s not an open platform. We love the idea of television in the 1970s and bringing a large audience to a set of content,” he said. “Also, we believe that mobile is a fundamentally new medium. That’s a little different. A lot of people look at mobile as another screen to distribute content to that was made for another place.”
Why? Because mobile “The behaviour is so different… and the creative process has to have a fundamental shift as the result of that behaviour,” said Mills. He talked the audience through a recent Snapchat show called Good Luck America. “We put together a production in-house just as R&D, as a way to play and experiment,” he said. “We built a production team and brought on some of the most inventive people I knew… We just tried to crack the code from what we’d learned from what the audience was already creating.”
Some rules: grab people’s attention as quickly as possible: no slow pans in. And use close-up framing: like FaceTiming with a friend. Snap also played with split-screens. “This is a highly concentrated form of storytelling, so you really need to get more story in, in less time. So if you have B-roll… split-screen is a really great way to provide context.”
“The other thing we obsess over is pacing,” explained Mills. There’s a pressing need to keep the audience’s interest up throughout shows on Snapchat. He expanded on the idea of scarcity, and content that disappears after a relatively short amount of time. How does that work in a world where people might want to catch up on content they missed?
“The ephemerality was a lot about how you communicated with your friends,” he said. “How that applies to content? Well, we’re not so sure it does. We’re very comfortable, as we get into scripted and highly-serialised programming, we want that to live for a long time and be accessible.” But Snapchat is being very selective about its commissioning, so as not to overload its audience and make shows hard to find. “We just love that scarcity. That’s pretty dear to us.”
Mills had warm words for Snap’s partners in the traditional broadcast-TV world. “They’re the experts in storytelling: our job is to know our platform. We think mobile video is a great complement to television. We don’t see it as competitive whatsoever. It’s a fundamentally different medium,” he said. “We’ll expand the types of programmes, the types of relationships.”
Snap and NBCUniversal have just teamed up on an initiative to make scripted shows, via a joint venture. “We’ve shared a common vision for mobile as a new medium, and the investment that this required to crack the code on this whole thing,” said Mills. “They have also understood that it’s a focused skillset. You really have to focus attention to learn how to make this. It’s a different talent, a different muscle. When we talked about our ambition to move into scripted, which was always our plan, they were always the obvious choice.”
Mills was joined by NBCUniversal senior vice president of programming Lauren Anderson, who will be the chief content officer for the as-yet unnamed joint venture. “I do think it’s a progression of what I’ve already been doing in the best possible way: working with writers and talent and producers on creating really great, engaging content for the audience,” she said. “Another part of it for me is the challenge of really programming for a very specific audience… We’re trying to reach that target, and we need to reach them where they are. They’ve shown us that there’s a very specific way they want to watch content… and the way they want to interact with content.”
Anderson said that this should be seen as a big opportunity and a creative challenge for showrunners, writers and directors. “There aren’t only 30 or 60-minute stories to tell!”
Mills said Snap hopes to build deep relationships with a select number of creators through the new venture. “Shows to date have been three to five minutes. We’ve experimented a bit, but that’s been a real sweet spot,” said Mills. “In terms of the creative, the idea is that this is made for mobile… It’s not made with the intention of putting it somewhere else.” He said Snap is open-minded when it comes to the business and rights-ownership models around its deals with producers and creators.
What kind of budgets does Snap have in mind? “We’re each 50/50 owners in this new entity, and we’re serious about it. We think it requires serious investment,” said Mills. “We’re playing a very different game here: We’re not trying to be the highest bidder for projects which are being shopped around. We’re trying to build a smaller number of deeper relationships with creators.”
Anderson: “Creators want to feel that they have freedom, that they are in a place that supports their vision. That they can play, quite frankly. That’s the other thing that’s great about this: we are in experimenting mode… That’s absolutely the atmosphere we want to create for very established talent, and for new talent.”
Mills said that Snap is open to various genres: while complex dramas may not be suitable for the platform, comedy is likely to do well, and he is itching to find a good idea for a daily scripted soap opera / telenovela that’s made for Snapchat’s audience and viewing dynamics.
Will Snapchat remain ad-supported or move towards a subscription model? “I think for where we are today, advertising is going to be the predominant revenue stream. We have an incredible ability to deliver and audience and to target advertising, and there’s more and more revenue moving through the platform in advertising. That’s our focus,” said Mills. Branded content could be part of the picture. “As long as the story is the story and it’s holding the attention of the audience, and there’s a smart and tasteful way to do it, we remain very open-minded about that. We’ll probably experiment.”
What would represent success in a year’s time? “This is about quality not quantity. It’s not about hitting any predetermined number of shows. Success for us in many ways is in creating cultural moments,” said Mills. “Things that are buzzy, things that are in the conversation, are ways to know that it’s working.”
What doesn’t Snap want to be pitched? “There’s a good version of everything I’m sure, so I hesitate to say ‘don’t pitch me this’. I’ll see promise in a lot of things, but you also know what’s going to work… what really has an opportunity to do something here,” said Anderson. “For us, it’s about being really open to ideas, but as Sean says, it’s about being really strategic about our partners. That’s what’s going to drive the content.”
Mills returned to the idea of Snap learning from the video that its audience is creating, which is influencing what it’s looking for from producers. “This is the very early days, but let’s take a point of view about what that should be. That’s something we’re doing in a very unique way. And we have this audience that is already watching this kind of content on this platform.”
Check out our Snapchat story of Mills’ keynote via MIP Markets’ account!