Is Snapchat Quietly Redefining Local?

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The news broke this week that Snap, Inc., Snapchat’s parent company, has acquired Placed, a well-known startup in the online-to-offline attribution space. Snapchat’s previously launched Snap to Store initiative, covered in an eye-opening Wall Street Journal piece in April, was already positioned to deliver some powerful data around the performance of ad campaigns, in particular demonstrating the lift in store visits attributable to sponsored geofilters. The Placed acquisition significantly expands Snap’s toolkit in the areas of ad targeting and optimization, performance analytics, and audience expansion. No question that as a newly public company, Snap is determined to grow market share in local-mobile ad targeting.

What’s interesting to me about these and related developments is how they seem to indicate an emerging redefinition of what it means to be digitally local, a redefinition that is happening under our noses and without much fanfare as Snapchat works to gain and maintain the eyeballs of Millennials.

Snapchat’s in-the-moment ecosystem happens at the intersection of people, locations, and time. A specific user at a specific place and time creates a connection with other users by sharing a Snap or a Story. For most of its early growth period, Snapchat’s key differentiators were more about two of the three factors: people and time. Snapchat was a social platform for sharing ephemeral moments. Location was less clearly highlighted, except in the case of geofilters that appeared when users broke the geofence of a city or place. Very much like Facebook and Instagram, the user’s location was only secondarily important to the social experience, even though location is a latent fact in every photo taken on a phone and shared with other phones.

Snap’s partnership with Foursquare, announced last November and intended to bring more precision to its geofences, showed that the company was getting interested in what could be done with location. Then in March, Search for Stories began rolling out. I’m not a frequent Snapchat user so it took me a while to notice, but it’s quite an amazing feature. From the home screen in the app, users can search for any keyword and find public Stories around the world where the keyword is used in a text overlay or otherwise linked to the content of the Story.

With Search for Stories, users can find content posted from all over the world related to any topic of interest. Stories are, by default, public, though before the release of Search by Stories, sharing was limited to friends and followers or to curated Stories in the Featured Stories section of the app. Now, any Story is potentially available for any Snapchat user to find, though for the time being Snapchat seems to be limiting results to a small number of the most popular Stories matching the user’s query.

Still, the move effectively creates an open search platform for Snapchat content, one that suggest numerous directions for further development. Of particular interest for local, the Search for Stories interface offers certain Story categories, each with a list of popular entries:

  • Animals
  • Attractions
  • Highlights
  • Around Me
  • Music
  • Sports
  • Fashion
  • Bars
  • Food

Of the nine categories available to me, three of them – Around Me, Bars, and Food – present ranked local content. And I’d argue that the local content is the most compelling of the available choices. Attractions shows you Stories from theme parks and other points of interest around the world, which can be fun to look at; but Around Me tells me about popular places I might want to visit right now.


Notice how similar these lists are in appearance to a canonical local search result for nearby places. I’m not quite ready to claim that Snapchat local Stories constitute a new type of local listing, but think about it: these are “places” by virtue of the fact that social sharing is occurring at a particular location. Snapchat is clearly using directory data (from Foursquare?) to tag Stories that relate to physical places, but the factor that causes them to appear is the concentration of social activity. Forget about other indicators of relevance; for Snapchat, the places that matter are the places where moments are being captured and shared.

In the future Snapchat may be leading us to, augmented reality represents the convergence of digital and physical space, where search and discovery can become a matter of tapping into the most interesting activities happening around me right now, the historical trace of those activities over time, and the predictive capability inherent in that accumulated data.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi. SOCi is the leading CoMarketing Cloud for multi-location enterprises. They empower nearly 1,000 brands to automate and scale their marketing efforts across all locations and digital channels.