In my last column, I talked about some early signs that Snapchat had begun thinking seriously about the geographical layer of its user experience. Snaps capture moments in time, but they also occur at specific places. With 166 million daily active users and an average of 3 billion Snaps per day, Snapchat is building a massive database of user activities, and place is a factor in all of them.
With the acquisition of Placed in June, Snap, Inc. signaled that it was interested in finding out how to monetize its place-oriented user data. Several months before the acquisition, in August 2016, Placed released a study of 2 million Snapchat users, tracking the most popular stores visited across demographic segments including gender, age, and ethnicity.
Among males, the top three stores were all restaurants: Carl’s Jr., Domino’s Pizza, and Buffalo Wild Wings; among females, it was clothing stores: Maurice’s, Rue21, and Aeropostale. In fact, Placed found zero overlap in the top ten stores between males and females. Such findings are gold to marketers because they demonstrate something much more valuable than seeing an ad online or tracking social media interests. In a world where nearly 92% of retail purchases still occur offline, Snapchat can precisely track the actual convergence of people with stores.
This is one of the reasons why the launch of Snap Map on June 21 caught my attention. The new Map feature, born of the quiet purchase in May of social mapping startup Zenly and powered by Mapbox, OpenStreetMap, and DigitalGlobe, puts the geographical component of Snaps front and center by displaying your Snapchat friends on a map, along with “heat maps” showing concentrations of Snaps by other Snapchat users, places associated with public Stories, and some typical mapping data like street names and select points of interest.
What can you do with Snap Map? Though the service does allow you to opt out or operate in an invisible “ghost mode,” users who share their location will be able to see where their friends as long as the friend has the app open. They’ll also be able to view public Snaps by other users in their vicinity or, in fact, anywhere around the world. I was able to search for the Eiffel Tower using Snap Map’s search tool and view Snaps from various locations in Paris.
There’s no advertising on Snap Map today, though it would seem like a natural extension to give advertisers the chance to reach out to Snapchat users with special offers based on proximity. For now, it seems Snapchat is merely exposing the geographical layer of its platform in order to see what users will do with it.
But the paradigm is already very different from local search as we know it. Rather than a bunch of static places, Snap Map is composed of people and events documented visually. Right now, those events are simple: Snaps and Stories shared with friends. But any type of event Snapchat chooses to enable could be mapped, such as a planned gathering of friends at a specific location, or even a business transaction at a store.
And the visual component represents a possible evolution of search, away from text and toward a more immersive and immediate visual experience. In this way, Snapchat’s evolution mirrors that of Pinterest, whose recent feature releases have focused on interaction with the real world. Pinterest Lens allows users to photograph objects and see related Pins. So for example, if I’m at a restaurant, I can use Lens to photograph a picture of a dish and Pinterest will find related Pins that might contain recipes for similar dishes.
It’s rather uncanny to search by taking a photograph. I just did so on Pinterest by taking a picture of my laptop as I’m writing this column, and Pinterest quickly found pictures of similar computers.
Pinterest represents a search mode and Snapchat a discovery mode, but in both cases, most of the activity of nearby searching is conducted visually, without the need for text. Snapchat’s heat maps even remove the need to read text on the map in order to know what to pay attention to. You could say that Pinterest and Snapchat both are turning digital space into a closer analogue to physical space, where we look for visual cues to understand the world. In different ways, both apps are collapsing the distance between virtual and real.