Though they take different approaches, Snapchat and Instagram both have the same aim: to be your go-to place for sharing everyday photos and videos. But in this ongoing sparring match, Snapchat is losing, and losing hard—it has fewer users, a more confusing interface, inferior features, and a worse ad experience. In case you were in any doubt just how one-sided this battle is getting, we’re here to lay it out for you.
Although Snap’s most recent earnings report showed a few flickers of life, with 8.9 million users added in the last quarter of 2017, Snapchat currently has 187 million daily active users. That’s less than half the eyeballs that Instagram is pulling in, and it’s a gap unlikely to be closed by a dancing hot dog or Snapchat Spectacles 2.0.
Does Snapchat still have a chance? Maybe! That core disappearing picture concept still resonates in an age when so much social media is curated and polished. Plus, the Stories idea was so good, everyone else ripped it off. But Instagram is still crushing it, and here’s why.
It may be true that people only put the best versions of themselves on Instagram, but it sure makes for a smooth-looking app. Stories up at the top, recent ones first, and everything you need to get around the app down at the bottom.
Snapchat, by contrast, plunges you straight into the camera app, so there’s nothing to look at besides your feet (or, if you’re unlucky, your face). You get prompted to create something straight away—and while some might prefer that, many of us would rather be flicking through a feed before trying to craft something new.
A lot of people aren’t happy with the latest Snapchat interface overhaul, and with good reason—it’s a disjointed mess to get around and make sense of. You’ve got no less than three different ways to send someone a Snap, and they’re all confusing. Apparently the new lick of paint came about because the old interface was too hard to use, but the update isn’t doing the job any better.
What is Snapchat trying to be? A private messaging service for friends? A news and video platform? A way of broadcasting your life to the wider world? No doubt it serves a different purpose for everyone who uses it, but the original hook of sending disappearing messages seems to have gotten lost in the flood of new functions, redesigns, and an expanding reach. Did we mention you can track your friends on a map, too? Only we forgot how to access that screen.
Sure, Instagram has a lot of features as well—you can message people privately, post to your profile, or broadcast Stories—but it’s the photos and the filters that remain the focus of the app, no matter which part of it you’re in. Stealing so many ideas from Snapchat isn’t a good look, but your users will forgive you if you can improve on them along the way, and Instagram delivers the goods.
The only bits of Snapchat that Instagram hasn’t copied are the dumb bits: trophies for sending Snaps at different times or with different filters, for example, and the meaningless concept of streaks, whereby you get locked into a daily photo swap with your friends just to avoid breaking the connection—even if that means sending hundreds of yawn-inducing pictures with the word “streaks” on top.
Take a look what Coca-Cola is doing on Instagram. Cool, huh? Well, kind of cool, if you like Coca-Cola and everything. But whatever your favorite beverage, the point is that on Instagram brands are tasteful and stay within certain parameters... if you don’t follow any of them, you might not notice they were there, except for the occasional sponsored post.
What are these brands up to on Snapchat? Well, it’s sort of hard to pin down, but whatever it is, it feels more pushy—filters and lenses that you can slap across your selfies, and information tagged to your posts, if you want to be a corporate shill. Meanwhile there’s a mass of ads and news stories and specially commissioned videos jostling for position alongside whatever it is your celebrity Snapchatters or your friends are getting up to.
Users don’t particularly want brands in their feed, which makes it hard for any app maker to monetize, but it feels like Instagram is doing a better job of that delicate balancing act than Snapchat right now. It doesn’t sound like brands are having a whole lot of fun with Snapchat either. CNN is one of the latest to decide the work required to make Snapchat content isn’t worth it.
Here’s some of the stuff that’s easier to do in the Instagram app compared with Snapchat: finding new people to follow you might already know, finding new people to follow who are complete strangers, finding out who’s following you, finding out what’s happening in your part of the world, and finding posts related to topics you’re interested in. That’s not a bad haul.
Over in Snapchat land, following people once you’ve got their username is simple enough, though you’ll need to jump across a couple of screens first. Finding new and interesting people, whether pop stars or random strangers, is a lot harder than it needs to be. So is finding new updates from people you’re already following—Stories and Snaps are listed in an awkward semi-chronological muddle over in its own window to the left.
If you were ‘friends’ with a celebrity before the interface got changed around, good luck trying to find that person’s posts in the new app—it’s not easy in either the Discover page or the Search box, and when you do find what you’re looking for, it’ll be mixed in with ads, publisher content, and “popular stories” you didn’t ask for. How famous does someone have to be to appear in the Discover screen rather than your friends list?
The framework and layout of Instagram makes the idea of following friends, family members, strangers, celebrities, and brands all in the same place not seem totally crazy. In fact at times it works rather well. On Snapchat, it’s a mess, which is why you’re likely to stick to just interacting with the people you know in real life rather than the big name stars.
We quoted some figures up at the top of this piece and the numbers are telling: The number of active users on Instagram Stories alone is nearly double the total number of active users on Snapchat. Even if you adore Snapchat, if most of your friends are on Instagram and dismiss Snapchat as an app for sexting teens, you’ve got little choice but to follow them (unless you’re under 25, most of your peers are probably on Instagram).
It’s what’s commonly known as the network effect and helps explain why a lot of us find it difficult to quit Facebook (your mileage may vary)—we’ve got so many connections built up there, across so many different parts of life, that to pull the plug completely would be a wrench. It’s the mass of people that makes it hard to leave Facebook, not the killer collection of innovative features.
And so it is with Instagram and Snapchat. The fewer people you know sending Snaps, the less fun you’re going to have inside the app—that Discover tab can only get you so far. We’re not going to write off Snapchat completely, and its numbers were up at the last check, but it’s got a tough road ahead.