Over the second half of 2016, social media aficionados might have noticed something strange in the air. Facebook, on its flagship platform, its Messenger app and even separate properties like Instagram, started to look and behave a lot more like Snapchat.
Not that a copycat strategy is entirely new for Facebook: The company has a history of cribbing trendy features, such as hashtags from Twitter, which never really caught on on Facebook in the same way. But the plays at replicating Snapchat came at a truly dizzying clip last year, often making Facebook look near-shameless, and all at a time when Snap Inc., Snapchat's parent company, is preparing for an initial public stock offering in the near future.
And what a large IPO it's shaping up to be, with some estimates surging past the $25 billion mark, making Facebook's $3 billion offer to buy Snapchat in 2013 look piecemeal by comparison. Snapchat is young and small measured against Facebook — certainly nowhere near Facebook’s 1.18 billion active daily users — but it's pushed past 150 million DAUs in just a few short years and, more importantly, become enviable as the go-to social media app for coveted young demographic groups like Gen Z, who are decidedly less excited about Facebook.
“In order to stay on top of its game, this is how Facebook copes," said Maja Stevanovich, SVP of content strategy at Mungo Creative Group. "It ensures that all the latest and greatest features of other competitors are available on Facebook.”
What Facebook has "borrowed" from Snapchat so far
It's perhaps most telling that a list is the easiest way to catalog just how many times Facebook has made plays into Snapchat's territory over the past six months alone. To summarize:
- In August, Facebook launched Instagram Stories, a feature that, in functionality and actual name, attempts to replicate Snapchat Stories, which lets users create slideshows of images and videos that exist for 24 hours before disappearing. Facebook soon added an algorithm for suggestions based on user data in an attempt to somewhat distinguish the service.
- In early October, Facebook began testing Messenger Day in Poland, a feature that lets Messenger app users combine photos and video with text, stickers and doodles. The messages last for up to 10 seconds in feeds and disappear after 24 hours, exactly as Snap messages do.
- Later in October, Facebook began testing another messaging product in Ireland designed to be part of its flagship product, allowing users to share ephemeral video messages that can be augmented with virtual filters. At the same time, the company announced “Masks,” a tool for Facebook Live where users can overlay virtual "mask filters" on streaming video, similar to Snapchat lenses.
- In November, Facebook announced the testing of "Flash," a standalone app for sharing virtually augmented photo and video messages that disappear in a short time window. Sound familiar? The Flash tests, however, occur in Brazil, suggesting the app was designed to have a very light download footprint to cater to areas with poor connectivity and a lack of Wi-Fi coverage.
- Early in December, Facebook said it's creating a new feature called "Collections" that curates content from publishers and showcases them in News Feed in a manner similar to Snapchat’s Discover portal.
- Later in December, Facebook debuted another Snapchat-like selfie camera, this time for its chat app Messenger. Rinse and repeat.
The 'pincer movement'
YouTube had long been Facebook’s main challenger in the social video space but that all changed when Instagram and then Snapchat emerged. Instagram quickly became a non-competitor and one of Facebook's biggest assets when it got acquired by Facebook in 2012. And while Facebook and Instagram have often seemed to operate largely apart from one another, they might now be playing in tandem to strategically work against Snapchat.
“It is likely that Facebook, in conjunction with the Instagram platform, is operating a 'pincer movement' against Snapchat,” said Sinead Flynn, social media specialist at TinderPoint. “In other words, it's A/B split testing alternative ways of rivaling and eliminating what it now sees as its main rival in the video sharing and selfie space."
Facebook's strategy summarized, in short, is to “copy and improve, differentiate or both,” per Flynn, with something like Messengers' camera upgrades serving as a standout example in emulating functions like Snapchat's geofilters, lenses and stickers.
While this may sound like a headache for an upstart like Snapchat, potentially being outplayed by a far larger and older company, it may not make much of a difference from a marketing standpoint. The key here, according to experts, might be the difference in audience and use case.
"There are noticeable differences between Instagram and Snapchat stories, and I’ve seen brands use them in very different ways," said Rebecca O’Neill, senior account executive at Bliss Integrated Communication.
"For example, one food blogging brand I love uses Snapchat to live-document their visits to new restaurants, while Instagram Stories serves as a medium to test out beautifully designed listicles (i.e. ‘10 reasons you should eat in Chinatown this weekend’)," she added. "You can definitely implement distinct strategies for the two platforms which, to me, says that it’s not a direct copy so much as an inspiration.'"
Facebook’s strategy is arguably balanced between innovation and copying and, by adopting features that Snapchat users on are interested in, the social media giant can stay a relevant part of the conversation, according to Mungo's Stevanovich.
That's not to say Facebook's approach is infallible or not subject to question: One potential issue is of legality if the copying “gets too close,” as Nathan Burgess, account supervisor at Bliss Integrated Communication, put it — though he added a lawsuit situation is unlikely.
"I imagine Zuck & Co have a fleet of IP attorneys to help with that" he said, referencing Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg.
A second and more pertinent problem might be the potential to harm brand credibility. Social media audiences have proven themselves to be fickle — just look at what happened to Vine — and Facebook's blatant attempts to successfully replicate a Snapchat-like product might turn some audiences off.
That scenario is unlikely either, per Burgess, largely due to Facebook’s sheer size and market share, which lets the company implement new features that can "outpace the originator by leaps and bounds."
“Where the Facebook team really excels is taking an idea and using some secret sauce of their own [to] make it ready, scalable and usable for the primetime audience immediately,” he added.
A "copy first, overpower later" approach has other pitfalls as well, per Flynn. The issue she sees is a scenario where a number of rivals emerge with enough differentiating factors to make it difficult for Facebook to emulate them all and still assess the success of each new feature in isolation.
But, at the moment, Facebook isn’t really copying Snapchat to keep up — it's proactively forcing users to choose between two platforms, per Flynn.
"A good example of this is the recent step taken by Facebook of prohibiting Snapchat snapcode images as profile pictures,” she stated. Snapcodes, introduced last year, essentially serve the same function as a QR code does for tying real-world and digital promotions.
"[Facebook's] approach with Snapchat could be described as 'win, then attack,'" Flynn added. "By analyzing and absorbing rivals' best features, either through imitation or outright acquisition, they can continue to grow the business using 'star' as opposed to 'cash cow' processes."
Should Snapchat be concerned?
Video is now the preferred content medium for social media, including marketing and research, as Flynn pointed out. Facebook has been smart to follow the trend, actively prioritizing video shared on News Feeds and the streaming feature Facebook Live, and even suggesting that all Facebook content will be video within the next five years.
At the same time, Facebook offers up much more than just video across its many offerings, and that lack of specificity may lend Snapchat an advantage.
"There is a real opportunity for Snapchat to create a solution which gives the best and most simple experience for video viewing, creation and sharing, at sharp odds with Facebook's multi-channel platform," said Flynn. “Key to this will be the virality of the platform and active audiences operating on it: these are the areas Snapchat should be focusing on in 2017 and beyond."
"For now, I don’t think they need to be that worried – Snapchat still has a huge following and continues to offer something unique and entertaining to its users," O'Neill added. "Plus, let’s not forget that they just filed for a $25 billion IPO. If one day we find that Instagram Stories have integrated puppy and flower-crown filters, then yeah, that’s a bit suspicious."
However Facebook’s Snapchat clones turn out, the company remains the largest player on the social media block by a longshot. Instagram Stories cracked 100 million daily active users just a few months after launch, trailing not too far behind Snapchat. Moving out to monthly active users, Facebook’s Messenger and WhatsApp apps independently hold about 1 billion each.
"Since Facebook is still today’s dominating social channel. I don’t believe their strategy was simply to copy Snapchat," said O’Neill. "They don’t need to copy Snapchat. I like to think that Mark Zuckerberg and his team are slightly more strategic than that.”