Instagram and Snapchat don’t have a ton in common, but they are both image-focused social apps, and that alone invites some comparison. They both have filters, too, which means those filters can be compared. Unfortunately for Instagram, it’s not really a contest.
On one side, you have Instagram’s basic artsy hipster filters, making things a little sharper, a little redder, a little black and white, but essentially doing nothing that 30 seconds in an image editor can’t. Meanwhile, Snapchat has a rotating list of face-recognition masks (called “lenses”) that do everything from adding rainbow vomit to face-swapping, often with hilarious results.
Let me tell you; they are so much more fun than anything on Instagram, I can’t stop playing with them.
Snapchat has a rocky history, full of ups and downs. Noteworthy missteps include storing so-called transient snaps, asking people to pay to save snaps when phones can screenshot for free, and trying — and failing — to sell its lenses in a store. Taken together, these mistakes show that Snapchat isn’t really going at this with a plan in mind. They’re throwing concepts at the wall until something sticks.
— Stuart Drew (@studrew1) September 15, 2015
This is in stark contrast with Instagram, which has hardly put forth anything but the most careful changes since Facebook took over. Instagram can learn a good lesson from this; smaller, more agile competitors capable of trying strange things can hit upon success a lot more easily than a relatively static site.
Now, I’m not necessarily saying that Instagram should implement the same sort of lenses as Snapchat. I wouldn’t be surprised to see them try it, of course, probably because innovation is hard and imitation is easy. When you can vomit a rainbow into an Instagram video, you’ll know they gave up.
The fact is, Instagram filters just aren’t that interesting. The site started out hugely appealing to millennials, a hipster bastion of artistic photography. Then it was bought out and turned into a marketing platform that boasted huge engagement rates, and that’s always the death of innovation and attraction.
Meanwhile, Snapchat has over 100 million daily active users, primarily between the ages of 13 and 34. There are brands that would kill to access that audience. Instagram, for reference, has around 300 million monthly.
This is not to say that Snapchat isn’t a platform you can use for advertising. It is; in fact, it has one of the most mobile-centric ad platforms available. It’s not the ads that attract users, though, it’s the content.
Which brings us back to Snapchat’s lenses; a constantly changing list of effects full of casual amusement. Instagram’s filters are meant to be permanent additions to posts that sit for an indefinite time. Snapchat has always emphasized the transient nature of content on their site, which has reinforced the intimacy of communications. Even brands can have personal, one-to-one feeling engagement with users because you know what you’re seeing isn’t going to be around forever. It’s here, for you, right now. The lenses are the same way. They provide a bit of transient amusement, but they aren’t meant to be permanent fixtures to your posts in any way. They boost engagement without becoming so common they’re no longer interesting.
What can Instagram learn from this? I would say a few things. The first is simply that their audience is moving on. The relatively static and bland Instagram platform is losing ground to more dynamic broadcast social media. The youngest users are the hardest to capture — they always have been — but the key to doing so is keeping the platform interesting. Instagram’s decisions recently have all been focused on the business of Instagram, not on the entertainment or edification of their users.
Instagram’s expansion to the Web opened them up to a larger audience, but it also gradually removed the focus on candid photos with simple filters and no edits. Now, to differentiate yourself, you either throw an image through the Photoshop blender, or you can specifically not use a filter. It’s an image host and social network very similar to, at this point, Imgur or Flickr.
On top of all of that, Snapchat is just plain fun. There’s a bit of mystery, a bit of unpredictability, a bit of joy that comes from using the app, and Instagram’s filters can’t compare to that experience. Cool as Snapchat’s lenses are, I really hope Instagram doesn’t just outright copy them. That could be the final nail in the coffin for them with the jaded youth audience.