Bloomberg recently reported that Snapchat surpassed Twitter in daily active users. Kudos to Snapchat, which is only half as old as Twitter, but why do we keep comparing Snapchat to Twitter? Or to Instagram? The industry is desperate to neatly categorize Snapchat under social media, but I would argue that Snapchat is equal parts messaging app and social network, putting it in a class of its own.

Let's break it down:

  • Messaging apps are built on the premise of private conversation: 1 to 1 (yes, group chat exists, but it's contained). You send specific messages tailored to the individual recipient. See: WhatsApp, WeChat, Skype, Viber, LINE, Telegram, Kik. With the exception of Asia's sophisticated app hybrids, today's messaging apps are not intended for blanket broadcast messaging.
  • Traditional social networks are built on the premise of broadcasting: 1 to many. You build up a network of friends (and, in some cases, the general public) and you blanket spam them with your post. See: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest. While they accommodate private conversation (Facebook Messenger is its own rightful messaging app, Instagram's and Twitter's Direct Message, LinkedIn InMail), it is not their primary foundation.

Where does that leave Snapchat? As Stealers Wheel once sang, "Stuck in the middle with you." Snapchat has successfully straddled being a messaging app (its roots) and a social network. Today, users equally snap private messages and contribute to their broadcast stories — and seamlessly move between the two modes. Want to send your brother an inappropriate picture of you with a Taco Bell lens AND add a PG-rated beauty shot of your Gordita Supreme to your Snap story? Snapchat not only makes it easy to do both, it encourages both behaviors by positioning direct messaging and story sharing buttons side-by-side on the home camera screen. 

While social networks can blur together with their similar visual capabilities and multiple ad formats, and as messaging apps continue to offer comparable functionality, Snapchat has carved out a unique offering. Is it just the latest shiny object fad? No. Snapchat has a defined demographic, growing reach, and high engagement. However, marketers shouldn't run to the yellow and white ghost simply because they think, “We need to be on Snapchat!” (words frequently uttered in marketer-agency meetings). As always, marketers should first determine an audience and a business objective and then decide if Snapchat can help achieve that goal.