How Snapchat is chasing TikTok while creators chase the Spotlight ... and the cash

Snap's creator program is still giving away $1 million a day, while brands are becoming increasingly visible on the app.

How Snapchat is chasing TikTok while creators chase the Spotlight ... and the cash

Snapchat is used to being the app that is leading the way into the future, with rivals Facebook and Google trying to catch up to its vertical video format and augmented reality technology. Now, Snapchat is chasing an ascending star in TikTok, and within the past year the app has made significant changes to how it operates—including paying lavishly to spark public creativity in its new Spotlight section, a feature that is impossible not to compare to TikTok’s “for you” page.

Since November, Snapchat has been paying $1 million a day to creators who qualify in the Spotlight program, where the top talent on the app, and even newcomers with little clout, are awarded a portion of the prize-pool, depending on how many views they received and for how long, among other factors. Spotlight was a departure for Snapchat, because it was the first product to truly incentivize public sharing among the core group of internet users most commonly known as “influencers.” Spotlight does not show ads yet, but the creators who piled in are the very people brands sponsor regularly online, and advertisers expect to be able to tie into the program and its creators in the future.

“Spotlight is just getting people to rethink the opportunity on the platform,” says Qianna Smith Bruneteau, founder of American Influencer Council, which is a group that is meant to represent the interests of online influencers.

For years, creators flocked to YouTube, Instagram and lately TikTok. But Snapchat is more private by design, not a space for showing off to the world. In 2011, Snapchat was founded on a privacy-first philosophy, with photos and videos that disappeared in 24 hours. It was a brilliant stroke that upended the world of online sharing, but it also cut off some of the creative energy going to other public online properties.

Snapchat has adjusted to the idea that some permanence is good. The Spotlight section allows viewers to tap their favorite videos and save them for later. Also, Spotlight is not the only change at Snapchat. In June, Snapchat launched public Brand Profiles, where brands can keep videos and AR Lenses, which is Snapchat’s most popular technology—augmented-reality filters that consumers use to try on virtual products and otherwise entertain themselves.

With these two developments, branded profiles and Spotlight videos, Snapchat is evolving from an insular messaging space to one where creators can show video to the public and brands can build a lasting presence. Snapchat has been finding success, too, as daily active users reached 249 million in the third quarter last year, an increase of 18% year over year. Snapchat also hit $679 million in ad revenue in the third quarter, up 52% year over year.

Popping off on Snap

Still, Snapchat needs a product that could captivate audiences like TikTok has done with its algorithm. New users to TikTok ascribe to it almost magical qualities; a place that knows what videos a user will view, over and over, and sink them into a TikTok algorithm hole.

“If Spotlight does become more similar to TikTok, in its algorithm, then maybe it can be a competitor,” says CJ OperAmericano, a 24-year-old who goes by her online name. On Friday, The New York Times highlighted a series of creators like Cam Casey, a TikTok star, who made $3 million through Spotlight. Katie Feeney, a high school senior, has made more than $1 million from Snapchat.

OperAmericano says that Spotlight is not directly analogous to TikTok and its vaunted “for you” page, where personalized video selections are fed. On TikTok, the top creators get paid by the view, so they chase low-hanging fruit, OperAmericano says. On Spotlight, Snapchat doles out money based on a formula, which it does not reveal, but almost anyone can catch visibility.

“Snapchat and TikTok have pretty different users and I am seeing higher rewards for originality and creativity on Snapchat Spotlight,” OperAmericano says. “You’re more likely to pop off on an original idea than just following along with a cookie cutter trend like you are on TikTok.”

Last year, TikTok set up the TikTok Creator Fund, which could pay $2 billion over the next three years to the top video creators. There are concerns about the incentive structure though, if it only rewards the accounts with the most followers, like celebrities. Creators also may chase views rather than creativity, leading to a spammy quality.

OperAmericano says that one of her Spotlight videos topped 1.1 million views, and it took weeks to coordinate. The video featured her and a friends using the magic of digital editing to pass real-world beauty products to each other through their screens.

“What Snapchat is trying to capture,” says Smith Bruneteau of the American Influencer Council, “is that within influencer marketing, anyone has the opportunity to leverage and be part of this space. That you don’t need to be a celebrity or have famous parents to share your gifts and talents or your points of view with the world.”

Not all Spotlight creators get paid, though. Smith Bruneteau and her group read the fine print of these creator programs, and noted that Snapchat reserves payment for creators who generate at least $250 in value to the overall platform, based on an undisclosed formula.

Competing loyalties

For some, like OperAmericano the payments are larger than what TikTok is giving in the TikTok Creator Fund. “I remember the day that I got the message from Snapchat telling me how much I had made on my [Spotlight] videos, and I opened my TikTok [account] and was like wow I made $4 today,” OperAmericano says. “It was kind of crazy how different that number is.”

Smith Bruneteau says that her creator council regularly meets with social media executives, including Francis Roberts, Snapchat’s senior talent manager who joined the company from YouTube last year. Snapchat is working with creators more closely to give them tips on how to find success as part of ongoing programs it has in place, like the Snap Creator Summer.

Snapchat declined to comment for this story, but did confirm that it would continue paying creators from the $1 million fund daily.

Kendra Dandy, who goes by “theeboufant” on social media, is another Snapchat creator who has jumped on Spotlight. Since November she has built a 5,000-follower community on Snapchat, and it’s given her a platform for her artwork.

Later this month, Smith Bruneteau says creators will convene on Clubhouse, another rising app for communicating in groups, to discuss what works and what doesn’t in Spotlight, and she expected Roberts to attend.

Last week, Snapchat promoted Ben Schwerin to senior vice president of content and partnerships in a move meant to partly position the company to compete with TikTok, The Information reported.

Brands go public

Then there are Brand Profiles, which are doing for brands what Spotlight seems to have done for creators, bringing them back into the fold. Too Faced Cosmetics, for instance, had been mostly stagnant on Snapchat, letting its accounts linger for years. “There was really no public place that you could go see, you could really just go see a story that existed for 24 hours, and that was all that a user could see of your brand,” says Taylor LaMott, director of social media and influencer relations at Too Faced. “What’s really cool about Brand Profiles is that it can house lots of permanent content.”

Brands are posting videos to the profiles and Lenses. “People can go and look at our Lenses, try on our product,” LaMott says. “They’re even able to scan some of our products in-store or online, and then through Snapchat, that will pop up a Lens where they can then try on a look online.”

These are the hooks that Snapchat is using to snag advertisers. Sites like Facebook and Amazon showed that when brands can build stores and pages on a platform, it incentivizes them to promote on the platforms. “This is the first time ever that an advertiser has the ability to really build their brand within the Snapchat interface,” says Steph Garofoli, VP of partnerships at VidMob, the digital video and analytics platforms.

Snapchat has been quiet about how it plans to evolve Spotlight and Brand Profiles. Advertisers expect that Spotlight would be a prime location for ads they could share into the feed but, so far, Spotlight is reserved for approved creators, which does not include advertisers. Also, there are natural tie-ins brands could pursue with the stars that could come out of Spotlight, the same way they have latched on to YouTube, Instagram and TikTok creators. It will be key for Snapchat to devise a mechanism to keep the money flowing into Spotlight, since $1 million a day seems like a steep cost to bear on its own.

For now, Snapchat is taking a familiar approach, letting Spotlight become a habit among users, and hopefully keeping them focused inside its walls.

“The push on user-generated video is very much in-sync with Snapchat trying to make a move on TikTok,” Garofoli says. “I think that one of the things that makes TikTok sort of highly consumable is the algorithm, you can easily be on TikTok for 30 minutes and then be on there for three hours, and it’s because the videos are just so consumable, and highly entertaining, and that is what Snapchat has set out to do.”