A teenager’s billion-dollar insight on Snapchat and Facebook

November 19, 2013 By Mark Hurst 7 Comments

If you want to understand “mobile” and “social,” those all-important and pervasive topics in business today, I have a tip: talk to a high school student. After all, any new trend is best understood by observing, and talking directly to, the customers involved.

In this case, I was visiting a friend recently when “mobile and social” came up in conversation. My friend’s daughter, a teenaged high school student, was in the room. She would occasionally pull out her smartphone to check something. When we asked, she explained that she was connecting with friends over Snapchat. (If you haven’t heard, Snapchat is a popular app that sends photos between users but promises to delete the photos a few seconds after they’re viewed.)

I asked my friend’s daughter why she wasn’t using Facebook. She wrinkled her brow and chose her words carefully. “I think Facebook is a little bit… old?”

Here I need to stop to clarify that this was a couple of months ago, well before Snapchat’s CEO apparently turned down a three-billion-dollar acquisition offer from Facebook, according to the WSJ. My conversation with this high school student revealed a strategic insight well in advance of that.

Like any good listening lab moderator, I asked the obvious followup question. “Why do you say Facebook is old”?

“Well,” she replied, “our parents are all on it. And Facebook keeps all the photos around forever. Sometimes my friends send ridiculous photos that they don’t necessarily want their parents to see. Snapchat deletes photos after your friends view them.”

Ahh, youth and their ridiculous photos. It might be tempting to write this off as just another teen fad. (And ahh, today’s Internet, when a teen fad can give a company a billion-dollar valuation.) But there’s something more going on.

Good research, as described in Customers Included, will reveal customers’ unmet needs. And this conversation pointed to a big one: many young users want to share, but not store, their photos. Instead of the default setting of most Internet services – save everything, never delete – these users want the opposite. Delete everything.

This is not good news for companies like Facebook, Google, and others that base their business model on collecting, storing, and never deleting users’ information. (Dave Eggers, in his recent novel The Circle, hammers this point home as a character at a Google-like company states emphatically: “We don’t delete here.”) Yet some users very much want to delete, and they’re happy to abandon Facebook for a service that meets their needs.

From its acquisition offer, assuming it’s true, Facebook clearly understands it has a problem (read analyses by Albert Wenger and Jenna Wortham). It remains to be seen whether it’s willing to create a better experience for its users – though given its track record on privacy, I’m doubtful. And for its part, Snapchat may or may not have the maturity of leadership it will need to grow into a true billion-dollar company.

But one thing’s clear: the most important knowledge resides with the users. If you want to understand “mobile and social,” spend time with users. Observe them having an authentic, real-world experience. And ask them the key question: Why.

Including customers, as it turns out, can reveal insights that are worth billions of dollars.

(This applies to your company, too. Contact us if Creative Good can help.)


  1. Darius November 19, 2013 5:45 pm

    So it seems to me that the real issue is being judged and controlled by authority figures for being human. If a parent, school, or employer can oppress someone for their hobbies, how is this humanizing? It’s not. Perhaps instead of designing apps to work around evil behaviors, we should actually work on creating a culture where evil behaviors are unsupported.

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  2. Dan November 19, 2013 6:16 pm

    As any person who is a parent to a teen can attest, it is a slippery slope to base any long term strategy (business or otherwise) around a teen’s attention span.

    Perhaps the impermanence of Snapchat will give it exactly what is needs to out live FB usefulness to a teen, but it will always be churning teens as they age. Eventually our lives get less embarrassing and permanence or at least availability of images among other things becomes appealing.

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  3. Dan November 19, 2013 6:19 pm

    And I should note that this does not mean FB is saved by my point on aging. It just means that Snapchat’s current rise is as permanent as its images.

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  4. Diana Wynne November 19, 2013 6:21 pm

    It’s not just that Facebook is old, because it’s stores your pictures. It’s that your parents are on it. And your real life neighbors. Fantasy and pseudonimity let you be whoever you want to be.

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  5. francoise November 19, 2013 6:28 pm

    Seems like a lot of absolutes based on the comments quoted. Kids may want some of their ‘posts’ deleted right away but that doesn’t mean they want that of all of them. – And btw deleting doesn’t mean they can’t be retrieved-. Facebook wanting to buy Snapchat may mean that it does want to provide an avenue for the appearance of semi-instant delete. ( Which really means that the user/recipients may not be able to find it, but there is- at present- NO disappearing on the interweb/cloud/

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  6. Russell November 20, 2013 12:55 am

    wow, that’s an eye opener! thanks for that Mark

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  7. Stephanie Sawchenko November 20, 2013 9:36 am

    Let’s not continue to glorify the hyper-active kid users, OK?

    Mark, yes you’ve uncovered every tech product manager’s worst nightmare … And I totally get your points about facebook & Google. But there are granular privacy settings in facebook… this girls parents don’t actually have to see all her silly stuff.

    What I’m wondering is, what about all us old people? Shouldn’t digital products be designed for us too? We grownups end up getting stuck with products and services designed for college age kids, because they’re the ‘cool’ demographic to ‘target’. I feel this really hurts more grown-up users. There really ought to be a broad spectrum of products for different users.

    What’s going to happen to your friends daughter when she needs to get a LinkedIn account?!

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