When Reggie Brown walked into Evan Spiegel's room at their Stanford fraternity, Kappa Sigma, little did the then 19-year-old Spiegel know that he was about to hear a statement that would kick-start one of the most important trends in software technology this decade.
Brown had said back then: "I wish there were an app to send disappearing photos."
Over the following three years, Spiegel and his team developed Snapchat into the leading mobile application for sending disappearing messages (or, as they are more technically referred to: ephemeral messages).
Today, Snapchat processes over 400 million disappearing photos, videos, and text messages on a daily basis. The application boasts approximately 100 million monthly active users and sits comfortably among the top ten apps both in the App Store and in Google Play (US).
Snapchat's soaring popularity has caused a stir in the world of technology. Everyone wants to build an ephemeral messaging app and serve it up with a twist. In the past year alone, three semi-popular ephemeral messaging startups raised over $43 million (namely: Wickr, Frankly, and Cyber Dust) while Snapchat alone raised $200 million.
Blink is another startup in the same category that was acquired by Yahoo for an undisclosed amount. Facebook introduced its second attempt at an app for disappearing photos.Apple is rumored to be adding a self-destruct feature for its native messaging app, iMessage. The ephemeral messaging trend has also infiltrated the GCC startup scene with one startup in particular gaining traction. That startup is Vonce, an application that allows users to send 14 second voice notes that disappear after being played once. Vonce was created in Kuwait by Saleh Al-Musallam who has previously developed an Instagram analytics application called Instafan, that has over two million downloads to date.
In short, an obsession with sending disappearing multimedia messages has taken over the world of internet software technology. However, some experts still maintain that communicating via disappearing messages is a fad that will unlikely continue beyond a few years of popularity.
Don't be fooled. The signs point towards a clear conclusion: ephemeral messaging is here to stay.
The first sign is Snapchat's latest valuation. Snapchat garnered investment at a value of $10 billion dollars this year (in other words, investors believe that Snapchat is worth $10 billion).This valuation clearly reflects the tremendous confidence that Silicon Valley elites and venture capitalists have in the future of ephemeral messaging. In the past four decades, every startup that has been valued at ten figures or more has gone on to establish a new field in technology.Take, for example, Facebook, Google, Yahoo, Twitter, and Amazon; Silicon Valley rarely gets such big bets wrong.
The second sign is in the reason claimed by most people as to why they use ephemeral messaging services. Users believe that ephemeral messaging is the form of cyber communication that most closely resembles the characteristics of "real" in-person or over-the- phone interaction. Uttered words are seldom recorded and the images we perceive with our eyes are rarely saved and replayed. They are fleeting moments. Ephemeral messaging apps, like Snapchat, transmit the temporary, unrecorded nature of real life interactions into the digital world creating unaltered moments captured and shared in real time.This in itself spells a valuable proposition in this age of social technology.
The third sign is apparent in the technological up-build around ephemeral messaging applications. For any new communication platform to prevail, technology must be built upon a platform that allows a more diverse usability. Extensive horizontal features, such as video, captions, commentary, and event streaming are being developed on ephemeral messaging platforms. Additionally, new areas of integration are being explored on apps in this category. For example, a few months ago Snapchat announced Snapcash (in association with payment ser vice provider, Square). The feature allows Snapchat users in the United States to transfer money with a simple "money text" via the texting feature.
The possibilities of ephemeral messaging are vast and diverse.
Snapcash has sparked a debate as to what the next big step for ephemeral messaging might be. It is my opinion that e-commerce is the logical upcoming destination. The temporary nature of disappearing messages could actively encourage "quick deals" and impulse purchases. Given that most users of ephemeral messaging apps are college and high school students, the platform has the ideal demographic looking for coupons, deals, and promotions.
In fact, a study conducted by Sumpto, a marketing company that surveys 50,000 influential college students on social media (as described by renowned business website, Business Insider, who have also quoted the study) shows that 58% of US college students would likely purchase a product from a brand that sent them a Snapchat coupon. The same study also indicates that 67% of the college students would most want to receive brand promotions on Snapchat. It is therefore not surprising to find that brands like Taco Bell, MTV UK, and 16 Handles have already effectively executed Snapchat-based coupon campaigns.
There were two missing links for commerce to be viable on Snapchat: payment processing and a checkout process. The former seems to be ready for integration with Snapcash.The latter is simple enough for the Snapchat team to develop. Thusly, Snapchat might lead the way in what could be dubbed “the new e-commerce", Ephemeral Commerce. Perhaps it would be centered on the concept of taking advantage of a deal and clicking "buy" within ten seconds or the deal disappears forever. There are, of course, many wrinkles to be ironed out before such an idea becomes a reality but the foundation for it already exists.
The GCC market could be a perfect fit for ephemeral commerce. The GCC has a young population (54% of the population are under the age of 25) that is heavily engaged with social technology and e-commerce. In addition, relative to the Middle East in general, the GCC has an above average consumer purchasing power.These factors have made the Gulf an enticing opportunity for discount- deal startups such as Yabila (Kuwait) and, more importantly, Groupon (Dubai). Groupon is a group discount website based in Chicago. Groupon launched in the Emirates in mid-2011, and has been growing exponentially in that market ever since. Groupon's success in the Gulf will encourage other deal-based startups to launch in the region. As such, if an existing ephemeral messaging giant like Snapchat develops an ephemeral commerce application, the GCC can be a market in which the concept can thrive vastly.
If electronic commerce is seamlessly integrated with ephemeral messaging, it could create a new exciting angle for varying fields and activities in commerce. Effectively, such a move could cement ephemeral messaging in the technology framework for many generations to come.
Whether it is in commerce, marketing, communication, or otherwise, ephemeral messaging has the potential to disrupt existing fields of technology. Industry giants are beginning to fully understand that potential. It is not a hidden fact that in late 2013, Spiegel had a closed-door meeting with Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook. Zuck, as he is commonly nicknamed, made Spiegel a $3 billion cash offer for Snapchat. Spiegel turned down the offer. Had he said yes, he would have netted $750 million in cash at the age of 22. It takes more than guts to turn down such an offer; it takes remarkably firm conviction in the future of your technology, supported by a plethora of data and quantitative analyses.
To most aptly conclude: ephemeral messaging isn't disappearing anytime soon.
Hashim Bahbahani is the co-founder and CEO of Yazli, a mobile commerce application for independent sellers in Kuwait. Hashim's main interest are in technology startups and venture capital. He is also a regular contributor for StartupQ8.com, an online community in Kuwait.
Artwork: Lulwah Al-Homoud