Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Ephemeral but here to stay

Published in Mar-Apr 2017
How ephemeral platforms like Snapchat have changed the rules of social media.

Last year, I attended the SXSWedu, the education track of the iconic American expo held every year in Austin, Texas. A recurrent theme there was how social media is impacting education and although much was said about social media overall, significant focus was put on the rise of ephemeral social media; that is, social media that is visible for a very short period of time and then supposedly goes away forever.

The running joke was that Millennials and their kids are moving away from ‘Fossilbook’ and ‘Instagrandma’ to more ephemeral social media such as Snapchat. While much of the conversation centred on how kids would use ephemeral social media and its inherent risks (online privacy and bullying), the underlying message was that ephemeral media has become an established part of life, and educators and businesses need to start using it to connect with the next generation.

Although businesses have, to some extent, used ephemeral media to connect with Millennials and young customers, the jury is still out on what qualifies as success in this area. When ephemeral social media came on the scene with the launch of Snapchat in 2011, few thought that social media with impermanence as the USP would gain traction as a marketing medium. Six years later, those detractors are eating crow. Snapchat today has an active user base of 100 million, handles 400 million pictures a day and has a market valuation of $25 billion (source: Bloomberg); not bad for something that started life as a class project for a bunch of Stanford university geeks.

The success of Snapchat seems to indicate that a short shelf life is the way to go. Many in the marketing industry have struggled to rationalise what makes the app (which now ranks among the top 10 in all mobile ecosystems, iOS and Android included) tick. The initial reaction was that the app was a fringe phenomenon popular among teens and Millennials who wanted to post temporary content – and would, in fact, turn out to be a passing phase.


The success of Snapchat seems to indicate that a short shelf life is the way to go.


This too proved to be an erroneous starting point. As the popularity of ephemeral media grew, even traditional social media outlets got into the act of impermanence. Instagram launched ‘Stories’ (the move was a runaway success) and in just over five months gained a user base of over 150 million active users, causing the parent company Facebook to launch a similar ‘Stories’ feature on their newsfeed. The advertising response too has been most encouraging and over 74% of US companies now have a presence on Instagram since the launch of Stories (up from 53% last year).

So what has attracted Millennials to ephemeral media? Many experts believe that the impermanence of the marketing message, if positioned well, strikes the right chord. The key in their opinion is the nature of the content and more importantly, how it is curated. According to some experts, content curation on ephemeral social media is following the same pattern digital photography did. Before going digital, the focus of photography was to have a few select pictures saved for posterity with the rest of the experience stored as a cherished memory. However, with the advent of digital (particularly with mobile phone cameras), we came to a point where every moment was photographed in a million snaps. Ephemeral media has simply moved content creation along the same curve, striking a new balance whereby important events can be instantly shared for a short period, thus demanding immediacy of attention.

Instagram Stories. Contrary to the nature of its content, ephemeral media is here to stay.
Instagram Stories. Contrary to the nature of its content, ephemeral media is here to stay.

Apart from the fact that there are now audiences willing to engage for an extremely short time with a message, what does this mean for marketers? To understand this, one needs to understand what is at stake here. Last year, Millennials in the US spent $170 billion on purchases and globally, Millennial purchasing power is set to be upwards of $1.4 trillion, and may even cross two trillion dollars by 2020. The business case to go ephemeral, so to speak, is a no-brainer.

Industry experts point out that as a marketing segment, Millennials have one stark difference with previous generations; they are more focused on experiencing life as opposed to owning things, which may explain why old-school success symbols, like cars and home ownership, are at record lows for Millennials, while travel, self-improvement, skill building and personal grooming are key concerns. Considering this mindset, the impermanence of ephemeral media seems more in line with Millennial tastes. Also, ephemeral media allows users to learn, make mistakes, get things wrong and then simply walk away from it all, because the potential embarrassment theoretically doesn’t exist, unlike say Facebook or Twitter, where a wrong move can haunt one for life. All of this makes Snapchat or Instagram Stories more aligned with Millennial values of living and learning.


So what has attracted Millennials to ephemeral media? Many experts believe that the impermanence of the marketing message, if positioned well, strikes the right chord.


Multiple research studies seem to back this up. Recent studies by Accenture, Digitas, Tumbler and Yahoo had some interesting common themes about Millennial consumption of social and ephemeral media. Over 80% of respondents claimed to use their phone cameras at least once a week to share temporary social content. There is a consistent set of attributes of content that Millennials find more compelling when it comes to social media (see box). Values like brevity, relevance, social consciousness, local support, entertainment, humour, transparency, entrepreneurship and acceptance of diversity were all important values they liked to see in brands.

Another key finding is that unlike previous generations, Millennials are more open to sharing personal information with brands if it leads to a more customised, shareable and relevant brand experience. Millennials have grown up in an age of programmatic advertising, so sharing information to make the advertising experience more customised and relevant to them is seen as normal. Given that Millennials consume content across multiple channels, brands will need to focus on message consistency and experience on an omni-channel level (desktop, mobile and tablet).

In conclusion, if there is one thing that industry experts agree on is that contrary to the nature of its content, ephemeral media is here to stay.

Best practices for creating ephemeral content

Given that Ephemeral Marketing is still an evolving ecosystem, what passes for best practices depends on who you are asking. However, according to multiple sources, it seems that memorable ephemeral content should be:

  • Quick to consume
  • Easy to understand
  • Designed creatively
  • Instantly shareable
  • Visually stimulating
  • More often than not disruptive to the normal flow of information
  • Consistent across platforms

Tariq Ziad Khan is a US-based marketer and a former member of Aurora’s editorial team. tzk999@yahoo.com

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