A few weeks ago I started writing a post about Snapchat for journalists. It ended up so long that I decided to turn it into a small ebook. But I thought I’d split that original draft – just under half the length of the finished ebook – across a number of posts here on OJB. I hope you find it useful.
In a long history of technologies journalists have struggled with, Snapchat could be the most frustrating of all.
On the one hand: promises of insane engagement and impressive advertising rates.
On the other, however…
Well. Firstly there’s the ephemeral nature of the tool: creating content designed to disappear is precisely the opposite of what journalists aspire to.
Secondly there’s that obtuse-to-the-point-of-arrogance interface that can be summed up with the advice ‘Just swipe somewhere.‘
And then there’s the amateurishness of the content.
If you struggled with the limitations of 140 characters, Snapchat takes things to a whole new level: vertical video, over-emotional stickers, and the choice between a) using a typeface that makes you look like a government bureaucrat in 1978, or b) scrawling bright red text on the screen like a demented crayon-wielding five year old.
There is that engagement. And an audience you can’t easily reach elsewhere.
And to be honest, once I got my head around Snapchat, I started to see storytelling possibilities that other platforms simply don’t offer. And I hope you will too.
Coming to terms with your inevitable Snapchat naffness
It’s useful to list all the things that bug journalists about Snapchat in order to tackle them head-on. Here goes…
- Ephemeral-ness: actually, once you create a story, you can download a copy of it (or any part of it) to your phone. If you want to then hoard that for posterity, or re-use it on YouTube or somewhere else more permanent, you can (you can also embed vertical video).
- Obtuse interface: treat this like a series of dance steps or karate kata to be memorised. Yes, I know you can’t dance or fight. What journalist can? But I’ve tried to show you where to place your feet below.
- Amateurishness: it is possible to create good stories if you plan accordingly. In fact, a good story can really make an impression. But also, it is worth remembering that the appeal of the platform is its very informality. It is designed to be kind of naff. But still, I’ve pulled together some examples of good practice below…
Chat app or social network or publishing platform?
Before I do that, it’s worth making some important distinctions: when people talk about Snapchat they can be actually talking about more than one thing. These are:
- Snapchat’s original ‘chat‘ functionality: the ability to send messages directly to individuals which will then disappear.
- Snapchat ‘Stories‘: these are collections of ‘snaps’ – for example, some images, some video clips – which combine into (hopefully) some sort of narrative. These don’t disappear – they are available for 24 hours – and they can be seen by anyone who follows you, not just people that you send them to.
- Snapchat Discover channels: these are (typically) collections of stories produced by brands like Cosmopolitan, Buzzfeed, the Daily Mail, National Geographic and CNN.
The first is the chat app; the second was Snapchat becoming social media; the third was Snapchat becoming a host for content (and, of course, advertising).
The first challenge, then, is being clear which Snapchat you want to use.
When you open up Snapchat you are taken straight to the filming screen:
- Swipe left-to-right across the screen (or tap the rounded edge square in the bottom left corner) and you will be taken to the messages screen (chat).
- Swipe right-to-left (or tap on the three-line ‘hamburger’ menu in the bottom right corner) and you’ll be taken to the Stories screen (think social media).
- Swipe right-to-left again and you’ll be taken to the Discover screen (think publications).
Much of the attention in journalism circles, for example, has been on Snapchat Discover. But unless you happen to work in one of the very few organisations granted a Snapchat Discover channel – and are one of the very few people within those organisations involved in content production for Snapchat Discover, that’s not much help.
In fact, because Snapchat Discover is so professional, it can be a real discouragement: producers on those channels have access to features most Snapchat users can’t dream of.
But that doesn’t mean you should ignore Discover: watching vertical video on those channels (one of the few features it has in common with Snapchat stories) in particular will show you examples where vertical video works well (while also, annoyingly, featuring lots of examples of horizontal video embedded in text stories).
The same applies to Snapchat’s chat feature. If you can find someone to chat with this can be a good space to get used to the informality of Snapchat style, and play with its features.
You can start a chat in various ways, but perhaps the simplest and most flexible is to go to the messages screen and tap the ‘speech bubble’ icon in the upper left corner, choose who to chat with and then compose your message. Note that with chats you can type text, upload images from your phone, access different ‘stickers’ and have video or audio calls – none of which you can do with Stories.
The Discover channels bear a little explanation too. Here’s a quick rundown:
- Tap a channel to ‘read’ that publication
- Once in the publication, swipe right and left to switch between stories (in Buzzfeed’s case these can be indicated merely by a different image)
- If you want to read a story swipe up (bottom-to-top)
- When in a story you can move to the next or previous story by swiping right or left
- Leave a publication by swiping down (top-to-bottom)
But for this post I’ll be focusing on the one feature that can be used by all journalists for a public they want to communicate with: Snapchat Stories.
Snapchat Stories for journalists
Snapchat is a particularly informal platform: its language and conventions have been invented by a userbase which was younger than Facebook’s or Twitter’s. For that reason it particularly suits softer topics, and broadcasters.
That doesn’t mean you can’t do hard news on the platform – you’ll find a lot of politics on the BBCnews and CBSnews accounts, for example – it just means that the presentational style is more informal than you might be used to if you’ve worked in hard news and print.
In many ways Snapchat can be quite conventional, a throwback to magazine and broadcast formats most journalists will be familiar with. Two particularly common ways to tell stories using the platform, for example, are:
- Photo stories
- Pieces to camera
…albeit with stickers, filters and text, which I’ll come onto below.
A simple way to get started with Snapchat is to collect together images to tell a story.
Images don’t all have to be still: consider filming short video clips as ‘moving images’ to add variety to your photo story.
You have to take the image or video within the Snapchat app – there is no option to upload images in Stories, although you can cheat by taking a photo of a computer screen – and the images must be vertical.
Captions can then be added to the image using the text button (T icon) in the upper right corner. Type your text but don’t click ‘Done’ on the keyboard – then choose one of the following:
- The default text is small, white and centred on a semi-opaque black strip. But if you tap the text button again the text will change to a much larger, blockier typeface which is aligned left. Tap again to centre that. Keep tapping the text button to cycle through these options.
- When you switch to the blockier typeface, a colour picker should also appear in the upper right corner. Slide up and down this to change the text colour.
- Once you have clicked ‘Done’ on your keyboard the text will be shown on the image or video. You can now use your finger to move the text elsewhere on the screen, and two fingers to rotate it, or to resize it (pull your fingers together to make the text smaller, or apart to make text larger)
You can illustrate your images and text further using stickers and the pencil options, but I’ll come onto those later.
Snapchat ‘pieces to camera’
The ‘speaking to camera’ element is why broadcasters seem to do so much better on Snapchat: it helps if you are able to talk on camera and not feel like an idiot.
Many stories rely on the journalist speaking about something which does not have a visual element. This development is quite surprising: for years the received wisdom has been that broadcast conventions of ‘filling screen time’ (think: presenter standing outside court reading a statement from the lawyer) had no place in online journalism, and every piece of video had to justify itself.
On Snapchat, this is simply not the case: the ‘presenter’ is once again a crucial element: not because the video has any inherent journalistic value, but rather to give us a human connection.
Along the same lines some broadcast practices are worth employing here: placing yourself in a relevant and interesting location, for example, can make for much more interesting video than filming yourself at your desk.
But broadcasters still have to adapt their broadcast style somewhat: ditch the po-faced seriousness, for example, and treat this as a genuine conversation.
You should also consider using captions as mentioned above, for example to add extra details to what you’re saying.
And bear in mind that the maximum length of a single video ‘snap’ is 10 seconds (although there is a workaround). You might want to string together more than one clip to get over this limitation, but it’s much better to think of other ways to communicate the same information – for example still images with captions or, better still, interviews…
Of course it’s much better if it’s not just you speaking on camera. Using Snapchat to do short interviews adds something original to your content and gives it more variety of voices.
CBSnews’s election reporting, for example, combines the reporter’s pieces to camera setting context (on location too!) with what are basically vox pops from voters.
Those vox pops use captions to add details about the person being interviewed – sometimes simply their age and where they’re from, but other times summarising their position.
I’m not a big fan of vox pops – they are often unenlightening and a lazy option – but they can suit Snapchat’s brief video format well if the topic also suits (an election being a good example).
But beyond vox pops you can also use short video interviews to summarise experts’ or politicians’ thoughts or positions.
You can also use Snapchat to do an ‘interview story’ which breaks up a series of 30 second video clips with other material such as illustrative images, or other contributors.