Snapchat Plays Hard to Get With Celebrities and Influencers


Jay Sean, a musician, was courted by social networks like Facebook, but Snapchat has kept its distance.CreditBryan Anselm for The New York Times

The musician Jay Sean has visited the headquarters of YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Instagram has reached out to tutor him on the best time to post photos for maximum impact.

But there is one social media service Mr. Sean has not heard from, even though he frequently uses the app to post spontaneous snippets of his life: Snapchat.

“When it comes to celebrities, Snapchat is different from Instagram or Twitter,” said Mr. Sean, whose biggest hit was the song “Down,” which also features the hip-hop artist Lil Wayne. Mr. Sean has 472,000 followers on Instagram, but he says he does not know how many people follow him on Snapchat because the company does not disclose the information.

Social networks have traditionally formed tight bonds with actors, musicians, politicians and people who are known for nothing besides their online presence, because these people have the power to draw in more users. But Snapchat, whose parent company Snap is headed toward a blockbuster initial public offering next year, is bending those rules.

Instead of giving celebrities like Mr. Sean special treatment, Snapchat limits their perks and treats them like typical users. Instead of courting influencers, who are regular people with large followings on social media and who often promote products, the app is taking a hands-off approach with them.

The reason for the difference: Snapchat wants to provide a more authentic experience, one that does not depend on whether a celebrity is on its service, and one that is not cluttered by adlike endorsements from influencers. The more someone’s real life shows up on its service, Snapchat figures, the more intimate and personal it feels. And marketers may be more attracted to this authenticity, spurring them to buy ads from Snapchat rather than pay celebrities and influencers to do product placements.

“Snapchat serves a different purpose,” Mr. Sean said. “On Snapchat, I really know my fans. They don’t like anything too contrived or too staged on Snapchat.”

Snapchat says it prefers that celebrities use the app like everyday users, rather than as a platform to sell products. The company’s terms of service prohibit getting paid to post, making influencer marketing a no-no. The company, based in Venice, Calif., said it does not want to harm Snapchat’s image as a place where people go to interact with their friends.

“Snapchat is now in a very big battle for habitual users,” said Grant Owens, the chief strategy officer of Critical Mass, a digital ad agency. While Snapchat makes money from advertising, Mr. Owens said, remaining relatively marketing-free will help the company differentiate itself.

All of this contrasts with how Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks have relied on celebrities and influencers to build the popularity of their services. Celebrity users were so important to Facebook when it went public in 2012 that the pages of Lady Gaga and an internet-famous dog named Boo were mentioned in the company’s regulatory filings. Twitter’s initial public offering filing in 2013 pointed out that the chef Mario Batali and President Obama were among its users.

Google’s YouTube even helped create a new category of online celebrity — the influencer — by elevating popular video creators on the platform. And Instagram supports celebrities and influencers by sharing data that can help them attract larger audiences.

These moves have pushed many people to seek social media fame; some even try to make a living by selling products to their followers. These influencers have formed guilds, are supported by agents and are paid when they slip products into photos of themselves having fun and looking stylish.

Snapchat does not cater to these groups. Instead of having celebrities and influencers make product placements on the service, Snapchat tightly controls its ads, which must meet a high bar, according to advertisers. The ads are typically designed to mirror the look and the feel of videos and photos that users already see on the messaging service.

By keeping that quality control, Snapchat is able to charge a lot for its ads: $350,000 to $600,000 for a daylong national geofilter — a branded image that people can overlay on their photos — and up to $700,000 for so-called lenses that can transform a user’s selfie, according to a price list obtained by The New York Times. The company recently introduced lower-priced advertising options.

Yet for a social media company to eschew celebrities and influencers is risky.

“You’d be crazy not to serve them well, because they represent a large amount of engagement and activity on most platforms,” said Michele Anderson, the chief operating officer of the media consulting firm Activate. To ignore influencers, she said, is a “shortsighted business risk.”

Some online influencers have gone public with their displeasure over Snapchat’s arm’s-length approach. One of them, Shaun McBride, posted an 11-minute “open letter” to Snapchat on YouTube last month. In it, he complains about how poorly he says the company works with influencers and advertisers, and says it ignored his requests to be verified, a designation that indicates someone is a public figure whom others might try to impersonate. He calls Snapchat “cool but very expensive” for brands, and says that made it hard to build an audience.

“YouTube, I have a rep and they help me out with anything,” Mr. McBride says in the video. “I’ve talked to people at Instagram about how Instagram stories work and we work together on stuff. Snapchat, I don’t really have a point of contact, and they’re not really embracing their creators.”

In an email, Mr. McBride said his relationship with Snapchat did not change after he posted the video.

Snapchat is not celebrity-free. Apart from Mr. Sean, television personalities like Ryan Seacrest and musicians like Rihanna use the service. Last fall, the company rolled out “official stories,” a feature that identifies videos and pictures posted by widely known public figures like Michelle Obama and Jessica Alba. Only a few hundred Snapchat accounts have the official story designation, which are marked with an emoji and are easier for users to find than regular accounts.

The tennis star Serena Williams became part of the official stories this year. She said she liked the upgrade because it “makes it easy for anyone to find me.”

Yet celebrity accounts are not given other types of common preferential treatment. Their posts are not presented in a newsfeed, and an algorithm does not prioritize their content and automatically feed it to users. People must also choose to follow celebrity accounts and then opt to watch their stories. And Snapchat does not encourage celebrities to focus on metrics, nor does it reveal the number of followers a user has in the app.

“Snapchat isn’t about the numbers,” Ms. Williams said. “Snapchat is for my real fans.”

The actor and comedian Kevin Hart, who has an official story account, also said the service gave him a more genuine connection with fans.

“Snapchat is where I go to connect with them in a fun, natural way,” he said.

Arielle Vandenberg, an actress and social media star with more than 900,000 followers on Instagram, said she had found it hard at first to build a following on Snapchat. Still, she has started using the app more than any other.

“It feels like way more of a connection between me and the person who is watching,” she said. “If I post a picture on Instagram, it could be taken two weeks ago. If I post on Snapchat, it’s right there in the moment with the audience.”

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Sapna Maheshwari

Sapna Maheshwari is a business reporter covering advertising for The New York Times.

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