Snapchat, Facebook, and the product-to-feature phenomenon

Snapchat, Facebook, and the product-to-feature phenomenon

Since its launch last week, Facebook’s Messenger Day has received divisive reactions. People have expressed their arguments for it, against it, and neither for it nor against it.

But regardless of how we feel about Messenger Day as consumers, Facebook’s aggressive push for disappearing photos across all of its social platforms could represent something larger: shifting the concept of disappearing photos from being a product to being a feature. 

Currently, Snapchat is at around 300 million monthly active users (MAU). That’s at least 300 million people who are exposed to disappearing photos at least once a month through Snapchat. But now that Facebook has launched disappearing photos on Instagram (600M MAU), WhatsApp (1.2B), Messenger (1B), and soon, the flagship Facebook app (1.8B), the number of people exposed to disappearing photos has exponentiated and will continue to exponentiate because of Facebook’s aggressive introductions.

Regardless of whether or not Facebook’s decision to copy Snapchat ubiquitously is worthwhile and regardless of Facebook’s reasons for the launch of disappearing photos everywhere– whether it be Facebook’s simple intention to just bleed out Snapchat or Mark Zuckerberg’s disdain for Evan Spiegel– one thing is certain: now, virtually everyone at the very least knows what disappearing photos are. This is because disappearing photos are no longer a product; they have become a ubiquitous feature of many products. 

This kind of shift from product to feature is something that happens when companies begin copying a new and widely-used product by a first-mover company in the same space. The new product created by the first-mover company can either be simply 100% duplicated or the concept(s) of the new product by the first-mover company can be integrated into existing older products by its competitors. In the case of Snapchat as the first-mover whose flagship product is disappearing photos, the Korean app Snow is an example of the former, and Facebook (and its subsidiaries) is an example of the latter.

The latter phenomenon of integrating the concept(s) from a new product into existing products is what drives the product to feature shift, and we’ve seen it happen many times before. At SXSW in March 2009, Foursquare launched as an app that let users check-in to any location such as restaurants, bars, stores, etc. Foursquare’s popularity skyrocketed soon after. But in August 2010, Facebook launched location check-ins. A month later in October 2010, Instagram launched with the ability to let users location tag.

Essentially, Foursquare’s initial 2009 location tag product became mere features on both Facebook and Instagram, amongst others. It should come as no surprise that in 2012, Foursquare designed an entirely new app focused on social discovery based on location and ratings along the lines of Yelp. And of course, today in 2017, location tagging is a very basic, no-brainer feature of practically any social app.

Another example is mobile money transfer. In 2009, Venmo debuted its seamless money transfer app with a small social feed component. In 2014, Snapchat added Snapcash, and in 2015, Facebook enabled payments in Messenger. As of yesterday, Gmail also has a money transfer feature on Android. Over time, mobile money transfer ceased becoming thought of as just a product; it became one of the many features of a product.

But the tales of Foursquare and Venmo have different endings. Unable to edge out Yelp and unable to continue uniquely leveraging location tagging, which was once what made Foursquare so great, Foursquare faded into the tapestry of hot apps of the past along with Twitter and Secret. On the other hand, Venmo is still relevant today. It’s not trendy nor hot, but Venmo did manage to become a verb in our lexicon– listen to any millennial after a dinner with friends and you’ll hear “I’ll Venmo you.” You don’t hear “I’ll Snapcash you” or “I’ll pay you on Messenger.”

Snapchat is facing the same phenomenon that Foursquare and Venmo faced. Foursquare was forced to evolve due to players such as Facebook and Instagram pushing location tagging from a product to a feature, but it never recovered after its evolution. Venmo managed to survive because while it experienced the same product to feature push, the effects were nowhere as big as Foursquare’s because other players’ forays into the mobile money transfer space weren’t successful.

The consequences of disappearing photos’ product to feature phenomenon are endless for Snapchat. Facebook’s massive encroachment could force Snapchat to innovate faster but also thoughtfully to prevent a déjà vu of Foursquare. Facebook could also bleed out Snapchat. Or what Facebook is doing right now could just end up not really mattering in the long run for Snapchat, à la Venmo’s story. We’ll find out as time unfolds, but what’s for certain is that the near future will be a pivotal decision-making period for Snapchat.

This post is part of our contributor series. It is written and published independently of TNW.

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