Snapchat: A Platform for Pharma Marketing?


Is Snapchat just for the kids, or should pharma marketers be taking it seriously as a media platform? Peter Houston takes a look.

Peter Houston

I have a confession to make… Despite the fact that I spend all my working life writing, talking and thinking about digital media and marketing, I’ve only just figured out Snapchat.

Since the photo-sharing app launched in July 2011, I’ve probably put it on my phone, and deleted it, half-a-dozen times because I just didn’t get it. But recent changes had me look again and now I think I’m beginning to see what all the fuss is about.

Just in case, like me, you struggle with Snapchat, here’s a quick primer on what it is and why you might want to take a closer look…

Snapchat is a mobile messaging app, initially used to share photos (snaps) that ‘self-destructed’ seconds after they had been viewed. Now, increasingly focused on video and featuring text overlays, photo and geo filters and more emojis that you can imagine, messages sent directly still disappear on viewing, but users now have the option to curate ‘Stories’ where messages last for 24 hours.

The network is the fastest growing in social media’s short history, achieving more than 100 million daily users in just four years. And, despite Facebook and Google reportedly trying to buy it for between $3 and $4 billion, Snapchat it is still independent and now valued at $20 billion.

A younger crowd

Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know any of that about Snapchat: You’re probably too old to be using it.

Demographics for the platform’s user base skew pretty young – 60 percent of US Snapchat users are under 25; 86 percent are under 35. And the fact that ‘old’ people like me never got Snapchat actually factors in its stellar success. In a survey run earlier this year for Variety magazine, 30 percent of respondents said one of the things they liked most about the social media network was that ‘My parents don’t use it’.

There are probably several PhD theses being written right now about why more the mature social media user has never taken to Snapchat, but for me it always just seemed too… immature. While I totally get the attraction for teenagers to overlay rainbow vomit on their selfies, it just never seemed like that would add anything to my communications.

Add to that the fact that messages lasted no more than 10 seconds and I always questioned the point. What if I forget what was said in a message? What if I read it but I’m too busy to reply right now? That’s way too much pressure for an old guy.

So what changed to make this fun but largely pointless playground app a serious marketing option?


For me, Snapchat really only started to make sense as a media and marketing platform when it pivoted away from being a pure messaging app and morphed into a publishing platform where users, publishers and brands can curate and tell stories.

If you swipe left now on Snapchat, away from the once essential camera screen, you move into the app’s ‘Stories’ section where users can view and subscribe to content that has been curated into mini-magazines. Publishers, including old-school titles like Cosmopolitan and National Geographic as well as online media like Vice and Buzzfeed, have been quick to partner to get their content out to the ever-increasing Snapchat audience.

The format is still very Snapchat. Inside ‘Discover’ channels, users swipe through images or animations overlayed with text, doodles emojis, but now there is actual content – articles or videos – beneath the opening snaps.

Also, the broadcast only nature of Snapchat has changed. Users can now share content with friends, finally bringing the notion of virality and the power of social sharing to Snapchat and no doubt fueling the interest of brands from Gatorade to General Electric in the platform.

Intimacy at scale

None of this means that Snapchat is in any danger of becoming just a publishing platform any time soon; 71 percent of respondents in the Variety survey said that they preferred the app for its chat, messaging, and imaging services.

Combine the persistence of its messaging functionality, with incredible growth, an exclusive mobile focus, the increasing volume of video on the platform and engagement levels ‘to die for’, and Snapchat could become a very interesting place to be for Pharma marketers targeting younger patients.

Writing last year in Ad Age about opportunities for brands joining the platform, Victor Pineiro of the Big Spaceship agency highlighted Snapchat’s ability to deliver what he called ‘intimacy at scale, “Every time a user opens a snap, she has no idea who else – if anyone – is seeing it. It's a tiny, personal gift, even when broadcast to a huge audience.”

That intimacy is important to many patient communities. Michael Smith, Senior Digital Strategist at Palio+Ignite, has written, ‘there are certain communities within healthcare marketing that do not lend themselves well to public social media campaigns’. For these groups, he sees apps like Snapchat allowing marketers to develop a ‘social, but private relationship with their target audience without having to drive them to a branded platform’.

Of course any advice for Pharma to consider using a social media platform has to come with the usual advisories and warnings.

The 24-hour shelf life of Snapchat messages might heighten engagement as users log on to avoid FOMO (fear of missing out), but Pharmaguy suggests it might not be a ready answer for FOFDAR (fear of FDA regulations) even if it would be difficult for the FDA to document transgressions before offending materials have disappeared.

The transience of Snapchat messaging probably doesn’t make it the best place for straight up drug promotions, but it may be effective in promoting educational events or directing people to more permanent sources of information like websites, or for ongoing patient support and adherence.

I find it fairly easy to imagine a teen diabetic subscribed to an information channel on their smartphone that sends daily treatment reminders and regularly share messages of support from within the patient community, healthcare professionals and even celebrity ambassadors… especially if they use that rainbow vomit filter.

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