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How To Use Snapchat: A Small Business Guide

Sam Sisakhti, founder and CEO of UsTrendy, a marketplace for fashion designers and boutiques, has a foolproof guide to figuring out which social media platforms his startup needs to be on: Follow the interns.

UsTrendy’s core demographic is women aged 16 to 28, and Sisakhti has pursued them on Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram by taking the advice of his college-aged interns. Most recently, he began to see those sites getting replaced. “We always look at what our interns are doing, and right now they’re getting crazy with Snapchat,” he says.

Not every small business needs to be on social media and even fewer need to be on Snapchat. But if your business is targeting young people, you might want to take notice. Snapchat began infamously as a one-to-one mobile messaging app known for sexting — because its messages disappeared in seconds — but today it’s a one-to-many platform used daily by more than 100 million users. There’s even evidence it’s being adopted by moms.

And Snapchat has also made it easier to use, dropping the requirement that users keep a thumb on the screen to view a post. This year Snapchat has also begun experimenting with news and advertising. On the app’s Discover tab, the likes of ESPN and Comedy Central send special Snapchat news updates and videos that run alongside video and photo “stories” sent by a user’s friends. Big brands like Samsung and McDonald’s are also paying to advertise on Snapchat.

The platform lets users mix photographs and videos and employ creative tools like fonts, filters, digital crayons, and more. That rich media experience (as well as the large audience of devoted followers) can make Snapchat an appealing marketing avenue for the right small businesses. But it’s not as easy as importing content from other sites. Every social media platform is different, and Snapchat is perhaps the most different of all and maybe the hardest to figure out. (To learn more about how to use the basics of Snapchat, go here. To learn more about its amazing business story, go here.)

In an effort to figure out what’s working, Forbes talked to small businesses, like UsTrendy, that have already marketed themselves on Snapchat. They’re early adopters that have carved out niche audiences of a few hundred followers at a time, and say Snapchat can be a frustrating place to promote a business, but they’ve adapted certain strategies to cope and had some success.

Go Behind The Scenes

People love to get a look behind the scenes of companies and people they care about. According to businesses already on the platform, Snapchat can be a great place to tease followers with a sneak peek into your operation. And because Snapchat offers an immersive video experience, it can be more powerful than a simple Tweet or Instagram photo.

“Snapchat is a glimpse into the lifestyle of your company,” says Jessica Maslin, directing partner at DayDreamCinema, a multimedia marketing agency that uses Snapchat to promote behind-the-scenes clips from its many brand shoots. “We have a lot of fun at work so we want people to see that. We shot an ad for Michael Jordan kid shoes last week but that edit won’t get released for eight months. On Snapchat it’s easy for people to watch and see how cool that is. They wonder how we’re filming and what it’ll look like in the end.”

When  Snapchat saw the work DayDreamCinema was doing, it hired Maslin and CEO Josh Martinez Dubon to make a Snapchat-branded video series that each week explores a day in the life of a profession most people would never experience—a sailboat captain, for example.

Empower Your Employees And Influencers

Snapchat can be time consuming. But there are options: you can delegate your official account to others, a strategy many of the companies we spoke to employ. Maslin and Martinez Dubon often let their production assistants handle Snapchat while the two of them are leading the actual ad shoot. Sisakhti gave his summer interns a crack at it as well, to show what UsTrendy looks like on the inside.

Kay Salerno, who handles the social media accounts for her family’s California breakfast and lunch chain, Squeeze In, passes her official Snapchat account around to a different employee at a different restaurant location each weekend. Employees are encouraged to snap photos and videos of food preparation, customer interactions, and secret handshakes in the hallway. Salerno says the practice keeps Squeeze In’s content fresh and engaging—and avoids feeling too corporate.

You can even delegate your account to outsiders—as long as you’re careful.Sisakhti routinely has bloggers in the fashion community take over UsTrendy’s account for the day. Having bloggers try on clothes and post photos and videos of themselves on Snapchat generates much more engagement than generic product shots, he’s found. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that those influencers tend to promote the account to their followers.

But Sisakhti sends strict legal guidelines to every blogger beforehand. “We’re not giving it to random people, but we still tell them no nudity, no profanity,” he says. “We also don’t give our Snapchat to people at night time. I’m not sure how much trouble people can get into during the day.”

On Instagram, brands often try to project the perfect image or video, taking a lot of time to select a shot and run it through Photoshop or After Effects. While it’s important to keep up quality, these businesses say, you don’t have to be as obsessive on Snapchat. That’s because the stakes are lower: While Instagram and Facebook become long-term brand portfolios where nothing ever goes away, Snapchat images and videos disappear after viewing. “You can have more fun with Snapchat than other media outlets,” says Christina Coy, vice president of marketing at pizza chain Pie Five. “Take risks, try new things, and put a human feel on it.”

Robyn Macy, social media specialist at frozen yogurt chain 16 Handles, uses Snapchat to go behind the scenes at stores and tease new flavors, as well as send hand-drawn versions of popular cartoon characters eating dessert. She avoids using Snapchat (or Instagram) to preach about the health benefits of froyo—a real product photo, she’s found, does better.

Still, as ephemeral as Snapchat can be, there are risks. Salerno learned this the hard way when a Squeeze In employee using the official Snapchat account didn’t realize her phone camera was dirty. “Our views instantly dropped,” she says.

It’s also important to note that while Snapchat messages disappear, users can take screenshots of your photos or videos to save and share. This means that you need to avoid any image that, if taken out of context, could make your business look bad.

Keep It Disney

Snapchat is the most casual social media platform. Businesses that are actively posting say their audiences want to see color and action and people having fun. That means keeping it upbeat. Your followers are likely much younger than on other platforms—Snapchat touts its average user age group as 13 to 34. “With Twitter it’s an older audience so I can make jokes like ‘Can’t wait to spoon!’ But with Snapchat you have to keep it super PG, because the audience is young,” Macy says. “I get selfie replies from 8- or 9-year-old kids.”

According to Coy, when Pie Five ran a pizza promo, it got back silly responses like “I’m hungry” or “Need pizza now!” Sisakhti says UsTrendy has gotten silly or inappropriate responses too, including those of people partying or drinking. They don’t reply directly to those messages, but are happy to answer a customer’s question or praise someone who sent a photo of a graduation dress they bought on the site.

Unlike Twitter and Facebook, Snapchat was built on private, rather than public messaging. That means there are no tools (yet) to re-share content with friends, the way a Retweet on Twitter can multiply your impact. And lots of basic engagement metrics aren’t obvious. The Snapchat “score” listed next to usernames represents nothing but the total number of Snaps you have sent and received. Businesses instead rely on “opens” or “views” to track engagement.

Small businesses say screenshots can also be a useful proxy for sharing (Snapchat notifies users when a viewer takes a screenshot to save a photo of their message). Macy at 16 Handles tracks the number of screenshots taken of her Snap photos. She figures anyone who saves a fun image likely wants to share it with friends.

Keep It Short

Mobile video is often viewed in bursts by bored people standing in line or sitting in class. Thus, videos should be short and snappy, business users say. Individual videos taken with Snapchat are limited to 10 seconds, but over the course of a day, you can collect multiple snaps into an overall “story” that friends can watch all at once.

At DayDreamCinema, Maslin and Martinez Dubon learned that staying with any one still photo for more than a few seconds in story mode tends to turn off the audience. Views fall after that. Their advice: keep still photos to a couple of seconds each and your total story compilation to no longer than a minute or two. Practicing what they preach, DayDreamCinema’s weekly Snapchat videos are all exactly 60 seconds.

Adding Followers Is Tough

Snapchat doesn’t make it easy to follow brands—the app doesn’t recommend users to follow or even let you search for people. Users have to know your exact Snapchat name to follow you. The best method for adding followers is to cross promote your account on your other social media platforms and in physical locations, too. Pie Five, for example, uses in-store point of purchase displays that direct customers to follow them.

One tool Snapchat does provide is a special QR code. Your customers can take a photo of the QR code with their phones to automatically enroll as followers. Sharing that QR code on Twitter and Facebook can accomplish this, although a physical presence has been most successful for Squeeze In. The restaurant puts its Snapchat QR code on dining tables and encourages customers to connect with the restaurant while waiting for their food.

Promotions Are Difficult, But Doable

Small businesses lament that, unlike Facebook, Snapchat doesn’t offer opportunities for local or niche advertising. Its paid advertising options are suitable only for big brands—reportedly costing up to $750,000 per day. And there’s no targeting of specific demographics or communities, as on Facebook. Instead, businesses say they have to be more creative and appeal directly to their followers.

Squeeze In’s most successful promotion so far encouraged people to take a screenshot of a coupon that appeared at the end of a “story” video compilation. Customers could bring the screenshot into stores for a free side order of chocolate-covered bacon. The key, Salerno says, was teasing the coupon by telling viewers to watch until the end of the video. About half of Squeeze In’s 400 followers viewed the Snapchat story and 36 people took screenshots. 24 of those redeemed the coupon in a store.

Pie Five tested a similar promotion. It sent photos of pizzas with the message “Pie-Dentity” written in toppings. Instead of encouraging viewers to take a screenshot, customers were encouraged to tell cashiers the code word to get a $5 pizza that day. Overall, the response wasn’t huge, but it was still a promising experiment, according to Coy. “We got the 18-to-24-year-old demographic we were looking for,” she says, “those kids who are getting off Facebook or just not paying as much attention to it. We’re trying to be new adopters.”

Brian Solomon writes about technology and the on-demand economy for Forbes. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

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