Snapchat controversy: The damage is done but the company can still save face, here's how

The ongoing Snapchat controversy sure is a dark cloud in this young company's history. But like they say, every dark cloud has a silver lining.

Snapchat, an ephemeral messaging app that has shown rapid growth over the years before plateauing recently, is currently facing a lot of ire in India. The #BoycottSnapchat hashtag was trending over the weekend and the Snapchat app has got a lot of 1 star negative reviews on both the Google Play Store and Apple's App Store.

What brought on this backlash was an allegation made by a former Snap Inc. employee, Anthony Pompliano, who accused Snap Inc CEO Evan Spiegel of making this statement: "This app is only for rich people. I don’t want to expand into poor countries like India and Spain."

Snap Inc has come on record to dismiss these allegations as false. "This is ridiculous. Obviously Snapchat is for everyone! It’s available worldwide to download for free," said the Snap Inc. statement. It has also alleged that Pompliano worked with Snapchat for only three weeks, and that these allegations were nothing but the rants of a disgruntled employee.

 Snapchat controversy: The damage is done but the company can still save face, heres how

The 1-star ratings have gone through the roof over the weekend

Now whether Spiegel likes it or not, or whether he made this comment or not, is by now a moot point. Even an allegation by an allegedly disgruntled employee has been enough to enrage people. The knee-jerk reaction has followed the traditional playbook in such scenarios: Trash the app on social media, abuse the CEO, talk about India's greatness (as if it was ever in doubt) and give 1 star ratings on  app stores. We had seen this happen with Snapdeal as well, when its then brand ambassador Aamir Khan's statements caught the attention of an irate online mob.

Sometimes, it is quite difficult to make someone understand the difference between an allegation and actual truth. When the said allegation is claiming India to be a 'poor country', things can only go bad from there.

The facts are just these. Snapchat is facing the music for a statement its CEO may or may not have made. The only proof of this is the word of a possibly disgruntled ex-employee who has filed a lawsuit against the company after spending just three-weeks there.

Snap Inc. has denied the allegations. Unless you were there in the same room as these two parties, it is difficult to prove for a fact what happened. Basic logic would tell us that no tech CEO would even think of making such a statement, especially when his company has just gone public and is seeing a slowing down in numbers from mature markets.

There is the distinct possibility that the CEO actually made this statement and that Pompliano is right, but until it's proven, we can't accept the statement or the allegation as the truth.

But, long story short, the damage has already been done. The allegation have leaked out, most of us appear to have accepted them as fact and now we're expressing our anger in any way we can.

Here's what Evan Spiegel and team need to do to get over this storm...

Come on record and state the facts


That Evan Spiegel is an extremely private person (most CEOs are) is a well known fact. Sure, Snap Inc., has sent out a statement dismissing the claim. But like I said before, the truth may have already become a side-show, now it's all about, "How dare Spiegel call India a poor country?"

You know something has got the pulse of the nation when you are made a WhatsApp meme and are being shared in family groups by members who don't know the first thing about Snapchat. Just the sentiment of "Foreign CEO calling India poor?" is enough to get everyone enraged.

The only way to control even more damage is to come clean on record. If Spiegel didn't say it, he just has to reiterate that fact. If he did say it, then he is obliged to give a reason as to why he said it.

He is obliged to do so because Snap Inc. is now a publicly traded company and he is answerable to its shareholders. And if one looks at Snapchat's numbers now, Instagram Stories with 200 million active users has already overtaken Snapchat, which has 160 million daily active users. The growth market for Snapchat are countries such as India and Spain. Spiegel needs to address this elephant in the room, in his personal capacity, and not through lawyers who have already sent out a statement that never actually clarified Spiegel's stand on the matter.

As Tommy Hilfiger will attest, hoping that such rumours will die a natural death is a very bad idea.

Ramp up Snapchat's presence in India

As I mentioned in the previous point, the pace of Snapchat's growth has somewhat plateaued since the launch of Instagram Stories — a feature that was clearly lifted from Snapchat. Facebook has gone ahead and done the same in its main app as well. That Facebook is a hardcore Snapchat rival, is a foregone conclusion.

But there is one thing that differentiates the two American companies. Facebook has a deep presence in India. Snapchat does not have any. Among the locations on the Snap Inc. website, UK, France, Australia, Canada and Ukraine are the only countries outside the US where Snapchat has job openings, and hopefully, a semblance of a presence.

India, with its vast millennial population — a target group that is Snapchat's raison d'etre — is definitely a country where the app could see a future growth.

Our Stories needs to have more Indian flavour

Cricket and Bollywood are two things with which you will never go wrong in India. Brands have capitalised on these two aspects, and tasted a fair amount of success. Indian festivals are another draw — with e-commerce platforms aligning their sales around these times, and the overall economy getting an uptick in this period.

These three aspects provide ample material for one of Snapchat's key interactive features to showcase Indian culture to the world or to other Indian users — Our Stories.

Bollywood and Cricket present huge opportunities for Snapchat (Image Credit: Vivo)

Bollywood and Cricket present huge opportunities for Snapchat (Image Credit: Vivo)

Our Stories is a part of Snapchat Stories that lets you add your snaps around a common theme. Snaps from these stories are selected at random and become part of a larger story that is shared to all Snapchat users. For instance, the last time there was a popular 'Our Story' in the Indian context was around Diwali last year. If only Snapchat had more geo-locked India-flavoured stories (just like Google does those Doodles), it will definitely make the app attractive for more users.

Capitalising on an ongoing sports tournament (IPL 2017, for instance) or using filters that promote upcoming Bollywood films, for example, are simple things which can make the Our Stories platform much more relevant, much more interactive in India. In effect, giving users an incentive to download the app.

Negative publicity will get Snapchat in the eye of the masses: Therein lies an opportunity

This is one of the more printable forwards I got today morning on one of my many WhatsApp groups.

Snap fwd

After doing a quick poll it emerged that only a fraction of the people in that group had even heard of Snapchat before the controversy erupted over the weekend. But one common sentiment was that everyone should stay away from Snapchat as its CEO had insulted our motherland.

With the hate that Snapchat has been getting over the last couple of days, it is evident that brand image will take a hit. Maybe it has alienated existing users and this could prevent others from downloading it. Maybe the hardcore users will still stick around.

The last time Snapchat was in the news, was when stand up comedian Tanmay Bhat used its image-swap filter to make some fun snaps featuring Indian icons Sachin Tendulkar and Lata Mangeshkar. The focus at the time was more on the messenger than the medium, but the overall lens through which Snapchat was seen even back then, was negative.

So Snapchat has been on mainstream news for instances with which it would rather not associate itself. This can either be dismissed or it can be seen as an opportunity to reach out to discerning users, clear the controversy and get them to use the app.

Snapchat clearly has a long road ahead of it when it comes to acquiring critical mass in India. It also has a treasure trove of lessons to be learnt from the likes of Nestle Maggi on how to turn around a negative sentiment of the brand. The asking point is: Will Snapchat take up the challenge?

A Snapchat Lite version would shut down all critics

Snapchat was offered $3 billion by Facebook, which its CEO turned down. That was not only a wise decision, but also one that sent out a clear message in the online world: Here is a company which has ambitions to take on the behemoth that is Facebook.

Google has tried its hand at social networking with Google+, and hasn't really succeeded. Snapchat, on the other hand, has shown an impressive growth rate, until the last couple of quarters anyway.

Facebook Lite

But since the last two years, Facebook has been shamelessly copying many Snapchat features and integrating them across all its properties — Facebook, Instagram, Messenger, and even WhatsApp. While it shows lack of innovation on Facebook's side, some of these moves are reaping benefits.

So what is that one formula from Facebook, that Snapchat can ape?

How about a Snapchat Lite?

Facebook has seen massive user growth with its stripped down app for countries which have data speeds and bandwidth issues. Facebook Lite has reached around 200 million users in under 2 years. There are rumours that Facebook is planning to announce an Instagram Lite app as well, at its F8 conference tomorrow. Microsoft recently announced a Skype Lite variant as well.

Facebook has been copying Snapchat. Snapchat could also return the favour by copying one of Facebook's feature as well. Seems fair, right?

The end game is simple, really. Get userS onboarded with a Lite version of the app. Get them engaged, so that when the data connectivity improves, users could be converted to download the full app.

If Snapchat does hope to expand in markets like India, a lite-version is inevitable.

Also, If Snapchat releases a Lite version of its app for India, then it would kill two birds with one stone. Firstly, it will strengthen Snapchat's position on India and undermine Pompliano's allegations. Secondly, it should start seeing growth in emerging markets like India.

The ongoing Snapchat controversy sure is a dark cloud in this young company's history. But as they say, every cloud has a silver lining.

These next few days are a true test for Snap Inc. How it deals with the matter will determine its success in the future in India. Will it come clean and set the record straight or take the easy way out and hope that the controversy dies a slow death?


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