Snap's Claire Valoti: How Snapchat plans to defy its critics after a tumultuous year

Snapchat international head Claire Valoti - Geoff Pugh
Snapchat international head Claire Valoti - Geoff Pugh

If there’s one thing you need to know about Snapchat, it’s that it is different from other social networks.

That is the message the picture messaging company’s international vice president, Claire Valoti, is keen to stress. At a time when fake news, disinformation, hacking, taxation and corporate scandals have engulfed many of Silicon Valley’s once darling tech companies, the app's parent company, Snap, feels it has been tarred by the same brush as some of its more unscrupulous competitors.

That is a problem it could do without. With a host of upgrades to its app, not all well-received, a share price hammering to its lowest level and executive exits, 2018 has been a year of its own issues.

“It’s fair to say it’s been a busy year, but I say that with a smile,” Valoti says.

Valoti is Snap’s most senior female executive, an upbeat, exuberant character, and a respected operator in the world of digital advertising and UK tech.

A key hire for Snap back in 2016, Valoti joined as one of the company’s first overseas employees to head up its UK and international operations from rival Facebook - a company which has been accused of copying some of Snap’s most innovative features.

Snap Inc, as the company is now known, has come a long way from being the Snapchat platform that went viral on university campuses and in schools seven years ago.

Snap floated in New York in 2017 at a $24bn valuation, one of the biggest social media floats since Facebook. The app, which started as a way to send disappearing pictures to friends and became popular with teens and under 25s, was seen as a lucrative alternative to Facebook, which had seen user growth slowing.

Valoti is speaking to me at Snap’s hideaway office in Soho. The company has garnered a reputation for secrecy. Chief executive Evan Spiegel, the company’s 28-year-old founder, is considered a stickler for keeping the company’s private goings on private.

Founded by Spiegel when he was just 21 along with Bobby Murphy, Snapchat was seen as an answer to the big networks with hundreds of Facebook “friends” or thousands of Twitter followers. Snapchat brought users back to their close contacts with private pictures and messages - and had a privacy focus with disappearing pictures for those Snaps that were more indiscreet.

Valoti joined at the height of its surging growth. It was busy raising billions of dollars in venture funding. It had seen huge success with Stories - a daily video feature that let users share personal short videos. Valoti was to help shore up advertiser and news partnerships in Europe and oversee its rapid expansion. Its founders take on the smartphone camera had demonstrated to investors that people were increasingly turning to it as “the fastest way to communicate”.

“Evan and Bobby recognised the value of the camera,” Valoti says, “Snapchat does not sit in social media. We are about connecting you deeper to those you are are already in a relationship with.”

Snap has tried hard to position itself as something other than social media - calling itself “a camera company” in its IPO prospectus.

But since then, Snap's progress has been about as rocky as its share price. The company is worth just $6 per share, down from $27 at its float.

The difficulties have largely stemmed from its hugely aggressive rival - Facebook. Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg were not sitting idly after Spiegel turned down acquisition attempts said to be worth many billions of dollars.

Instead, Facebook weaponised Instagram, its own picture sharing effort, taking core elements that had been key to Snap’s success, such as launching its own rival Stories feature, daily videos produced by users.

For Snap, the mission has been about showing its core differences with its bigger rival. In fact, being “different” is something Valoti is keen to stress - mentioning the word some 17 times in our conversation.

That has led to almost two years of experimentation for Snap. It redesigned its app, has launched new video content in the form of original mobile-phone shows and even launched hardware in the form of picture-taking Spectacles.

But it has not gone smoothly. A redesign separated its Discover section from messages from friends - essentially splitting up user generated content and brand and publisher content. Users, including celebrities like Kylie Jenner, were outraged. Jenner's tweet of disappointment is said to have been one of the most costly of all time.

“The mistake we made was to forget about the importance of behaviour,” Valoti says. “We were very eager to get the redesign out because we believed it was important to separate content from friends.”

Snapchat is a slightly bewildering app to use at the best of times, at least for anyone north of 25.

But according to Valoti, Snap has done “an awful lot” in seven years. Expectations are “higher and tougher” than they were on rivals. “Where other platforms do things they assume we have as well. We have to be better at explaining our differences.”

Those, she says, are a commitment to user safety and privacy, an active role in combating disinformation and embracing new data laws. Snap has forged partnerships with many of the UK’s top publishers, including the Telegraph.

“Everything on Discover is moderated by human editors,” Valoti says, rather than algorithms. Many news organisations now employ teams of Snapchat specialists dedicated to getting out mobile-friendly news to young smartphone users.

But while Valoti's outlook is positive, the challenges are huge. Its efforts to launch is own content are ambitious and almost certainly expensive, it remains to be seen if this can be a hit with advertisers. Snap's investment in content was recently hit by the departure of top executive Nick Bell, who headed up the business line. 

And the numbers still look tricky. Snap's shares are so far down 67pc from its February highs, a major fall even among the tech declines of recent months. Snap's daily active users, a key metric for measuring engagement, have fallen to around 186 million compared to more than 400 million on Instagram.

Not all investors are down and out on Snap. Short-sellers Citron Research recently flipped its guidance, saying the stock was undervalued. There are opportunities for growth, Valoti says. Snap claims as many 70pc of 13 to 34 year olds in certain markets have used its app. It also has ambitions to break into new messaging markets, hiring some of its first staff in India to appeal to more Android smartphone users around the world.

Tech has had a bad year. Terms like "techlash" and "apology tours" have spread to all corners of the media and plenty of former tech executives themselves.

But Valoti is confident Snap can still come out on a high, reminding users just why they loved the app in the first place. "We have learned a lot this year," she says. "Next year is about being laser focused."

Positive spin aside, in the battle to secure its future it is clear Snap cannot let that focus slip for a moment.