Alibaba’s interest in Snapchat is as mysterious as the app’s disappearing pictures

Now you see it…
Now you see it…
Image: Reuters/Eric Thayer
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This post has been updated.

Alibaba is investing $200 million in Snapchat, a source briefed on the negotiations told Quartz, after earlier reports from Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal (paywall) suggested the new funding will value the ambitious messaging app at a very healthy $15 billion.

What does China’s online shopping giant want with Snapchat, which has a large, enthusiastic US-centric user base but not a single penny of revenue until a few months ago, when it signed its first advertising deals? At this point, the deal is more of an opportunistic, financial investment than part of any great strategic plan, the source said. One thing is for sure—Alibaba’s name now comes up when almost any tech firm around the world is trying to raise money.

Alibaba has certainly been on a multi-billion dollar shopping spree in recent years, buying stakes in everything from Chinese taxi apps to online cloud storage companies. Right now, it is also reportedly in discussions with Indian online shopping market place Snapdeal, according to the Wall Street Journal. Hours after the Snapchat deal was reported Alibaba said it would invest $160 million in a joint venture with SAIC Motor to make a connected car.

Trying to decipher  how Snapchat could benefit Alibaba down the road is a bit of a puzzle. Alibaba has been trying to create a messaging app to compete with WeChat, owned by Alibaba’s bitter rival Tencent. But Tencent is also a Snapchat investor, so any tactical advantage from Alibaba’s investment is likely to be minimal.

Snapchat would be an intriguing, but unlikely, entry into China’s crowded messaging app market, where Alibaba does the bulk of its business.

Snapchat users exchange more than 700 million photos a day, the company claimed last year. Photos and texts are sent directly to other individuals and disappear within seconds of being viewed, though they can also be added to private compilations of photos that last for 24 hours, or public, event-driven “Stories.” Those are just the sort of privacy-enabling mass-communication capabilities that China’s censors target.

Similarly, Snapchat’s new video platform, Discover, is being used for news investigations that could make Chinese officials nervous. Vice Media, for example, is going to use Discover to show the inside of a Chinese bitcoin mining operation.

More realistically, Alibaba’s interest Snapchat is just another notch in its ongoing investment into messaging technology in North America and Europe, which includes putting $215 million into messaging app Tango last year. Nearly 90% of Snapchat’s users are in North America and Europe, which are markets where Alibaba would keenly like to expand.