Instagram’s shameless Snapchat knockoff is doing marvelously well

A sure shot.
A sure shot.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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There’s no shame in copying if it works.

Yesterday (Jan. 11) Instagram announced that Instagram Stories, a feature it launched in August 2016 that was a blatant copy of Snapchat, has accumulated 150 million daily active users. That’s exactly how many users Snapchat had as of June 2016. That in turn means it’s taken Instagram Stories about four months to get the same number of users it took Snapchat over four years to attract.

The feature’s fast uptake suggests that Facebook has a formidable competitor to Snapchat under its belt, which could put pressure on the latter as it prepares for an IPO.

After Snapchat rejected Facebook’s offer to purchase the company in late 2013 for a reported $3 billion, Facebook has made efforts to outdo the social media app, correctly sensing Snapchat had tapped into the next big trend in mobile. But its first attempts, the apps Poke and Slingshot, shuttered almost as soon as they launched. Instagram Stories had a distinct advantage, however, as it appears within Instagram itself, thereby available to hundreds of millions of users without requiring a trip to the app store.

Instagram Stories closely mimics Snapchat—users can broadcast short videos to their followers, which disappear 24 hours after getting sent out. Upon its launch Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom said he felt no shame about playing the role of copycat. In an interview with TechCrunch at the time of its launch, he admitted that Snapchat “deserve[s] all the credit” for the concept, adding that copying ideas remains somewhat of a tradition in Silicon Valley. “Gmail was not the first email client. Google Maps was certainly not the first map. The iPhone was definitely not the first phone. The question is what do you do with that format?” Systrom said.

The feature’s growth has led Instagram to start launching advertising within Instagram Stories’ stream of videos—meaning that in between clips sent out by friends, viewers will see video ads placed by big brands. Already, it has signed on Netflix, Nike, and Buick as clients. This means that Instagram will compete directly with Snapchat for advertising dollars.

It’s not clear if Instagram Stories is stealing users away from Snapchat, or merely attracting new users to video sharing. Snapchat’s user base likely skews younger than Instagram’s, which has been around for much longer. Instagram also has a lead on Snapchat beyond North America—60 percent of Snapchat users reside outside of the US and Canada as of September 2016, compared to 80 percent for Instagram as of June 2016. Last week, Snapchat’s parent Snap declared its London office its “international headquarters,” suggesting that a broader global push is on the way.

Snap’s listing is reported to occur this March, at a $25 billion valuation. While the company has generated $1 billion in revenue, it has yet to make a profit. Newly-listed internet companies are often relieved from pressure to give investors returns immediately, as shareholders prioritize growth over making money. But against a fast-growing competitor with plenty of cash from Facebook, that pressure could come sooner rather than later.