In the words of Pablo Picasso:
“Good artists copy. Great artists steal.”
This platitude has been referenced by nearly everyone, including the late Steve Jobs.
And recently, Instagram seems to have taken it as a commandment.
When Snapchat entered the social media scene and picked up speed, it began to pose a genuine threat to both the “cool factor” and the long-term dominance of Instagram and its parent company, Facebook.
Snapchat was the new kid on the block, and its bold yellow color scheme and snarky winking ghost gave it a cool factor that Facebook nor Instagram seemed able to touch.
From day one, Snapchat was a disruptive player in the social media space. Its mode of ephemeral, image-based communication was a new model for social media mobile apps, and it grew quickly because of that innovation.
As time, progressed, Snapchat continued to gain steam through innovation: it created a new format for social media in the form of Stories, which lasted 24 hours. Its Memories feature bridged the gap between ephemerality and permanence. Its direct messages feature allowed users to chat over text as well as send pictures.
This consistent innovation catapulted Snapchat to the top of the social media landscape, and for a time, Snap seemed poised to take the social media throne.
Some even said Snap would be the death of Facebook.
But then, Instagram adopted a new strategy.
Instead of trying to best Snapchat by finding new ways to reinvent social media, Instagram – and eventually Facebook, as well – simply stole Snapchat’s innovations and used them as its own.
Snapchat had stories? Instagram introduced a virtually identical Stories feature.
Snapchat used ephemeral messaging? Instagram implemented an option to send disappearing photos over its direct messaging feature.
Snapchat introduced major changes to the way people use social media mobile apps, posing a genuine threat to Instagram.
But Instagram combatted this threat by simply cloning those innovations. Insta was more than happy to profit off of Snap’s work.
Most traditional thinkers would probably say that in the long-term, this is bad strategy. General business and startup canon heralds innovation as the true differentiator of successful companies – copying is bad practice and sure to lead to failure.
But… is it?
Does copying – and the lack of innovation it signifies – actually create long-term risks to a mobile app?
Or is it ok to copy in mobile app development?
Instagram vs. Snapchat, by the Numbers
First, let’s see what the numbers say. A spring 2017 study by Piper Jaffray provides an enlightening look at growth data for Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook among average and high income teenagers, one of the most sought-after marketing demographics.
Among those surveyed, 81% reported using Snapchat monthly, with Instagram close behind at 79%. Snapchat has a slight lead there, but it’s also worth noting that Snapchat’s figure has grown from 68% in 2015, compared to 73% for Instagram in 2015 – meaning that Snapchat saw 13% growth while Instagram saw only 6% growth.
Snapchat also seems to have retained its cool factor. 39% of teens surveyed reported Snapchat as their favorite social network, while only 23% said the same of Instagram.
But cool factor isn’t everything.
Even Instagram’s Stories feature, an obvious copy of Snapchat’s innovation, boasts 250 million daily users for that feature alone – which means that only a year after launching Stories, Instagram has more users for that one feature of its mobile app than Snapchat has overall.
Widening the scope doesn’t look good for Snapchat either.
Snapchat doesn’t release numbers for monthly active users, but estimates place the figure somewhere north of 300 million. Instagram more than doubles this number with 800 million monthlies.
The trends over the past year or so make the picture look even worse for Snapchat.
According to data published in Recode, between new users for Snapchat and Instagram at the start of 2016, 69% went to Snapchat while 31% went to Instagram. This means Snapchat had a big lead in presumptive growth for early 2016.
Today, however, the picture looks very different. As of August of 2017, Snapchat claims 52% of new users for both services, with Instagram trailing close behind at 48%.
The trend, especially since late 2016, is clear: Instagram’s US user growth is accelerating, while Snapchat’s is slowing down.
Add those numbers to the fact that Instagram already has a vastly larger user base than Snapchat, and things start to look pretty ugly for our friendly yellow ghost.
We see the same story when we look beyond the US.
More data from Recode tell us that in January 2016, Snapchat held the greatest share of global new signups with 58% of the total, leaving Instagram the other 42%.
But fast forward to August 2017 and Instagram has completely turned the tables, claiming 62% of new signups compared to Snapchat’s 38%.
This is because Instagram has been focusing on expanding its user base in developing countries, while Snap has kept their focus to developed countries.
The merits of that strategy are debatable, but one thing is nearly certain: Instagram is destroying Snapchat in just about every metric that matters.
For the time being, users don’t really seem to care who had the original Stories feature. All they want to do is use it.
Copying Mobile App Features: Maybe Not So Bad After All
So what does this all mean for mobile app developers?
If we’re to believe the data, the answer seems clear.
It is ok to copy in mobile app development.
In this example, the market shows no penalties for copying features from a competitor outright, assuming that doing so won’t violate a patent or copyright.
If the users like it, it’s more important to have the functionality in your mobile app than it is to remain ideologically pure.
In some ways, this conclusion feels distasteful.
The narrative of Silicon Valley has always been one that deifies disruption, innovation, and forward-thinking: the idea of simply copying to get ahead seems to go against that moral calculus.
But the numbers don’t lie. Users appear less concerned with who created a feature in the first place than they are with being able to use that feature on a given app.
According to the saga of Snapchat and Instagram, your best bet is to copy competitors and integrate their successful features into your own mobile app.
Beyond Mobile App Feature Sets
But there’s another, perhaps more important lesson we can draw from this analysis:
Features aren’t everything.
Instagram’s current dominance isn’t purely the result of its Stories feature. Certainly, copying Snapchat’s features have helped, but that isn’t the only factor in play.
Instagram’s growth and market position are as much a result of its strategy, execution, and resources as they are of its feature set.
Instagram has chosen to penetrate developing markets, giving it much more room to grow than Snapchat. That’s a strategic decision, and one that seems to be going in Instagram’s favor.
Furthermore, the fact that Instagram is owned by Facebook, and thus has access to the resources of Facebook, certainly provides an advantage.
It’s much easier to grow when you have a company worth half a trillion dollars at your back.
The success or failure of a mobile app depends as much on execution as it does on core concept and feature set.
But, where the question of features is concerned, it seems that the rules are the same in art as in mobile app development.