Snapchat For Journalists: A Beginner’s Guide to Engaging New Audiences in Vertical Video

snapchat beginners guide

Snapchat isn’t for child’s play.

It’s no longer just for selfies or only young millennials.

And it’s not going away anytime soon, says Tim Cigelske, director of social media with Marquette University and associate editor at

Snapchat recently introduced a slew of changes to become the next go-to messaging app – taking the Facebook platform head-on. It’s meant to be a largely ephemeral space, but users are said to be spending as much time as a half-hour on the app. Some experts say Snapchat could win the curation race, too.

Still, misconceptions keep some journalists from chasing the medium, Cigelske says.

But at 100 million (and growing) daily active users and ten billion video views per day, it’s hard to deny its viability as a legitimate journalistic force to attract new audiences.

Cigelske recently hosted a #DigitalEd webinar on Snapchat for Journalists, covering everything from the app’s appeal to media personalities to follow.

Here are some tips from his session and beyond.


Like many of today’s messaging and live-streaming apps, the concept is simple.

Snapchat allows users to view and share authentic, in-the-moment messages directly from their mobile device. The content disappears after 24 hours or immediately after viewing – depending on if you’re sharing a story or chatting with a friend. But first you must sign up.

Download the app. The app can be downloaded for free on both iOS and Android devices.

Create an account. Once you have it installed, open the app to log in with an existing account or create a new one. If you’re new to the app, select “Sign Up,” to go through the verification process where you”ll enter your email address, a password, and your birthday.

Pick a unique username. Your username is your unique identity on Snapchat; it can’t be changed once it’s set, so make it count. Use creative license to come up with something clever. However, if you want to make it as easy as possible for people to find you – especially as a journalist or media personality – it’s a good practice is to create a username that includes your first and last name or something that your audience will recognize.

Find and add friends. Snapchat makes it extremely easy to add friends. Just tap the ghost icon at the top of the screen and select “Add Friends.” Here, you can find Snapchatters from your phone’s address book, find people nearby, or search by username. You also can add by Snapcode. A Snapcode, much like a QR code (remember those?), is a unique code assigned to each user. You”ll see a lot of media brands and personalities set their Snapcode as their profile pictures on Facebook and Twitter to drive engagement.

Below is Forbes’s Snapcode, for example, from its Twitter profile. If you want to follow Forbes, as a test, there are two ways to do it. Open the app and simply take a picture of the Snapcode shown below. Or, add it by screenshot through the “Add Friends” section. Either way, Snapchat will then scan the image and add the user to your friend list.

Forbes on Snapchat

Finish setting up your profile. Under the same ghost icon where you added friends, you can finalize your profile. Click the cog symbol to manage your profile and privacy settings. You also can create a selfie GIF for your profile photo by clicking on your Snapcode icon.

Know the lingo. Let’s break it down, quick. Here are the top words to know.

Snap = A photo sent on Snapchat. “Did you see my snap today?”

Videosnap = A video sent on Snapchat.  “I videosnapped the concert last night.”

Story = Another term for snaps and videosnaps. “I follow his stories.”

Filter = Overlays you can add to your photo or video before sharing. “Should I add the sepia filter?”

Geofilter = Special filters that can only be accessed in certain locations. “The geofilters for Coachella are on point.”

Lenses = Facial recognition that adds moving effects to your selfies. “Have you tried the new Face Swap lens?”

Stickers = Emojis you can stick on top of your image. “I added stickers to my snap to make it more interesting.”

Screenshot = Saving a snap on your phone. Snapchat will notify users if someone saves their snap via screenshot. “I had to screenshot that story. It was too funny.”

Learn how to navigate. Rule of thumb as you get started: Just keep swiping. The app may not seem intuitive to those of us who grew up without a mobile phone in hand, but you’ll get the hang of where everything is by continuing to swipe back and forth and up and down through the different areas. Check out the Stories page to see snaps from people you follow, to view live events and to access Discover – a set area for hand-crafted content from some of the world’s top publishers.

snapchat screens

Create a snap. It’s easy. To take a photo snap, tap the circle once. To record a videosnap, press and hold. To draw on your snap, tap the icons in the top right corner. To delete your snap, tap the X in the top left corner. Just be sure to capture your story in vertical video, as the app intends. Once ready, you can add your snap to your stories for all to see, or you can choose individual friends to share with.

snapchat how to

The hard part about creating a snap is making your content compelling enough that it appeals to a broad audience. You can’t edit snaps that are posted, so you may want to practice with friends before sharing snaps with everyone.


The biggest misconception is that Snapchat is a platform solely for one-to-one exchange between friends.

“It used to be peer-to-peer,” says Cigelske. “Now, it is media. It’s consumption – it’s a lean back experience.”

For the generation that grew up on mobile, Snapchat is becoming a replacement for TV, Netflix, and even websites, says Cigelske. “It’s becoming it’s own immersive experience … and that’s a big deal.”

This brings us to the next big misconception: age group.

Yes, Snapchat is the best way to reach 13- to 34-year-olds. According to its website, more than 60 percent of U.S. smartphone users in this age group are Snapchatters. But, that doesn’t mean older users aren’t on the app, that they shouldn’t be, or won’t be eventually.

As Cigelske (a 30-something) says in his post on Snapchat for old people, “It was time to rethink some of my assumptions. I decided to move from disparagement to curiosity.”


Many people don’t trust the talking heads in media today.

According to Harvard University’s Institute of Politics, 88 percent of millennials say they only “sometimes” or “never” trust the press.

The appeal of Snapchat for users is very much its authenticity.  There’s no polish.

“It’s the exact opposite of Instagram,” says Cigelske. Here, users can view personalities working and talking in the moment, in a way that’s more raw, unapologetic – and fun. This leads to a greater level of trust, allowing journalists and brands to build their credibility with younger audiences.

Beyond the conversational tone of the app, the platform is built for and intuitive to mobile.

For media, “it’s about what’s happening right now,” Cigelske says. It’s not long-form or analytical – just visual, offbeat news bites about events of the day.

For journalists and the tech-friendly consumer, this is a huge win-win.

Journalists always are looking for new ways to reach people as they move away from print and broadcast, he says. Snapchat allows journalists to get multimedia-driven content directly – and quickly – into the hands of new audiences who are hungry for authentic engagement.


Publishers are prioritizing live video to reach mass audiences as video becomes the dominant form of content consumption. And so, the ability to engage in visual storytelling and broadcast live video is becoming an increasingly vital and transformational skill for journalists.

Snapchat allows both individual journalists and major outlets to stretch and experiment with a visual format that’s easy to work with.

On Snapchat Discover, where publishers can partner with Snapchat to share more dynamic stories, up-and-comers like Vice and Refinery29 are crafting content next to more traditional publishers like CNN and Daily Mail.  “It’s the holy grail,” says Cigelske. And the traffic is tremendous. According to him, “Mashable increased their audience like 25 percent.”

For individual journalists and publishers sharing outside of Discover, the snaps may not be as in-depth or developed, but are meaningful and engaging nonetheless.

The content runs the gamut. From breaking news to behind the scenes, regular features, timely topics and more, the possibilities truly are endless.

For example, CBS is showing behind the scenes of its 2016 election; Condé Nast Traveler posted its annual hotel “Hot List” exclusively on Snapchat; and Mashable’s Sam Sheffer hosts a weekly snap series called “Tech Tuesday.” Many also used the platform recently to share posts for #EarthDay and to honor Prince’s legacy.

snapchat examples


This is glance journalism. Unlike Facebook or Twitter, Snapchat isn’t designed to drive traffic to a website or blog. The app lacks the ability to include links or take you outside the app. Use multimedia to draw interest and go beyond headlines. With good content, you may naturally see more traffic going to your other spaces.

Not everything is meant for Snapchat. “When newspapers first started coming online, they were just dumping everything from the newspaper onto the site,” says Cigelske. But this is not a one-size-fits-all platform. Choose relevant topics that younger audiences care about and that can be summed up in quick, digestable bites.

Make your snaps shine. In order to tap into the Snapchat culture, do your best to fit in. Shoot in vertical as much as possible, add filters and geofilters, and add flair with the drawing tool, captions and emojis. You don’t have to be a good artist, adds Cigelske. Just have fun with it.

Don’t take yourself too seriously. “Yes, there are serious issues in this world,” says Cigelske, “but, that doesn’t mean you can’t be human.” Snapchat allows journalists to let their hair down, so to speak, and say, “I want to talk to you and start a conversation.” Much of the content on Snapchat is light-hearted, so be careful about striking the right tone when covering serious stories.

Practice everyday. Creating compelling content like this may not come naturally at first. Cigelske suggests opening the app everyday to get acquainted. It’s also a good practice to find a trusted source to practice with via one-to-one shares.

It’s good to be an early adapter. Getting on board while it’s still fairly new allows you to see the evolution of the app. It also allows you the time and space to make it your own before use becomes even more widespread.

Don’t limit yourself. You don’t have to stop at just one snap. To tell a longer story, do a series of snaps back-to-back. Think of Twitter, Cigelske reminded. When having a conversation or live tweeting, you don’t stop at one tweet. You keep going to tell the whole story.

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Anna Jasinski is manager of audience relations at PR Newswire. Follow her on Twitter at @annamjasinski or on Snapchat by clicking here from your mobile device. You can also catch her sharing the latest news in journalism and blogging on @BeyondBylines.

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