Snapchat has been dishing out millions to lure creators from TikTok

Want a half million dollars? On Snapchat, it might be as easy as filming your sister deep-frying a turkey or exploding a bottle of Coke, according to a story by tech journalist Taylor Lorenz, published on Friday in The New York Times.

Contrary to popular belief, young people aren't seeking internet fame just because they enjoy attention — they want the money too. “I think making money is definitely a reason why a lot of high schoolers want to become social media influencers,” 18-year-old Katie Feeney, a high school senior in Olney, Maryland, told Lorenz.

Right now, the most lucrative place on social media is Snapchat, which says it’s “distributing over $1 million USD every day” to users whose videos go viral on its Spotlight feature — even if they’re not already stars.

Here’s a wild example that underscores just how big a windfall this can be for regular people. The Times reported a woman in New Mexico earned a whopping $500,000 for her video of Thanksgiving meal prep:

Andrea Romo, 27, earns $12.50 an hour as a merchandise associate at Lowe’s in Albuquerque. She doesn’t consider herself a social media influencer, but has enjoyed sending messages to friends on Snapchat for years. When she noticed the new Spotlight feature on Thanksgiving, she decided to upload a video of her sister deep frying a turkey. Two weeks later, Ms. Romo learned that her video was so popular that it had earned her about half a million dollars. “It was a big surprise that you can get money posting a video of something totally random,” she said.

A few short years ago, Snapchat was the hippest kid on the video-sharing block, where all the hot, young Gen Z folks tended to congregate. Then TikTok swooped in with its infinite scroll of viral video content and dethroned Snapchat, which was always designed to be more of a messaging platform than a place for creators to disseminate their content to the masses. Platforms have since rushed to copy TikTok’s features in a bid to keep their users from jumping ship. Instagram rolled out Reels in August 2020, and Snapchat debuted Spotlight in November. To entice talent to post, Snapchat sweetened the pot by promising big payouts for viral content.

“TikTok is the place to be right now, it’s where all the attention is going, all the energy is going,” 19-year-old TikTok star Cam Casey told the Times. But since late November, Casey has earned almost $3 million from content he’s posted over on Snapchat. (His first big hit was an exploding Coca-Cola bottle.) For some context, the highest-earning TikTok star of 2020 was Addison Rae Easterling, who made $5 million in the span of 12 months, and that was mostly from makeup sales and brand sponsorships.

Snapchat can’t keep shelling out millions of dollars forever. Already the pot seems to be dwindling. “There’s more competition,” Casey said. “It’s harder to get views. More people are posting.” (It’s worth mentioning that he’s not your average Snapchat user: after Casey realized he could make bank from a single viral video on Spotlight, he started posting videos incessantly, sometimes 120 per day.)

For Spotlight to be a real win for Snapchat, it also has to mint influencers. Right now, the biggest distinction between TikTok and Spotlight is that the latter doesn’t publicly display view counts, likes, and comments. There’s some evidence that Snapchat is already working to add view counts to Spotlight, which bodes well for would-be stars on the platform. When the app stops paying them directly for content, they’ll need brands to back them, and companies need a way to gauge influencers’ popularity on a given platform.

In the meantime, Snapchat’s cash for content play has changed more than a few lives. Feeney, the high school senior, told the Times she’s earned more than $1 million on Snapchat, which she’s putting toward college. “I think it’s going to take me a while to really process it,” she said. “I now have the opportunity to go to the school of my choice.”

Other creators are using their newfound riches to give back: Dominic Andre, a 27-year-old influencer who makes educational videos, has earned over $600,000 on Spotlight. “I want to build up a [...] Hype House situation but focused around science,” he said. “My goal is to build a Snapchat science education show.”

Casey is giving some of his millions to family, you know, to thank them for raising him. The rest he'll reinvest in his work: "I’ve always had very big aspirations," he told the Times. He'd best act quickly. Like so many things in the industry, it's only a matter of time before the bubble bursts — not unlike one of his fizzed-up bottles of Coke.