App makes reaching teens a snap

If you're under 21 and own a phone, chances are you know what Snapchat is, and you use it on a daily basis.

For the rest of us, let's review the basics: Snapchat is a text-messaging service that allows users to send customized photos and videos that self-destruct a few seconds after they open. You can also create "stories" that post to your profile that are visible for 24 hours, or video chat. The app is hugely popular among teenagers and college students, who often want privacy. However, the service also has received a lot of attention for negative behavior: For example, some have used it to anonymously bully other teens or share inappropriate photos.

So all things considered, Snapchat is probably not an intuitive choice of social network for a Catholic ministry or other institution. But for those who want to reach young adults or teens, like Ave Maria University in Florida, it's hard to ignore the potential of the new app.

Colin Voreis, Ave Maria's digital communications and marketing manager, said that when he asked students what was a good way to stay in touch, the message was clear: Snapchat. And when he did some reading about the social network's success, he was amazed to find a clear opportunity.

"We saw a statistic that 77 percent of college students use it at least once a day," Voreis said. "We looked at that and said, 'Why the heck aren't we on that?'"

College students are surprisingly receptive to "snaps" from schools and others who want to spread a message. Unlike Facebook, for example, messages from brands haven't crowded out personal communications so far. A study showed that about half of college students using Snapchat would open a message from a brand they'd never heard of, according to an article on Seventy-three percent would open a message from a known brand. Colleges and universities are taking notice.

"We're probably one of the first Catholic colleges to do this, but I've seen other public universities," Voreis said.

How is the school using the app? Prospective students want to know what a dorm room looks like. Rather than going through a longer process of taking video and editing the clip, the staff could snap a quick picture on a cellphone and send it on Snapchat.

Obviously Ave Maria is aware that Snapchat poses some challenges. Staff have turned off the feature that allows incoming messages from students. "We post our own content and we don't delve into the communications back and forth with the student," said Voreis.

Ave Maria just launched the account last week, and Snapchat does not offer analytics to judge the effectiveness of stories. So while the results are difficult to quantify, the reception so far has been very positive, said Voreis. Hundreds of new followers signed up to receive messages from Ave Maria.

"The response was more than we could ever have imagined," said Voreis.

Who knows? Given the app's enormous popularity and receptiveness among young adults, it's possible that in a year or two every young adult or youth ministry will want have a Snapchat account. Let's wait and see how it goes at Ave Maria.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014