Snapchat’s Context Cards update brings it closer to a WeChat competitor

Image: snap inc.

In China, one app rules them all. WeChat is integrated into nearly every part of the daily lives of smartphone owners: chatting with friends, booking a doctor’s appointment, paying utility bills, and plenty more.

It’s the kind of role that Snapchat would love to play in the U.S. On Tuesday, it took its first big step in that direction with an update that features a variety of integrations with other companies. Snapchat users will now be able to discover a place and then see hours of operation, book a reservation, and hail a ride to that location—all while staying in Snapchat. 

Becoming WeChat isn’t just Snapchat’s dream. Facebook has been following a similar playbook over the last few years as it prioritizes mobile. Messenger has become the company’s hub for connecting users to other people and businesses. 

It’s not an entirely new push for Snapchat. The app already had integrated similar WeChat experiences like music recognition (Shazam), magazine reading (via Discover partners), celebrity news (Official Stories), and sending money to friends (SnapCash). 

But more than ever before, Snap has become a portal for connecting these utilities to people when and how the want them. It’s a lucrative bet. If Snapchat can become where its users coordinate plans and buy things, it will become the hub for billions of dollars in transactions—and Snapchat will inevitably take a cut.

Snap CEO and cofounder Evan Spiegel is now speaking more publicly about this mission as his company faces the public stock market and growing competition from Facebook. 

“This experience is really only possible if you’ve created an ecosystem where people feel comfortable creating a huge amount of content and where people feel comfortable expressing themselves,” Spiegel told the Financial Times in a rare interview. “We are just at the beginning of powering that experience.”

Convincing someone of Snapchat’s worth hasn’t gotten easier, as Facebook offers similar features and a much larger audience. Slowly and deliberately, Snap is showing they can offer more to their community on and off their devices. 

Snap isn’t building everything, of course. OpenTable is integrated for restaurant reservations. Lyft is a partner ride-hailing app. For Snap Inc., the portal to these experiences is Snapchat. So far, Snapchat has bet on one app to dominate smartphone owner’s lives on their phones.

Facebook has been making its WeChat bet via Facebook Pages, Messenger, and Instagram. Facebook users could potentially book a doctor’s appointment, pay friends, and hail an Uber all via Messenger. Some business partners communicate with users via automated bots, while others rely on humans on the other end. Instagram has been adding more shopping functionalities for users and businesses. 

Unlike Facebook, Twitter, and Google, Snap’s portal is driven by images. That idea isn’t difficult to grasp for children who grew up with cameras in their hands. Image search isn’t a brand new concept — Google, Facebook, and Twitter all store billions of images — but on Snapchat, an image is the entry point for its WeChat-like portal. Texts comes after or sometimes not at all.

For Snapchat, the strategy has been build one perfect app with multiple experiences. Snapchat has Camera, Chat, Stories, Discover, Search, Bitmoji, Memories, and Maps all within the Snapchat app. 

Spiegel’s company is slowly layering and integrating each of these experiences. On Snap Maps, users see Stories and Bitmoji and can tap on icons to enter Chat. 

Snap is focused on building the best portal for a smartphone. The app is arguably better on iPhone than Android, but it’s clear that that will change. Backchannel noted Spiegel was using a Samsung phone in a recent interview. 

Of course, mobile may not always be the most important device for daily usage. Facebook is placing bets on owning the next hardware play: virtual reality. Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook are building speakers with voice recognition. There’s also that whole artificial intelligence thing.

But Snapchat might be able to establish its place without any of that fancy stuff—if it can become the WeChat of America.

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