How the Snapchat Algorithm Works [& What the Emojis Mean]

By Tinuiti Team

With 347 million daily active users (DAUs), a number that has been steadily climbing QoQ since Q4 2018, Snapchat has solidly positioned themselves as one of today’s most popular social media platforms.

Chart showing the number of daily active Snapchat users from 2014 through 2022

While Snapchat has a varied user base, the platform is and has historically been a favorite of Millennials and Gen Z in the US and beyond. Snap Inc. internal data from Q2 2022 found that more than 75% of 13-34 year olds in more than 20 countries use Snapchat.

Chart showing 2022 Snapchat age demographics, with most users between 18-24 and 25-34

But what influences which content those hundreds of millions users are shown? And how can brands leverage the expansive reach and capabilities of Snapchat to find the right audiences for their products or services?

Those answers largely come down to three major factors:

As we’ve grown accustomed to across other social platforms, Snapchat’s algorithms and terminology are ever-evolving, and can be confusing if you’re not a frequent user of the app. For consumers, brands and advertisers alike, we’ll demystify how Snapchat’s algorithms work, and explore some ways to make them work for you. 

What is the Snapchat Algorithm?

Similar to other social media platforms, including Facebook and Instagram, Snapchat’s algorithms are designed to serve users the content that is most likely to appeal to their individual interests. The goal itself is simple enough, but serving highly relevant content to millions of active users on an ongoing basis requires that some rules and directions be put in place.

While we commonly refer to social media algorithms singularly, there are actually a number of algorithms at play on any given platform. On Snapchat, those algorithms include the Best Friends, Discover page, Spotlight, Face Detection, and Stories algorithms. Let’s dive into more detail about each… 

Snapchat Best Friends Algorithm

Friends interlocking arms and hands to form hearts

On Snapchat, your Best Friends are the people you Snap and Chat with most often. Users cannot see each others’ Best Friends lists, though there are ‘emoji indicators’ that will reveal shared best friends. This is explained in greater detail below, within Snapchat Emoji Meanings.

Users can have up to eight best friends, all of whom will be featured on the ‘Send To’ screen when sending a Snap, and in the Chat section of their profile.

Snapchat is notoriously secretive about the specific algorithm that determines the Best Friends list, and which factors play into the rankings, though we do know this list updates in real-time as users interact with different friends.

Prior to 2018, the algorithm looked at users’ interactions with each other over the past week, then created an ordered list based on the number of interactions. Now, the algorithm is more complex, factoring in engagement more broadly, including participation in group chats, the number of Snaps sent, and more. In a sense, the algorithm has actually gotten better at understanding what constitutes a friendship. 

Snapchat Discover Page Algorithm

As its name implies, the Discover section of Snapchat is designed to help you easily find new content that Snapchat expects you might enjoy based on your provided information, and history of using the app. This newsfeed-style section also includes Sponsored content, and Subscriptions—content that you have intentionally opted to see more of.

Snapchat’s Privacy Policy notes:

“No two people are the same, so we use some of your information to tailor your Snapchat experience especially for you! For example, we personalize the Discover and Spotlight content you see — so if you show interest in sports, you might see more sports related content.

We can also personalize the Search screen to highlight content you might be interested in, and present you with a personalized overview of your Memories. If we know it’s your birthday, we can give you and your friends a special Lens to help celebrate! We can also personalize ads, Search, Filters, Snap Map, and Lenses to really make your Snapchat experience unique.”

In the Discover section of the Stories page—accessible by swiping left on the Camera screen— beneath Stories from Friends, users can discover content from Snapchat publishing partners, including:

How Snapchat ranks Discover content is most largely influenced by user behavior:

“We organize or rank content for Discover and Spotlight based on a combination of your preferences and the content tags. When we combine this, we hope that the algorithm succeeds in showing you the content you like the most. If that’s not happening, you can help the algorithm by watching content you enjoy for a longer time, subscribing to creators you love, favoriting content, and hiding and skipping the content you don’t like.”

The Discover section is particularly relevant to brands who want to advertise through Snap Stories. Story ads are “a series of 3-20 Single Image or Video Ads” that users can watch by tapping a branded tile in the Discover section. To learn more about the advertising opportunities available on Snapchat, check out our Ultimate Guide to Snapchat Ads

Snapchat Spotlight Algorithm

example of how to create and send a Spotlight post on Snapchat

Snapchat launched Spotlight in late 2020, with the feature widely regarded as Snapchat’s answer to—or visually and functionally similar version of—TikTok and Instagram Reels. To access the Spotlight section, swipe left on the Stories screen.

Like most content on Snapchat, what you see in the Spotlight section is largely curated for you based on the information Snapchat knows about you, including your past activity. As a whole, all Spotlight content should be original, highly engaging and entertaining.

As reported by TechCrunch, additional factors are considered:

“Snapchat says its algorithms will work to surface the most engaging Snaps to display to each user on a personalized basis.

To do so, it will rank the Snaps in the new feed using a combination of factors, like how many other people found a particular Snap interesting, how long people spent watching it, if it was favorited or shared with friends and more. The algorithms will also consider negative factors, like if a viewer skipped watching the Snap quickly, for example. Over time, the feed will become tailored to the individual user based on their own interactions, preferences and favorites. This is a similar system to what TikTok uses for its “For You” feed.”

Spotlight content is unique in that it is entirely comprised of user-generated video content that has been intentionally submitted for a chance in the Spotlight. Creators with a follower count of any size can submit their content for Spotlight consideration by selecting ‘Spotlight’ at the top of the ‘Send To’ screen.

Among the rules for Spotlight content is that Sponsored Snaps should not be submitted, nor should there be any “attempt to sell products or services within the spotlight video.”

Want to learn more about using Snapchat Spotlight? Check out the following links:

How Does the Snapchat Face Detection Algorithm Work?

Snapchat Lenses use the Viola-Jones algorithm to apply Lenses to a face. The algorithm recognizes that most people have similar facial structures and features, called Haar Features.

Next, the algorithm uses the Active Shape Model to fully detect your features. This model has been trained to identify the borders of facial features on an “average face.” With that training, the Active Shape Model can use machine learning to create a 3D model that can move and scale with your face.

With Snapchat’s Lens Web Builder, advertisers can leverage Snapchat’s AR technology and create immersive, 3D Lens campaigns. Like Filters, Sponsored Lenses must include a visible logo or brand name. 

What Your Friend Emojis Mean on Snapchat

On your Snapchat Friends list, you may notice that some friends have emojis next to their names. Each Friend Emoji has a different meaning, explained below:

 What does the yellow heart emoji mean on Snapchat?

The single yellow heart emoji (?) means that you are each other’s #1 Best Friend – aka Besties! This is the person that you send the most snaps to, who also sends the most snaps to you.

What does the red heart emoji mean on Snapchat? 

The single red heart emoji (❤️) means that you have been each other’s #1 Best Friend for two weeks in a row. In Snapchat’s world, this is your BFF

What does the pink hearts emoji mean on Snapchat?

The double pink hearts emoji (?) means that you have been each other’s #1 Best Friend for two months in a row. This person is considered your Snapchat Super BFF.

What does the yellow heart emoji mean on Snapchat?

The single yellow heart emoji (?) means that you are each other’s #1 Best Friend – aka Besties! This is the person that you send the most snaps to, who also sends the most snaps to you.

What does the smiley emoji mean on Snapchat?

The smiley emoji (?) means that they are one of your Best Friends, but not your Bestie. This is someone you send snaps to often, and is considered one of your BFs.  

What does the grimacing emoji mean on Snapchat?

The grimacing emoji (?) is the face of Mutual Besties. If you see this emoji alongside a friend’s name, it indicates that your Bestie (#1 Best Friend) is also their Bestie.

What does the face with sunglasses emoji mean on Snapchat?

The sunglasses emoji (?) signals Mutual BFs; one of your Best Friends (BFs) is also one of their Best Friends. 

What does the fire emoji mean on Snapchat? 

The fire emoji (?) means that you have a Snapstreak with that person. The number next to the fire emoji tells you how many consecutive days you’ve sent Snaps to each other. Once your Snapstreak has reached the 100-day mark, your efforts will be rewarded with the 100 (?) emoji. 

What does the hourglass emoji mean on Snapchat? 

The hourglass emoji (⌛️) means that your Snapstreak will end soon. You need to send a Snap to each other within 24 hours, or your Snapstreak will expire. Think of the hourglass as a fire (?) extinguisher with a ticking clock! 

What does the birthday cake emoji mean on Snapchat?

The birthday cake emoji (?) serves as a reminder that it is your Snapchat friend’s birthday, if your friend has enabled this information in their settings. 

What does the baby emoji mean on Snapchat?

Snapchat uses the baby emoji to signify newly formed connections, representing new friends on Snapchat.

What does the star emoji mean on Snapchat?

When your Snapchat friends replay your snaps within 24 hours, gold star emojis appear beside their names.

What does the smirking emoji mean on Snapchat?

Previously, the smirk emoji on Snapchat conveyed a message of “I’m your best friend, but you’re not mine.” However, Snapchat removed it to avoid potential hurt feelings or strained friendships.

What does the 100 emoji mean on Snapchat?

On the 100th day of maintaining a Snapstreak, the fire icon is replaced by the one hundred emoji.

What does the pin emoji mean on Snapchat?

Conversations that you’ve pinned to the top of your feed are marked with the pushpin emoji. You can pin individual users or group chats, utilizing this emoji to prioritize crucial discussions. 

Customizing Your Snapchat Friend Emojis

The Snapchat emojis that we’ve discussed above are the default options but users can also update emojis and use them according to their own personal preferences. Basically what this means is Snapchat gives you the option to customize your Friend Emojis.

If you have iOS, to activate this option:

For Android users, to activate this option:

How Do Snapchat Stories Work?

On the Stories screen, you can find your friends’ Stories, Stories tailored to your interests, current events and news-related Stories, and more.

Stories are broken into three sections:

When users watch a Story they like, they can easily ‘subscribe’ to the posting account by pressing and holding on the story. The more engaging your stories, the more likely users are to subscribe! 

How Brands and Advertisers Can Make the Snapchat Algorithm Work for Them

While there will always be some overlap in the audiences that each social platform reaches, the ways they perform and function, and the goals of the algorithms powering it all, it’s also important to consider the merits of each independently.

Let’s explore some Snapchat facts to consider when building your organic or paid social campaign… 

Get to Know the Snapchat Generation

Three examples of how young adults use Snapchat

The Snapchat Generation has “$4.4 Trillion in Spending Power,” and is “willing to outspend non-Snapchatters on common purchases across every retail and service category.” Additionally, they “consider big and small brands in equal measure,” with “1 in 2 say[ing] they like to learn the backstory of brands and products they buy.”

Knowing that Snapchat’s unique audience is interested in learning more about the brands they support, consider how you can incorporate more of that information into your content. Remember that the overarching goal of Snapchat’s algorithm is to provide users with ready access to content they are likely to enjoy. By learning as much as you can ahead of time about what Snapchatters find most engaging or useful on the whole, you can pre-answer for that in the content you produce. 

Leverage Snapchat’s Robust AR Capabilities

Augmented Reality (AR) is huge on Snapchat, with a number of unique AR features and capabilities that brands and advertisers can leverage to reach new audiences, while making purchasing decisions better informed, and more fun!

Snapchat has long been a leader in the AR space, and the numbers speak for themselves; it’s even common to see screenshots of Snapchat-filtered photos shared across other social media platforms. After all, who among us can forget just a few years ago when all our social feeds were inundated with those Snapchat dog ears?

Simply put, Snapchat users enjoy using lenses and filters, which translates to increased engagement. And increased engagement is exactly what the algorithm is designed to reward.

Snapchat shows no signs of slowing down on continuing to expand their AR capabilities and efforts. They have recently scooped up three companies to help them grow in the AR space—WaveOptics, Compound Photonics, and NextMind

Create Branded Snapchat Filters and Lenses

Snapchat Filters are design overlays that users can add after they take a Snap. Filters can add color effects, show location or weather information, highlight a special event, and more.

Advertisers can create sponsored Filters to promote an event, brand, location, and more. Sponsored Filters must have a visible brand logo or brand name.

Three examples of Snapchatters using Snapchat AR filters created for Allure 2022 Best of Beauty Awards

Snapchat Lenses, on the other hand, use augmented reality (AR) to transform users’ appearance or surroundings while they create a Snap, using a face detection algorithm to apply features and effects onto users’ faces before they take a photo. Lenses can add 3D effects, characters, objects, and transformations.

According to a 2022 Global Crowd DNA Study commissioned by Snap Inc., 90% of US “Snapchatters are interested in using AR to try on makeup or clothes.” But AR has also shown to be incredibly useful in other spaces, including eyeglasses.

Learn more about how brands are using AR to keep users engaged:

Jump on Relevant #Trends with Content of Varying Types

While it’s important to consider your brand style and standards in your Snapchat content, there is plenty of room to experiment with different types of content to capitalize on industry trends, while staying on-brand (ex. how-to/informative, styling ideas and tips, humorous angles, recipes, etc.).

To see what’s trending on Snapchat, visit the Spotlight section, and click on the upward-trending arrow in the top right of any video. Here, you’ll find trending topics, sounds, and lenses. Luckily for spuds-fans like me, a trending topic today is #potato!

Collection of trending Spotlight snaps related to potatoes
Source: Snapchat

Some creators and businesses this trending topic would be a solid fit for include:

Don’t try to force a round peg into a square hole; not every trend is going to be a natural fit for your brand. What’s more important is deciding how you will react to relevant trends when they do present themselves, because trends come and go quickly!

Also, keep in mind that Snapchatters are happy folks—”75% of those surveyed reported their main reason for using Snapchat was to connect with close family and friends.” Design fun, informative, creative and unique content that they’ll want to share with those family members and friends—who they’re likely already engaged in a chat with on the platform. 

Snapchat FAQs

How far back does Snapchat data go?

Snapchat automatically deletes chats and Snaps once they’ve been viewed or have expired. Stories are deleted after 24 hours. You can also set your Stories to automatically save to your Memories folder.

Snaps submitted to public Stories may be viewed on Snapchat for varying amounts of time, though users have the option to delete their Stories from public Stories. 

Do Chats on Snapchat count for Best Friends?

How often you chat with someone will only affect your potential status as Best Friends where those chats include Snapped pictures or videos. Traditional conversational messages (sending text-based messages or non-Snapped, stored photos or videos) does not “count” toward a Best Friends status. 

Is the number of followers you have on Snapchat visible?

Your follower count is only visible on Snapchat if you choose for it to be; by default, your follower count is not shown. Snapchat first gave users the option to show how many followers they have in late 2020; this has been a largely welcomed update by high profile creators, influencers, and brands with sizable followings.

Considering adding Snapchat to your paid social mix? Contact us today to learn more about how our team can help!

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published by Shannon Mullery in April 2021 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.

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