Instagram encroaches on Snapchat's turf of social media influencers, winning their hearts, minds and posts

Key Points
  • The battle between Instagram and Snapchat has moved to a new battlefield: social media influencers
  • More and more accounts with wide followings are migrating to Instagram.
  • "Bit by bit, I have seen my peers and social groups give up Snapchat and go totally [Instagram] stories," one influencer says.
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Harris Markowitz was overjoyed when he was nominated for Shorty Award's "Snapchatter of the Year" last year. The award show, which honors the best in social media, pitted the 25-year-old against the likes of DJ Khaled, who would later be crowned.

Markowitz's nomination, however, piqued the interest of some major brands like Zillow and Coca-Cola, which soon commissioned him to create content for their brand's Snapchat accounts.

Fifteen months later, Markowitz's personal Snapchat account is mostly dark, and he isn't working on any brand accounts anymore. "We saw a decline in viewership on Snapchat and an increase on Instagram," Markowitz told CNBC recently.

The shift mirrors the relentless rise of the Facebook-owned Instagram Stories platform since its launch nearly one year ago, costing Snapchat its popularity with a medium it largely pioneered.

"Snapchat should've went back to the drawing board and figured out a new way to compete, instead of being romantic to how [it] has been running for the last couple of years," Markowitz said.

In a statement to CNBC, Ben Schwerin, vice president of partnerships for Snapchat's parent company Snap, said that the company's intent was "to build the best possible storytelling platform for you and your closest friends. Over the past few years, we've been delighted to see that many of the world's most influential people in fashion, sports, music, and entertainment were also using stories to connect with their biggest fans."

Yet Markowitz's outlook is shared by many non-celebrity social media influencers who struggle with posting on both platforms simultaneously.

In a recent study, social media marketing firm Mediakix looked at 12 top influencers who maintain a dual presence on Instagram and Snapchat. The firm found that over a 30-day period, those accounts overwhelmingly preferred Instagram Stories to Snapchat, posting 25 percent more on the former than the latter.

To be certain, Snapchat — where boldface names such as DJ Khaled, Kim Kardashian and Chrissy Teigen are prolific users — is a slightly different animal than most other social platforms.

Those who post don't 'like' or re-share the disappearing video snippets that helped the platform become wildly popular with Millenials, most of whom use Snapchat to communicate with friends, celebrities and experience events. In that context, high follower counts are less important when the content is ephemeral and can't go viral.

Still, in a space built on an instantly recorded video where two giants are slugging it out for users, is there room for both?

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A monkey wrench in the social media machine

As of last month, Instagram Stories reported 250 million daily active users, compared with Snapchat's 166 million, according to Snap's latest earnings report. More than 77 million people in the U.S. access Instagram at least once per month, while Snapchat currently has around 70 million, according to eMarketer.

By 2021, the research firm projects Instagram's daily users to grow to 99 million, with Snapchat's expected to hit 89 million.

Snapchat users "love having a place where they feel free to be spontaneous, creative, and fun," Schwerin told CNBC. "We created Official Stories to give them additional tools, and make them easier for our community to find. We continue to expand the product, and there is more amazing content to watch every day."

Sarena Bahad, founder of WomenInTech, tried uploading content to both Snapchat and Instagram, where she features women around the world succeeding in tech ventures. Her project started out purely a Snapchat account, which later expanded to Instagram. Her account even earned her the 2017 title for Shorty Award's "Best Snapchat Account."

However, Bahad said, the introduction of Instagram Stories created a dilemma for her brand's strategy. She said the launch was choppy — videos wouldn't always load — but the performance has improved, and she is now focusing more on Instagram.

"With Snapchat, all the great takeovers we have disappear and there's no follow-up momentum," she said. Meanwhile, "Instagram allows you to tag [users and brands] in the stories, there's the opportunity of discoverability, and there's just more context overall to your brand and your story-telling."

Fashion brands are shifting toward Instagram, too, according to L2, a data and research firm.

The firm, which tracked 54 brands during two recent New York Fashion Weeks, found that the number of total posts on Snapchat fell from more than 1,000 in the fall 2016 to fewer than 400 in spring 2017. The number of Instagram Stories by the brands more than doubled in the period, from 529 to 1,166.

Giving up Snapchat 'bit by bit'

Instagram Stories continues to launch new features, including live video and allowing users to offer external links to their fan base. The additional features are prompting creators like Alex Crockford, a U.K.-based fitness influencer, to move 90 percent of his attention toward Instagram Stories over Snapchat.

Crockford posts fitness and nutrition advice to more than 125,000 followers on Instagram. Just a few months ago, he would post updates on both — saving Snapchats to his phone, then posting them on Instagram Stories.

"This took too long, and removed the 'instant' ability of these features," he told CNBC. "Bit by bit, I have seen my peers and social groups give up Snapchat and go totally [Instagram] stories, even ones that say they never would."

He's not deleting his Snapchat account anytime soon, though. "The positives of my Snapchat followers is that they seem extremely loyal," he said. "They seem a bit more like a big family group."

A similar sentiment was echoed by Ross Smith, a comedian with more than a million followers on Instagram. He told CNBC that while he maintains a strong presence on both platforms, Snapchat was "so much more advanced and ahead of the game, because Instagram basically copied everything Snapchat did with Stories."

The 24-year-old said that "I always ask fans 'what's your favorite media'…and 95 percent of the time they say Snapchat," Smith said, adding that he found his Snapchat connections were "more organic and engaged."

That may be exactly what Snap CEO Evan Spiegel wants. In a recent earnings call, he said Snapchat won't succeed became of the massive growth numbers of platforms, like Facebook. Instead, the company will aim to succeed because it claims to offer higher quality and intimacy.

However, for influencers and brands, it's usually just a game of numbers — which is far easier to measure than engagement.

Snapchat recently rolled out new features including location-tagging and allowing external links, but Crockford doesn't think it's enough to compete.

"When it comes to my business activities, like linking people easily to websites, tagging other brands and companies, it's extremely simple and effective to do on Instagram," he said.

Disclosure: CNBC parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Snapchat's parent, Snap.