I've been in the picture messaging space for a while now with my apps Lutebox (voted one of London's top ten most loved apps) and now Click Messenger. I've written a few articles about the space including a recent post about the Future of Mobile Messaging.
Snapchat started out as an app called Picaboo, which pretty much did what it does now (prior to the latest update with chat and video calling). They quickly rebranded but saw a little uptake in user numbers and had quite low downloads for several months. Then around Christmas 2011 one of the founders' mom had told her friend about the app, who told her kid and her kid basically then spread the word throughout their high school in L.A. That was what really blew up their download numbers as it spread across teenagers at local high schools.
As far as I know they didn't advertise in the early days, relied solely on word of mouth. Also it is assumed that they have a solid user base. Comparatively speaking, their user base may be in the low tens of millions, which may a great base of users, but nowhere even close to being as big as Facebook or Twitter.
I'd be happy to speak about this in more detail or about the picture messaging landscape and what I believe to be the future of mobile messaging.
Apps like Flappy Bird & Snapchat are the darling indie stories that makes everyone think all you have to do is be different, be simple, and you will succeed.
It's true, snapchat was one of the first sexting application for tweens and teens, so it spread virally ... it was popular becuase it wasn't Facebook or Twitter and didn't integrate with them. There were a few other applications out that had the same feature set as SnapChat, even before snapchat, and they went nowhere.
If you cover your bases (simplicity, good user interface, unique features) and get presented with a bit of luck, you might get that viral boost.
However it's EXTREMELY challenging to duplicate the success of something where being in the right place at the right time with the right product was a large factor.
I agree with most of the answers already posted, but the one thing I will add is: Perseverance.
When you go into a situation hoping for a user engagement rate of 80%, but only get 20%, do not give up. If you have any power users at all, this is a great sign. That means there is something of value there. Find what works for those 20% and pivot as needed. See my Core77 article about Moneythink's misunderstood stats and the power of their power users.
I also wrote an article for NTEN Change called the 1% difference. It was related to crowdsourcing, but the principles and growth strategies can be applied to any sector or app type. Your 1% difference should help you decide if an app or feature is worthwhile.
I have more than 7 years of experience in digital marketing, managed over $50,000 in ad spend on various social media networks and currently managing over 30 Social media assets for various clients. I keep myself abreast of newer and newer social media platforms and tools by reading prominent blogs in my area of expertise.
According to Snapchat in May 2014, the app's users were sending 700 million photos and videos per day, while Snapchat Stories content was being viewed 500 million times per day. Since SnapChat does not reveal its official user count it is based on surveys and reverse engineering. A Pew Study Suggests That Snapchat Has 26 Million U.S. Users while a Study by Sumpto Finds 77% of College Students Use Snapchat Daily.
With such mind boggling numbers one is bound to think How SnapChat could have cut itself with such a large piece of the pie with Facebook, Twitter, Instagram already in the picture?
1. SnapChat offered to solve a different pain point than the existing social media platforms. Its unique in its offering of self destructing messages where users can indulge in far risque behavior without being judged as in the case of Facebook which takes us to the next point.
2. SnapChat capitalized on the need for privacy felt by users on Facebook, specially when everything you post on Facebook is Public by default unless you change it through the inline Privacy Selector on Facebook. With everybody's friends and family already on Facebook, users specially teens and those in early twenties, preferred to move to a newer network where they could be themselves without anybody watching, which takes us to the third point.
3. The Novelty factor of being an early user of the "cool new app that everybody is using" translated into word of mouth and more and more users started using the app to conform with peer pressure.
4. Ease of use of using a app made exclusively for Mobile platform as opposed to a Desktop platform as mobile is far more accessible and convenient which is the reason for Twitter's growth despite Facebook in its earlier days, Facebook;s ongoing acquisition of anything and everything mobile and massive valuations of startups like Instagram, Snapchat and Whatsapp.
In my opinion, these 4 factors combined together are the cause of a massive user base within a short period of time some of which are applicable to the rise of Vine and messengers like WeChat and WhatsApp as well. Notice that I call SnapChat's userbase "massive" as opposed to "solid" as you have as I think point 3 is far more potent and a majority of SnapChat's users will migrate to a newer app once it catches their fancy.
If you have any further questions, I'd be happy to answer them for you here: https://clarity.fm/gs.gill/expertise/use-facebook-ads-to-meet-your-business-goals
I agree with Brad! Like Snapchat, Myspace (music community and teens word-of-mouth), Facebook (college campus word-of-mouth), Twitter (bloggers, mainstream media, celebs and high school students), Instagram and What’s App (celebrities, high school and college students) are "darling indie stories," which make startups think that being different and simple is all you need to succeed.
Another solid point Brad made: It IS "EXTREMELY challenging to duplicate the success of something where being in the right place at the right time with the right product was a large factor." It's also extremely difficult to ensure that an app will go viral among teens and college-age adults even if you introduce it to them directly/first. In fact, when it comes to apps, functionality, usefulness and purpose are key factors to success as is creating an app that parents won't understand or use. The latter feature doubles as a secret weapon for teens and young adults.
For the record, I learned about Snapchat two years ago from my college intern who described Snapchat as a simple, even "stupid" way to have frivolous fun with her peers and her boyfriend. The collective was usually insanely bored, but apart from each other. Snapchat was a way to kill time, entertain and communicate and privately so. Keep in mind that Snapchat is the app that made headline news in October 2015 for being the tool used to expose Malia Obama's beer pong game experience at Brown University, and you'll understand why Los Angeles high school students "snapped" it up in 2011! Unfortunately for Miss Malia, the privacy factor failed when the chat made its way to Twitter and mainstream media picked up the posts AND the pics!
Remember when the Superdome power outage delayed Super Bowl XLVII? The power going out during the most watched sporting event in America was unintentional, but right place, right time and right message enabled Oreo Cookie to capitalize and win! This article explains how and why simple, clever, memorable things go viral and compares results with paid advertising: www.wired.com/2013/02/oreo-twitter-super-bowl.