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Understanding Alibaba’s Snapchat Obsession

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Alibaba missed the messaging-app race in China.

Snapchat is back in the news alongside Alibaba, which is investing $200 million as part of a new $500 million funding round.

This is not the first time that these two companies have been linked with a deal. Bloomberg last July reported that the two sides had met regarding a potential investment at a $10 billion valuation. Leaked emails from Sony — including those of Sony Entertainment CEO and Snapchat board member Michael Lynton — subsequently backed up that story, but no deal was done. Until now.

So why is Alibaba, the company that dominates online retail in China and held the largest U.S. IPO in history last year, so interested in an ephemeral messaging app? And what value can it provide for Snapchat?

There’s plenty of scope for speculation, but one notable point is that Alibaba missed the messaging-app race in China. That’s its single-greatest failure as a business. With money to burn, it is making another small bet (comparative to its wealth) on a messaging app — don’t forget that it invested $215 million in Tango last year.

Why Snapchat appeals to Alibaba:

The introduction of Discover has turned it into a media platform — and a legitimate one, too — with the likes of CNN, MTV and National Geographic providing content. Discover is only months old, but already early indicators suggest that it is generating attention among its youthful user base in the U.S., an audience that is prized by many, including retailers.

Snapchat previously took money from Tencent, a move that almost certainly helped Snapchat get savvy about messaging. CEO Evan Spiegel has been vocal in his admiration for the way that Asian messaging apps make money — via digital content, games, commerce, media and more. Those business models are likely to have shaped his thinking for Snapchat’s product roadmap and monetization plans, particularly as Tencent is an investor.

The first building block is already in place for Snapchat commerce: payments. The company launched its Snapcash service last year. Many speculated it would handle peer-to-peer payments using a Venmo-style model, but there’s certainly the potential to go way beyond that.

WeChat, Line (Japan) and Kakao Talk (Korea) have all introduced payment services in the last year, but it is WeChat (and Tencent) that has taken things the furthest. Beyond shopping inside custom-built stores inside its app, WeChat can be used to pay for bills and other utilities, and it has integrated China’s top taxi app.

Alibaba has taken a softly-softly approach to the U.S. It launched 11Main, an experimental e-commerce site, last year, but hasn’t made a big push yet. Clearly, Snapchat would be an interesting platform for any company looking to sell to America’s youth demographic, but it really isn’t clear how that could work for Alibaba.

But Bets Are Bets…There is plenty of intrigue behind Alibaba’s investment. Beyond building an e-commerce empire, there’s no clear evidence that Alibaba can be a hugely valuable strategic investor at this point. Maybe it’s early days for the company, which has invested in Quixey, Tango and Lyft in the U.S., recently made its first investment in India, and has opened funds in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Alibaba, for all its glory, has yet to really win in a business vertical outside of e-commerce and payments.