18/07/2016 12:43 BST | Updated 19/07/2017 06:12 BST

Snapchat May Be Getting Older, But Is It a Bad Thing?

For a long time now, the name Snapchat has been synonymous with teens and young users. It's been the cool kid on the social networking block - the one that has been enjoying consistently strong growth among 16-24s and the one that, having rejected Facebook's bid some years ago, has remained the biggest thorn in Mark Zuckerberg's side.

Of course, it's not the only network which can boast a young user-base. According to our data, other photo- or video-centric services like Vine and Tumblr have audiences which are almost as young as Snapchat's. What's more, Facebook's own Instagram still maintains a predominantly young user-base despite being considerably bigger than Snapchat. Even so, it's Evan Spiegel's app which continues to capture the headlines and is arguably the service that the industry is watching the most closely to see if it can capitalise on its obvious popularity and move further towards becoming a major platform for brands.

In this context, it's pretty noteworthy that Snapchat appears to getting a whole lot more mainstream. Throughout 2015, our data showed that well over half of Snapchat's users were from the all-important 16-24 demographic (with this metric often approaching the 60% mark). Q1 2016 was the first time that this fell below 50% and, in our latest Q2 research, it's dropped further to stand at just over 4 in 10. Snapchat still has a very young audience across the 34 markets we survey, then, but it's not quite as youthful as it used to be.

It's in these same two quarters of 2016 where our data shows that - even by its own standards - Snapchat has enjoyed particularly strong growth. If you break this down by age then it is continuing to add users in all age brackets but it's the 25-34 and 35-44 groups which are now growing at the fastest rates. This can't be explained by original Snapchat users getting older; it's a clear sign that the app is winning new users from a broad range of demographics.

Clearly, any app is going to be pleased to see its audience becoming bigger. But for Snapchat, there are some obvious challenges which come with this growth. Back in 2015, for example, we asked 12,000 US and UK Facebook users whether they were using the service more, the same or less than they used to. Among the 5,500 who reported that they were using it less frequently than in the past, the top reasons overall included that people were bored of it, that they just weren't as interested in it as they used to be and that their friends were using it less.

These reasons rang true for teens as much as anyone else, but among this particularly key demographic it was some 15% who reported that their parents had started using Facebook too, and that this was driving them away. Of course, in the grand scheme of things 15% is not a sizeable number, but it still illustrates one of the obstacles that Snapchat will need to navigate: for a service which has long been dominated by the youngest generation, it's not hard to see how the user experience could be impacted by older groups coming on board. And with social audiences being notoriously fickle, it's possible that younger users might start looking elsewhere unless Snapchat handles the integration of older users with expert care. That's one reason why it will almost certainly continue to introduce new features: it will help to keep the experience fresh and Snapchat should know that the youngest demographics tend to be the quickest to embrace innovations.

All this acknowledged, Snapchat's growing and broadening user-base should give it a much better standing among those investors and advertisers who are keen to see it monetising members and converting its appeal into meaningful revenue; after all, there's only so long that headline writers and investors will wait before expecting the app's popularity to translate into steady and forecastable returns. Quite simply, more users - especially in the cash-richer 25-44 groups - means better reach for sponsored content, stories, lenses, filters and the like. And that all of this branded content is being delivered inside an app - the one part of mobile which for now at least is relatively protected from ad-blockers - is a further benefit.

Equally clear is that Snapchat needs to move more towards the mainstream if it wants to break in to the top tier of social networks currently occupied by the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. So, its key challenge in the months ahead will to embrace its older users without alienating its core demographic or losing the thing that made it popular in the first place. In more ways than one, if it is to remain the app to watch then Snapchat simply can't get too old.