Over the past three years the industry has seen a global boom in the use of mobile messaging apps. For some context: 90 percent of the population in Brazil uses messaging apps, 160 billion instant messages were sent in 2013 in the U.K., and an estimated 50 billion instant messages were sent each day in 2014.
2014 marked triple-digit growth for messaging apps, and the meteoric rise of this industry was solidified with Facebook’s $19 billion purchase of WhatsApp. In Facebook’s most recent announcement, the platform indicated that it would be turning Messenger into a platform for third parties – a pivotal move after separating the feature into a standalone app. Top messaging apps like WhatsApp, WeChat and Line, have likewise seen incredible audience growth over the past couple years, and are continuing to gain popularity worldwide.
Messaging apps are no longer considered simple chat apps, but have been predicted by Forrester to be the “new social media.” While this space is still nascent in the U.S., and no single chat app has won out in popularity and usage, many messaging apps are bypassing social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter in being considered the top social platforms outside of the U.S. This is especially true in Asia where WeChat is popular in China, Line in Japan and Kakao Talk in South Korea. These messaging apps are more socially-centric, and offer services beyond traditional communication including animated stickers, media sharing, timelines, public accounts, news and information services, etc. And they are becoming more powerful by building out other functionalities including gaming, payment, location services and other utilities that vary by app.
With social and mobile so intimately linked, offering a wide array of capabilities to users, mobile messaging is continuing to be seen as a crucial trend in defining how consumers use the Internet and interact in social media. As social messaging apps become a favored way of day-to-day communication for consumers worldwide, marketers should consider the opportunities for their brands in this fast-growing space. These apps allow brands and marketers to reach larger, global audiences in more creative ways. However, they also pose challenges for marketers in tracking conversations and quickly adapting strategies, due to the relatively private nature and fast-changing capabilities of social messaging apps.
The below post provides an overview of the top four social messaging apps around the world by numbers of active users, outlining users’ underlying motivations of usage and exploring opportunities for marketers and brands to succeed in this new frontier of social media.
Top Global Social Messaging Apps
The social messaging apps landscape is more crowded than ever before due to explosive international growth. It is also very fragmented — dominated by a few players with distinctly different global reaches, demographic distributions and service offerings.
On the list of top contenders, WhatsApp may be the most widely known in the U.S., while other notable global apps include WeChat, Line and Viber. Collectively, these apps possess a massive global audience-base, although no single platform has achieved true global scale. WeChat, which is wildly popular in China – its home country – has seen the fastest growth of any social messaging app globally between 2013 and 2014, according to a GlobalWebIndex (GWI) report.
The average age of social messaging app users does not always skew to teens or younger adults, but in fact, messaging apps appeal to a wide range of users. Nearly 60 percent of Line’s audiences are between 30 and 50 years old.
(Source: data was pulled from GWI and Statista.com as of Q3/Q4 2014, and each app’s official site)
Social messaging apps are multifunctional alternatives of traditional SMS text messaging, and include myriad features that vary by app. WeChat is the most sophisticated app in this space – a hybrid of Facebook, Instagram, Skype, Twitter, OkCupid, Vine, and Venmo – and is moving toward becoming a more multifaceted mobile Internet portal.
Three reasons social messaging apps have been so successful:
- Minimal Cost & Convenience: Messaging apps provide free and convenient communication. Users can send free instant messages and make voice calls nationwide – even internationally – by using Wi-Fi or data plans to minimize the cost of their talk or text messaging plans. Due to faster mobile Internet and better Wi-Fi coverage, people are choosing messaging apps to avoid paying for text messaging plans or talk plans, especially in markets where they are expensive or prepaid. Messaging apps offer a cheaper and easy-to-use alternative for one-to-one or one-to-many communication. They also provide a better experience for users to share photos, video and other media files with their contacts.
- Breadth & Variety of Features: Social messaging apps have evolved from simple chat tools to one-stop shops for a variety of activities and interactions. They are growing faster and more popular as they incorporate social networking features, which enable users to interact in multiple ways. For example, both WeChat and Line have a timeline-like feature where users can share texts, pictures, videos or locations, and connected users can comment on or like their posts. Both apps also offer games users can play and animated stickers to share with their connections. These elements empower users to communicate in more expressive and emotional ways, which help them express their personalities.
Apart from social features, messaging apps are becoming incredibly rich in both functionality and utility. WeChat is currently considered the most cutting-edge app in this space and is much more than a “Made-in-China” messaging app. WeChat is a multimedia platform that allows third parties to connect with consumers through their content and services. Users can pick up a date based on nearby locations, transfer money between WeChat friends, and much more. In China, it’s not unusual for WeChat users to do things like pay phone bills, order a taxi, buy flight tickets, manage finances or purchase products directly on the platform. These features are not available to global users yet but are likely to be rolled out as WeChat expands into additional markets.
- Privacy & Personalization: Social messaging apps are set up and regarded as private forms of communication. Unlike public social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, messaging apps are not focused on exposure and influence. Messaging apps are more personal since they are one-to-one or one-to-few, whereas social media is one-to-many. Users are more likely to build intimacy and togetherness in a way that more open and public social platforms cannot achieve. In addition, users can customize the services offered by the messaging app, including personalizing their chat backgrounds and notification sounds. Some social messaging apps like Line and WeChat, allow users to design and sell their own stickers. Selfie stickers fore example are quite popular on Line. Viber users can choose to follow and live chat with their favorite public figures, celebrities or brands that enter the platform, to satisfy their personal interests and needs.
Marketer Opportunities In The U.S.
It comes as no surprise that social messaging apps have attracted brands’ attention due to their large audience reach. However, different apps take very different approaches to brand participation. WhatsApp has a “Say No to Advertising” philosophy that keeps marketers from entering the app at this time. While users may not want to see advertising on such platforms, similarly to other networks, they are open to connecting with their favorite brands or businesses. Tencent, the Internet giant and owner of WeChat, holds a more open attitude towards advertising on its platform, by allowing brands to interact with their followers through approved official accounts. Even though the marketing capabilities vary across social messaging apps, this shouldn’t deter marketers from learning or testing out different strategies to join the conversation and stay relevant on the platforms, as appropriate.
Here are some recommendations for savvy brands and digital marketers:
- Consider integrating social mobile messaging platforms into brand social strategies. Social messaging apps have shifted the social networking landscape in many global markets, overshadowing and at times overtaking legacy social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, especially in Asian markets including China, Japan and South Korea. It is important for marketers to identify the leading social messaging apps at a regional and national level and recognize the differences between them. Marketers should also consider and select the right apps for their brands and strategies, bearing in mind that the messaging apps are not exclusively used by teens or Millennials, but also include older generations.
- Provide personalized and optimized experiences for consumers. Before starting to engage with consumers in messaging apps, marketers must recognize that social messaging apps are unique and private communication platforms where consumers engage differently than broadcast social channels. Advertising on these platforms should not feel like advertising. It must be native and genuine by leveraging one-on-one communication and creating relevant and shareable content and experiences for audiences, to increase their brand affinity and loyalty. Rather than displaying banner ads, marketers should look to interact with consumers through well-targeted and customized content as more messaging apps add marketing capabilities. One brand that has already tapped into this trend is Oreo, which created a bonding sticker campaign on WeChat and engaged parents to create animated selfie stickers with their children.
Image via PRweb
- Pay attention to new and unique features that could be leveraged for innovative activation. Social messaging apps frequently release new features to feed users’ ever-changing digital appetites. Marketers should pay close attention to developments in this space and understand the uniqueness of the apps they are considering or activating on. WeChat for example is testing sponsored posts on Chinese users’ timelines called “Moments” which could become a new marketing capability for brands to pay to promote their content and acquire new followers. Snapchat is also looking to build “ephemeral ads” in users’ message streams in the U.S. early this year. Many global brands such as Coca-Cola, Starbucks, and Burberry have experimented with creative activations on various top social messaging apps by utilizing their advanced and unique features. Brands moving towards this social territory can look to them for inspiration.
Cover photo via The Real V.