If messaging apps weren’t already generating a lot of buzz before, Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp in February put an exclamation point on the category’s growth.
For marketers not already playing in the space, it was a signal to figure out the messaging landscape and where they fit into it. If not through paid advertising -- WhatsApp has famously sworn off advertising on the app -- then by setting up their own presence as they’ve done on social platforms like Tumblr, Facebook and Twitter.
A new white paper by IPG Media Lab aims to serve as a guide to the new world of messaging apps, highlighting differences among popular products like Kik Messenger, WeChat, SnapChat and Line, while offering instruction on how to approach the segment as a whole.
On the latter point, the report notes that advertisers and agencies shouldn’t automatically conflate social media and messaging apps. It notes that the main social networks like Facebook and Twitter are broadcast platforms, while messaging apps are primarily for one-to-one communication.
“This is an inherently tricky proposition for brands used to a broadcast approach and most messenger services are keenly aware that traditional advertising -- banners, video ads, and mass messaging -- could erode user experience. On the whole, they are more inclined to experiment with 'native’ experiences.”
Toward that end, it offers three basic rules: enhance the conversation in apps with shareable, “fun” content like branded stickers; create opportunities for fans to interact -- think games and contests; and “if you have to hard sell,” give people something they want, like coupons for desired products.
Except for digital stickers, that sounds similar to things brands have been doing on Facebook and other social sites for some time to drive participation in marketing programs. Tactics like coupons and contests have been around a lot longer.
More useful are the tips IPG provides about the messaging apps covered in the study. One of the overall distinctions is the regional nature of apps, despite the global phenomenon they represent. So WeChat is China-based, KakaoTalk is the top messaging app in South Korea, Line is used mostly in Japan and southeast Asia, and WhatsApp is biggest in Europe, Brazil and Canada.
Line and WeChat have recently both pushed into the U.S. market as they seek to broaden their audiences.
The IPG report lays out a grid of nine of the best-known messaging apps, detailing differences in the number of users for each and how they compare on features such as chat, video, voice messaging, media sharing, and gaming. One thing that stands out from the chart is that Facebook Messenger offers fewer features than the others.
The report spotlights several messaging app campaigns to date, including an effort IPG developed last year for Syco/Columbia Records that encouraged One Direction fans on Facebook and Twitter to download the Kik app to access and share exclusive content from the band. Kik is notable for having a built-in browser.
Late last year, Tango, which the study calls the “blingiest” of the apps, began testing native ads that appear in the news feed and chat tab. Video game company Supercell used the ads to promote downloads of its “Clash of Titans” game, and brands such as Dunkin' Donuts have run similar campaigns.
Line, meanwhile, with 400 million users, is known for its stickers -- playful icons, images or GIFs of characters that can be included in messages. Paul McCartney, whose Line account has 10 million stickers, for instance, released a set of eight cartoon stickers selling for $1.99 apiece.
Since most of the newer crop of messaging apps don’t yet offer self-serve marketing or ad tools, IPG advises brands to experiment and focus more community building and forget about ad targeting for now. As more brands enter the space, it will become easier for companies to run campaigns in and across messaging apps.
How users will respond to an influx of advertisers and ads in the apps over time is another question. If WhatsApp maintains its ad-free policy, the app could wind up benefiting by attracting new users trying to avoid advertising. But as a Facebook-owned property, it would hardly be surprising to see WhatsApp eventually adopt an ad-based model.