Nearly a year ago, BlackBerry announced it would extend its popular BlackBerry Messenger service, or BBM, to iOS and Android. The bold step was part of the struggling mobile company’s broader effort to shift from hardware and handsets to providing software and services.
In November, it launched a Twitter-like offering called BBM Channels, allowing users to chat with other users around topics of shared interest, like sports or hobbies, as well as follow Channels created by brands and businesses. BBM now has 85 million users across platforms, and some 500,000 Channels created customers, as well as brands from Coca-Cola to the PGA to Rolling Stone.
To capitalize on that audience and growing catalog of content, BlackBerry is rolling out advertising on BBM Channels with the latest version of the app arriving next week. It will offer three different formats -- featured placements, sponsored posts and sponsored invites. Plus, the company will offer virtual stickers -- including branded types -- which users can add to their chats.
Featured placements allows companies to pay for a presence on the Channels landing page, which highlights several brand images at one time.
Within the Updated tab in BBM, marketers can also run sponsored posts alongside updates from a user’s contacts and Channels that they subscribe to. These posts are labeled as “Sponsored” and have a shading that further helps separate them from organic posts. Clicking a sponsored unit expands the post full screen, allowing a user to take an action like signing up for the advertised Channel or download an app.
To avoid annoyance, BlackBerry will allow people to block sponsored posts from channels they are not interested in. They can also filter Updates so they get posts only from their set of contacts. BlackBerry said it will decide how frequently Sponsored Posts appear dynamically, and gauge feedback from users about how often and where to run them.
Through Sponsored Invites, brands and businesses will be able to directly invite BBM users to join their channels. The invites are likewise marked as sponsored, and advertisers will be limited to a maximum of three per month. And if a user declines the invitation, they don’t receive any more from that channel.
The ad units can criteria like age, gender and country, but BlackBerry assures it shares no personally identifiable information (PII) with advertisers. In a briefing last week, company executives emphasized what they believe is a competitive advantage the platform has in setting up exclusive chats between sponsors and channel followers.
Earlier this month, for instance, it hosted a chat session with Mercedes AMG Petronas driver Nico Rosberg, leading into the 2014 Formula One season. Previously, it held a chat with Reggae artist Gyptian.
Underscoring BlackBerry’s efforts to reach a wider audience than its traditional base of business users are the stickers it is offering to personalize chats. They come in the form of themes or characters in packs of 20-25 for free or $1.99 that can be downloaded through the new BBM Shop. The packs will also include branded content from “Shaun the Sheep” and WWE. Clicking on stickers can drive traffic back to the e-commerce store as well as to a brand’s channel.
BlackBerry is following the playbook of building an audience and social tools with BBM Channels before moving into monetization. But given the company’s recent woes and the revamping of its business, will advertisers and agencies jump at the chance to get on board? Jeff Malmad, managing director of mobile at Mindshare, isn’t so sure.
He points out that companies already have numerous social and mobile marketing options to consider -- including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and LinkedIn -- along with a host of fast-growing messaging apps like Tango, which last week landed $280 million in new funding.
[BBM] is just another social channel we would need to build out,” he said. And when it comes to clients, “I’m not jumping up and down saying We have to advertise on BlackBerry Messenger,” he added. Malmad also has concerns that legacy users of BlackBerry’s messaging service won’t be especially receptive to ads.
Jeff Gadway, head of product marketing for BBM, stressed that the company wouldn’t be inserting sponsored content into BBM chats with friends or colleagues. “We understand that keeping the BBM chat experience you know and love free of this type of content is important to you,” he wrote in a recent blog post. But BlackBerry will have to walk a fine line between not alienating users while trying to build a robust ad business around BBM Channels.