If 2014 was the year that messaging apps rushed to grab as many users as possible, 2015 has definitely been the one when the pressure to monetise these audiences has come to the fore. After all, there’s only so long that headline writers and investors can be kept happy by buoyant levels of growth alone; now, they want to see quick and effective ways to open up sustainable revenue streams – not least as a way to justify the sometimes eye-watering valuations that these apps have been commanding.
To this end, the last few months have seen the arrival of integrated VOIP calling services, money-transfer features, new content partnerships and still more besides. Along the way, many messaging apps have been evolving far beyond their original remit to become more like social platforms in their own right, often capturing a lot of the conversations and activities that used to take place on “traditional” networks like Facebook.
For Zuckerberg and co., that’s not a problem as long as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger remain the two biggest beneficiaries of this trend. After all, most people are still visiting Facebook – which means they can be served ever more accurate ads – and the migration of some of their activities to messaging apps provides Facebook with additional monetization opportunities as well as rich behavioral information.
All is rosy in the Facebook garden then, right? Well, not quite. Look at Asia Pacific and the situation is much more complicated. Sure, both Messenger and WhatsApp do very well across the region as a whole. But Facebook’s two apps have to compete with a whole host of home-grown alternatives, with the messaging market being much more competitive here than it is in any other part of the world. WeChat’s dominance in China is well-known and is a partial result of the country’s social landscape not being a level playing field. But Facebook’s apps are also displaced from pole position in several other Asian countries. In South Korea, for example, it’s Kakao Talk which is the clear leader. Meanwhile, BBM tops the table in Indonesia, LINE takes prime position in Japan, Thailand and Taiwan and Zalo is a close second behind Messenger in Vietnam.
What’s perhaps most significant here is that Facebook is by far the most popular social network in markets like Indonesia and Thailand but has not managed to replicate that in the messaging space. Across the region as a whole, it’s WeChat which takes the number one spot – a result not just of its huge following in China, but of the substantial user bases it has built up in markets like India, Malaysia and Hong Kong. Our data also shows that LINE has become the fastest growing messaging app over recent months, snatching the title from Snapchat (another thorn in Facebook’s side). As more and more behaviors migrate from traditional networks to chat apps, then, it’s APAC where Facebook has something of a problem.
It’s in this context that the introduction of stickers to Facebook Messenger makes so much sense. For most users in EMEA or the Americas, stickers are at best seen as something of a curiosity; at worst, they are a total non-starter. For users in APAC, though, stickers have long been a much more integral part of the social experience and hence are an obvious feature for Facebook to replicate as it attempts to woo people away from LINE, WeChat and others.
But while Facebook may have started with stickers, you can be sure that we’ll see it integrating a whole host of other features in order to make it more competitive in this region. In fact, with many messaging apps in APAC already much further along the journey of becoming fully fledged social platforms in their own right, Facebook can learn of a lot of lessons from WeChat or LINE. Just look at some of the features currently available to WeChat users: they can follow official brand accounts, play games, use the “shake” feature to find people nearby and use the Moments tool to share what they are “eating, drinking, watching, listening to, buying”. It’s not hard to see how this is essentially a Facebook-style social network inside one app. Nor is it surprising that, along with Stickers, Facebook Messenger has been making moves to introduce games too.
In the months ahead, then, the safe bet is that Messenger will become a much more comprehensive platform that houses a lot of LINE and WeChat-esque features. And the surest money of all says that, in a year’s time, we’ll all be doing a lot more on our favourite messaging app than we are right now.