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Chat apps threaten to siphon advertising dollars from the social media leaders

September 29, 2014


With 21 million people following her on Facebook and 18 million on Twitter, pop singer Ariana Grande can’t personally chat with each of her loves, as she affectionately calls her fans.

So she and many other stars are spreading their messages through new-style social networks, via mobile apps that are more associated with private, intimate conversation, hoping that marketing in a cozier digital setting adds a breath of warmth and a dash of personality. It’s the Internet’s equivalent of mailing postcards rather than plastering a billboard.

Grande, whose second album reached No. 1 this month on the Billboard 200 sales chart, could have shared on Twitter that her most embarrassing moment on stage was losing a shoe. The 21-year-old instead revealed the tidbit during a half-hour live text chat on Line, a smartphone app built for close friends to exchange instant messages.

It’s increasingly expensive to advertise on Facebook and Twitter, and the huge volume of information being posted creates uncertainty over what people actually notice. Chat apps such as Line, Kik, Snapchat, WeChat and Viber place marketing messages front and center to people enthusiastic enough to follow stars and brands on them.

The apps threaten to siphon advertising dollars from the social media leaders, which are already starting to see chat apps overtake them as the most-used apps on smartphones, according to Forrester Research. Chat apps "demand attention," said Rebecca Lieb, an analyst at the consulting firm Altimeter Group.

Chat apps are loaded with features that many teenagers and young adults find more alluring than either traditional social networks or basic SMS texting — animated smiley faces, words transformed into colorful digital stickers, drawing tools, quick photo-sharing, video and the like. In fact, sticker sales to Line’s 10 million users in the U.S. and 480 million abroad provide the bulk of the company’s revenue — $175 million worldwide in its most recent quarter.

Chat apps’ popularity is leading a wave of investment and experimentation as marketers charge after the coveted demographic. Music stars and youth-oriented companies are turning to chat apps as an alternative route to better-targeted publicity, and to show they’re hip.

When singer Paul McCartney’s tour headed to Japan, his team tapped Line and offered followers a free pack of stickers featuring his cartooned self. Line said that McCartney’s willingness to personally respond to Line fans paid off: Compared with his social media fans, Line users were three times more likely to engage with his posts. The CW series "America’s Next Top Model" and AMC’s "The Walking Dead" are using Line too.

"Instead of reaching multiple millions on Facebook, if we can reach the right people, it’s the right option," said Tack Kim, a senior manager of business development at Tokyo-based Line’s Los Angeles office.

Line partners only with trending stars who can offer "high-quality" content, said Jeanie Han, a former Paramount Pictures executive who’s now chief executive of the chat app’s Euro-Americas unit. That’s left a long wait list of movie studios and other content owners that want Line accounts.

Kavi Halemane, executive vice president of digital at the Collective, a music management company, sought a deal with Line after hearing about it from Japanese friends and one of his part-Japanese clients, Linkin Park vocalist Mike Shinoda.

By the end of the year, Linkin Park plans to offer its 2 million Line fans a free digital sticker pack. The goal is to keep the rock band on people’s minds, Halemane said.

"Creating a presence on every social media network is not the right strategy, but we add platforms because we’re committing to it," he said, expressing excitement about Line features such as video streaming.

Another chat app, Kik, based in Waterloo, Canada, has 150 million users worldwide and is the 25th most popular app of any kind in the U.S., according to tracking firm ComScore. Columbia Records and Syco Music worked with IPG Media Lab to promote a new album from teenage pop band One Direction on Kik. The band’s account drew more than 3 million visits, and users met a challenge to buy a total of 7,500 album copies through the app.

"That helped us prove out that this is really something we want to do going forward with other clients," said Mel Wilson, head of strategy at IPG Media Lab.

Behind the numbers, the efficacy of the campaigns remains mixed. Young people can be fickle.

Steven Barrack, 15, downloaded Line to enter a contest to meet Grande on the red carpet at her album release party in Burbank, Calif., last month. Barrack ended up winning the same trip through a different contest and found no reason to open Line again.

"I would do anything for Ariana, but Line unfortunately not," the San Diego teen said. He added that he would "definitely" reopen Line if Grande used it differently from Facebook or Twitter.

During the fan chat, Grande answered a question from Amanda Leonard, 26, of Dayton, Ohio. Because only a few people use Line, the response felt personal, Leonard said. But she’s not about to switch all of her Facebook Messenger and texting conversations over to Line.

"If Katy Perry came out with stickers, though," she said, that might make Line "much more exciting."

At least 60 percent of the adult users on Kik and Snapchat are younger than 34, according to ComScore. On average, U.S. adults spend about eight hours a month using the most popular chat apps, ComScore said, and the number is probably higher among teenagers.

Line’s key source of revenue is digital stickers, which are fancier versions of smiley faces, hearts and other imagery that have replaced spelled-out words in some people’s digital conversations. They sell for a buck or two. Line has a roster of original characters to say "Hi," "I love you" or "Thank you." But users are often willing to pay to get images featuring pop culture icons, including Elmo and Snoopy. The company also allows artists to design and sell stickers. In the program’s first three-plus months, people across 124 countries submitted 30,000 sticker sets and earned $12 million in sales, Line said last month.

But Line doesn’t intend to survive on sticker sales alone.

"We want to be the messaging and entertainment platform in the U.S. and achieve it by creating partnerships with major brands," said Line’s Kim.

The next challenge for Line and its competitors is persuading non-entertainment brands to use and advertise on them, said IPG’s Wilson.

Whether advertisers can appropriately inject themselves into the mix of emotional and trivial banter is still a concern. Too many useless vibrations in pockets and purses could alienate users and cause them to switch to a chat app with fewer distractions, Lieb said.

"Saying, ‘Click here, buy this laundry detergent’ won’t work," she said. "They have to provide entertainment, education or utility that will help consumers welcome and embrace these messages."

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McClatchy-Tribune Information Services