The Branding Potential Behind Some of Mobile Messaging’s Big Players

Marketers, take note (before this message disappears)

There are currently about 1.3 billion smartphones in use globally. By 2017, it’s expected that 2.5 billion users will connect through messaging-based apps.

Snapchat. Line. Whisper. Tango. These are just some of the call names of a new messaging code that advertisers are trying to understand and speak themselves. They are the new social platforms—entirely mobile and thoroughly engaging, particularly for youth.

Until recently, innovative social media marketing meant campaigns built for Facebook and Twitter, and maybe Tumblr. Just as marketers started to get the hang of this new language—redirecting their ad dollars accordingly—they had to contend with Instagram, then Vine and then Snapchat. While those platforms are still relatively new marketing landscapes, the increasingly mobile social media frontier is now exploding with unexpected, and seemingly inhospitable, new inhabitants that look really scary to all but the most daring brands. If advertising on Facebook was thought to be intrusive, try inserting a trademark into a private group conversation or targeting people who don’t want to be identified.

For example, how do you find fans on Whisper, the anonymous mobile message feed best used for broadcasting secrets? How do you campaign on Kik, where millions of users are messaging with friends and strangers? Should marketers bother to post questions on Jelly, yet another app for sending messages and getting feedback?

Already these apps attract massive audiences—WhatsApp alone counts almost a half billion. But to survive, most of these new apps will surely need to monetize some branded experiences. DDB Worldwide, used to pushing into new creative areas, has already embraced six-second video formats for promotions on Vine. The agency’s Oslo office already has branched out into disappearing messages on Snapchat.

These are almost safe ad plays—no-brainers. Still, clients are unsure of even these new modes of social media, says Joseph Cianciotto, DDB’s U.S. chief digital officer. It’s a challenge convincing brands only just now getting accustomed to Twitter that Whisper or Kik is worth a look. “Every dollar spent on Whisper is a dollar not spent on a known quantity,” Cianciotto says. “That is still nerve-wracking to a client.”

So much can go wrong marketing-wise—brand messages can fall flat or, worse, backfire. Unknowns also stand in the way of a full brand embrace of these platforms. How do they create a uniform experience across the apps when everything is native? From where will the third-party metrics come? “Marketing on ephemeral networks such as Snapchat, where content literally vanishes seconds after being received, is tricky,” says Thomas Husson, Forrester’s principal analyst of marketing and strategy. “These new networks are primarily peer-to-peer communication platforms where consumers expect relevant and entertaining content—not ads.”

Despite the challenges, marketers can ill afford to ignore this new breed. Much as Facebook became a gateway to the Web, some of these apps envision themselves as the gateway to mobile devices. They are the new communication hubs on smartphones. One study said users of apps like Kik send more than 30 messages per day, compared to an average of five regular texts.

Marketers will always be intrigued by the prospects of these platforms with large young audiences active on social and mobile, Husson says. “I’d expect that popular social media apps will become more than just services and will push for platform plays.”

Here’s a look at a handful of the newest mobile messaging apps and their suitability—or hostility—to marketers.  




Brand Friendliness rating:

When an app claims 400 million users, advertisers definitely want in on that action. Sorry, but WhatsApp is what you would call ad-averse, given it’s a straight-up texting tool with few frills compared to rivals like Tango and Kik (but tons of users who pay for the app). “WhatsApp is the most closed to advertising opportunities,” says Eytan Oren, director of partnerships at IPG Media. “It’s the only one that’s been off the table for now.” IPG Media is among the agencies educating brands on the popularity and potential of messaging. “We’re trying to talk to all the major players in messaging, and there’s a lot of excitement we’re seeing about that space from the agencies,” Oren says. However, WhatsApp is not biting, and is sticking by its no-ads heritage, which its founders, former Yahoo veterans, proclaim proudly.


Brand Friendliness rating:

★ ★ ★

A dating and messenger app in one, Tinder has a unique approach to native advertising. The app takes the “hot or not” format to mobile, allowing people to scroll through singles in their neighborhoods, swiping left if they don’t like and right if they do. If two people anonymously like each other, they can connect by text message. In a December promotion, a brand appeared in some users’ Tinder profiles: Fox’s The Mindy Project. The characters were featured as singles, and users could swipe right on their images to like them. A few major agencies and brands are intrigued by Tinder, and how it fits in the messaging space. The startup met with advertising executives at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. “What is it about this app that is causing this viral explosion?” asks Jim Lanzone, CEO of CBS Interactive, who has met with Tinder and other startups to learn about the new social landscape and how brands fit in. Swipe left or right and find out.

Kik, Line, WeChat

Brand Friendliness rating:

★ ★ ★ ★

Over-the-top messengers like Kik (along with WeChat, Line) are trying to take over mobile. They all seem to attract hundreds of millions of users. Kik’s CEO Ted Livingston says his app counts 100 million registered users. Why so popular? That’s simple, he says: “This is the killer app of the mobile era. It’s all about communication, and texting is the way people want to communicate. It’s where all users are on mobile.” These apps are evolving into platforms—doorways to mobile devices—that enable sharing, communicating, and even commerce. Xiaomi, China’s Apple, demonstrated the power of such platforms with a promotion last year, selling 150,000 smartphones via WeChat. “WeChat, for example, already does a lot more than just messaging and is more of a platform at the intersection of an OS, a mobile Web portal and local media,” says Forrester analyst Thomas Husson. Kik builds mobile Web experiences for entertainment brands like Sony and One Direction. Paul McCartney has more followers on Line than he does on Twitter.


Brand Friendliness rating:

★ ★

When a startup’s founder also was responsible for launching Twitter, there’s a clear advantage. And so Jelly, founded by Biz Stone, came on the scene last month bearing instant cachet. Without Stone’s star power, it might just be another app with questionable utility—users take pictures, ask questions, share them with the network and get responses. For instance, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg took a picture of a spider in his shower—which, of course, was great publicity—and asked if the arachnid was safe. Brands are already figuring out how to become part of the conversation, responding to some questions and asking some of their own. Take General Electric, which is querying the community about science, while Travelocity is responding to queries.


Brand Friendliness rating:

★ ★ ★ ★

There is a Snapchat moment right now—and it is either as fleeting as the pictures shared there or it could be a more permanent player in the world of social and mobile. As with Whisper, youth have embraced Snapchat because the content they share doesn’t stick to them—in this case, because it disappears in seconds. Brands are experimenting with promotions and building audiences to share “snaps.” “You don’t really need to go through Snapchat if you want to amplify your marketing there,” says Bill Clifford of mobile marketing firm SessionM. “A lot of brands [are]creating snap accounts trying to be as human-like as possible, make connections, [and] then communicate with people who connect with them on a much more personalized basis.” With more brands trying Snapchat, it is entering a crucial period—will users find these snaps fun and engaging, or will some flee like they did from Facebook? Clifford says young people are now constantly looking for the next niche site, leading to “pop-up” social networks: “They come out of nowhere, become huge, and then it’s on to something else.”


Brand Friendliness rating:

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The first third-party messenger to go native, Tango is introducing sponsored content into users’ feeds. “There’s a challenge in the messaging space where most other messaging apps don’t have a path to monetization,” says Jenn Donahoe, Tango’s marketing leader. The app provides voice call and video capabilities. A partnership with Spotify has given users the ability to share music clips, and it’s also known for gaming. In December, Tango started offering ads through Twitter’s MoPub mobile network. Most of the sponsored content promotes games and app installs. Sales chief Richard Rabbat says Tango has been in talks with brand advertisers—the company also has a direct sales team working alongside the automated MoPub system. Tango might be the first third-party message app to offer any sort of sponsored content, similar to the way users experience Facebook ads. “That unique native experience … actually will create very positive ad experiences that people delight in,” Rabbat predicts.


Brand Friendliness rating:

★ ★

Scroll through Whisper—the app for posting secrets anonymously—and you’ll find some intriguing confessionals layered on top of stock images, and even brands’ photos. This is a new type of social sharing, the kind that won’t come back to haunt you. Discretion is what has made Whisper so popular, and in that space brands already are part of the message. “I could eat an entire tub of Nutella,” one Whisper post says, on top of a photo showing a chocolatey spoonful and a Nutella jar. Taco Bell images are there, too. Disney theatrical release Frozen was featured in another Whisper. These aren’t labeled as sponsored posts, but the potential is clear. Whisper, which declined to comment for this article, is building a platform for content and brands to play, and last month it hired Hulu’s Erin Yellen as vp of content and Gawker’s traffic-grabbing maven Neetzan Zimmerman as editor.