Opinion

Will instant messaging eat social networks?

Daniel Young BPD 3Instant messaging is the new digital battle ground. Daniel Young looks at what impact this battle might have for the traditional social networks. 

The social media landscape is changing, again, and the new players are demanding brands shift their mindset – from being human to getting personal.

Mobile Instant Messaging (IM) apps like WeChat, Snapchat and LINE are growing fast. They’re platforms that facilitate real-time chat and content sharing and their adoption is outstripping the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

And the new wave of social media is being led by a strategically important buyer demographic – teens and young adults – attracted to a natively mobile, private and personal way to freely communicate and share with friends.

The IM players are evolving into genuine mobile platforms with rapidly growing user numbers that are a real threat to ‘traditional’ social networks hence Facebook’s proposed $19bn acquisition of WhatsApp, and its attempt to snag Snapchat.

The competitive and financial risk for brands that have invested heavily in the social networks is that IM adoption will translate into a full-blown migration as the masses shift their allegiances to fresher and more personal technologies.

So, how big is this trend? The numbers are staggering. According to Business Insider Intelligence, the four largest IM apps, combined, will soon pass the total user numbers of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn in terms of millions of monthly active users.

Taco Bell, GE, FC Barcelona, Dunkin’ Donuts and MTV have already established a presence (or at least run campaigns) in the world of IM to complement existing social and content marketing plays.

Established social networking models are changing. Facebook, for example, is losing its appeal among younger demographics (at least anecdotally) so we can expect many more brands to at least test if not transition, to the new kids on the block.

It will be challenging. The race to keep connected with a fast moving demographic in the IM world presents some complex and challenging obstacles to marketers – at risk are billions of dollars in budgets chasing what have become moving targets.

1. It’s complex – There are more than 50 social messaging apps that have had more than a million downloads on Google Play.

The leading players are WeChat (600m), WhatsApp (500m), LINE (400m), Viber and Facebook Messenger (both 200m), Kakao Talk (140m), Snapchat (100m) and Kik. More recent entrants include Tango, Fling, Whisper, Slingshot, Bolt, and Sobrr.

This presents a challenge – which is the right platform for your brand?

2. It’s under researched

The ‘which platform’ problem is compounded by the fact that IM is under researched. The private and distributed nature of the technology means that analytics are in short supply. Third party research is also sparse, which makes planning difficult. The established players are going to have to move very quickly to keep pace with the market shifts.

3. It requires another social mind shift for brands

Social media has made brand communication more human but social networks still allow for an impersonal one-to-many approach echoing traditional ad supported media. IM services facilitate one-to-one or one-to-few messaging. Brands will need to be human and personal. This almost certainly will prompt changes to existing social media business models and services. It will be a matter of how quickly they can adapt.

4. There are few commonalities between services

Social networks broadly follow a similar pattern – follow, post, comment and share. This is not the case with IM. Each platform brings its own nuance and functionality. There will be new IM apps entering the market, further fragmenting audiences while increasing the pressure on the “traditional” social media to innovate or recalibrate their offerings to find new and older audiences.

5. Not all IM platforms are brand ready

WeChat and LINE are the most advanced platforms from a brand marketing perspective. Both companies provide Official Accounts and virtual products that brands pay to offer to their subscribers. WeChat has recently launched a self-service advertising platform. It is an exception. But competitors are likely to follow with their own versions in order to avoid being left in the slipstream of rapidly changing technologies.

Here are a few suggestions if you’re a marketer looking to take yet another social leap.

1. Work with agency partners to assess the benefits of different IM platforms

2. Use existing social channels and offline research to learn about your customers’ IM usage

3. Learn from brands and influencers who are already present on your preferred platform

4. Involve multiple viewpoints and think creatively about your IM presence

5. Test and learn from different approaches to special offers, content, news, contests

The social marketing movement is founded on the idea that consumers want to have relationships with brands. Perhaps the biggest take out for marketers when looking at the social trend towards IM is the insight that humans have relationships with other humans, not brands.

Daniel Young is general manager of independent agency Brightpoint Digital.

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