TOKYO: Asian messaging apps WeChat and Line are spending heavily on marketing as they seek to position themselves as global brands capable of challenging the likes of Facebook Messenger.
WeChat, owned by China's Tencent, has budgeted up to $200m for marketing overseas this year. This includes ads featuring Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi which have run in 15 countries and which have been instrumental in doubling the number of overseas users of the service to 100m between May and August this year.
Line, based in Japan but owned by Korean company Naver, declined to put a figure on its marketing spend but it has also invested in the use of celebrities in TV ads in many markets. In Spain, for example, Line downloads tripled to 15m in five months following TV commercials starring actors from a popular soap opera.
Another successful tactic has been to link up with phone manufacturers to pre-load the app on their models. Line users in India totalled 10m in three months when the app was pre-loaded onto Sony Xperia smartphones.
The approach of these two stands in contrast to rivals such as US-based WhatsApp, which relies on word of mouth and has become the leading chat app in many Western countries.
Asian messaging apps also tend to offer more features, such as 'stickers' – large cartoon-like emoticons – games and horoscopes, which regional users have found attractive but may be of less interest to others more accustomed to the relative simplicity of, for example, WhatsApp.
Benedict Evans, a mobile and digital media consultant in London, noted that much of Line's growth had been driven by marketing. "The question is how sticky that will be?" he told Reuters.
But David Gibson, senior research analyst of games and IT at Macquarie Securities in Tokyo, observed that this was one of the major ways in which Line and WeChat differed from other apps that had tried to expand beyond their home markets.
"The difference between the apps is who backs them," he said, adding: "Both [Line and WeChat] can fund global ambitions of penetration first and then monetization."
Even these two may baulk at trying to crack the US market, however, where TV advertising costs may be prohibitive, especially in relation to the anticipated return. The monetisation of chat apps has yet to progress very far.
Data sourced from Reuters; additional content by Warc staff