Instant messaging seems to be the killer app for smartphone developers these days. With hundreds of millions of users, apps like LINE, WhatsApp, WeChat and Viber and the like are making a killing. These have actually gone beyond simple instant messaging. Rather, these companies have built whole content ecosystems around their chat apps: gaming, stickers, social networking, photo sharing, filters. Name it, they probably have it.
Chat apps have great potential
It therefore comes as no surprise how apps like LINE are earning tens of millions of dollars monthly from premium sticker sales alone. It helps that its main target audience — Asia Pacific countries — is quite gaga for stickers, those cartoon packs you can use to send cute or interesting images to friends. But extend this to other potential sources of revenue, and you can easily monetize a big network.
Even Facebook has recognized the potential of an IM network. Its earlier launch of Messenger did not do so well to capitalize on being a standalone messaging app. But the latest release of Messenger for iOS and Android brings the app to a whole new level of usability, with mobile number syncing and the ability to reach other Messenger users through mobile number lookup. Facebook has also partnered with certain carriers around the world to offer cheap or free Messenger access, especially in emerging markets.
Twitter, in its latest release for iOS and Android has made a big change with respect to how it presents direct messaging. Instead of the DM button being buried deep under the “Me” tab, it now has its dedicated tab on both Android and iOS apps. No more digging deep when sending private messages.
It’s a step in the right direction. Post IPO, Twitter is certainly trying to attract more regular users, but the challenge is in keeping users active. Microblogging is certainly a great way to keep track of trending news and to share the occasional update. But a private chat service is stickier, in my opinion. Once you have a network of friends already chatting on a platform, they are likely to use your app several times every single day.
Twitter is not alone in mixing microblogging updates with chat. Imo, which is a cross-platform and cross-device chat app (meaning it works across different protocols like Google Talk, Facebook chat and Yahoo Messenger), also offers a “Broadcast” feature. Both LINE and WeChat offer timelines and home pages for both users and chat groups. The big difference, of course, is that these are primarily chat apps, with the social aspect coming as secondary features.
A standalone messenger app could add value
Perhaps Twitter should go beyond simply highlighting its DM service through the new “Messages” tab. It could launch a standalone messaging app that focuses sole on the DM functionality of Twitter — something like Facebook has done with Messenger. And like Facebook, Twitter would be launching with an advantage here. It already has at least 230 million active users.
As it stands, Twitter cannot afford to sit on its laurels. A growth slowdown could be problematic for its value, especially now that it’s a publicly-traded company. Meanwhile, launching a standalone chat app — or perhaps even acquiring an existing one, as Twitter was once rumored to have plans for MessageMe — might be the best way to jumpstart user count and engagement once more.
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