AURELIE: My name is Aurelie Guerrieri and I’m the founder of Akila One, a Growth Consultancy helping mobile companies scale. I’m the author of The Mobile Native’s Guide to Marketing, and the creator of the podcast series, Growth Hacking is Dead, Long Live Growth Marketing. Today, as part of this series, I speak with Djamel Agaoua, CEO of Viber. Djamel, in a few words, can you tell us how you got into the mobile space, and more recently, into leading one of the challengers in the mobile messaging war?
DJAMEL: Hello Aurelie, thanks for organizing this discussion. Look, I went to the mobile space without knowing anything about the mobile space, six years ago. I met two guys back in France, who were building adtech for the mobile space, and I really liked the space, very dynamic, very international as well. I joined their company, MobPartner, and I ran it for five years. Six months ago, I joined Viber, which is a major messaging app in the world, with 800 million registered users, and I joined this company because I saw the increasingly important role messaging platforms are playing around the world. Users spend more and more time in their favorite messaging app, so messaging apps have a huge opportunity in front of them.
AURELIE: So, that leads to thinking about mobile messaging globally. There are already very strong signals that messaging apps in Asia, and I think about WeChat in particular, are becoming platforms onto their owns, and hosting more and more customer experiences that would normally belong either in-app or offline. How do you think mobile messaging will shape up in the West?
DJAMEL: We are probably going in the same direction, but with a very different context. The context in China is very specific. Much less competition, a market that is much more protective, and WeChat could use this opportunity to build, maybe before everyone in China (and for the time being, in China only), a real platform for users, where you can basically buy and pay for a lot of things on your mobile and visit a lot of what they call “mini-apps”, without leaving WeChat. In the Western world, we live in a very different system where we have a lot of competition in different segments, a lot of payment solutions, a lot of eCommerce companies. So, to build a platform like this is much more complex, because you need to aggregate much more services to be useful and valuable for users. Nevertheless, I really think that’s the direction where we’re going to.
That’s the reason why, when I joined Viber six months ago, I started this journey to transform Viber into a platform, where users will be able to access third-party services without leaving Viber. We have already launched a lot of our initiatives in the space by just launching, for example, an instant shopping solution where you can shop within Viber in the eCommerce platform of several brands. We have also launched, recently, a chat extension solution where you can search digital content, for example, without leaving Viber, coming from third party services, and I really think that’s the real direction where we’re going to. We live in a world as well where we need to respect the privacy of our users, so it clearly limits the possibilities, because we are not supposed, as a messaging app, to listen to conversation of our users, and we don’t of course, because it’s a very important thing in our business. But we are going in a direction where users will be basically able to search for products, search for content, search for the favorites of this provider, without leaving their favorite messaging app, and share the result of their search with their friends and families and professional network without leaving the app. So it’s a real trend, and the Viber is investing massively in this direction.
AURELIE: That’s very interesting, because I don’t know that I’ve seen that other marketers are leveraging similar features. So, can you talk a little bit about how marketers can realize and capture the full potential of messaging today and tomorrow?
DJAMEL: Yes, all those products are very new products, so I’m not surprised by your comments, but I’m gonna relate you a conversation I had with a CEO of a very successful company involved in a dating service. I had a single question to ask him, where do you advertise, where do you market your services? The answer was, ‘well, I don’t know where to market anymore, I don’t know where to advertise anymore.’ I said, ‘why?’ ‘Well, because the users, the people we’re looking for, they are in your app! They spend all their time in your app!’
So, they have an equation to solve, which is basically to find a way to get to these users where they are – and they are basically in messaging apps, most of the time, or in social networks, without being too intrusive, and it’s a very difficult equation, because when you are talking about messaging apps, you are talking about very private conversations, those you have with your best friends, with your husband and wife, and you don’t want to see ads popping up into a conversation you have with your best friends.
So, we need to find the right balance, and the right balance for us, at Viber, is to give the possibility to the users to search for services when they want to search for services, so the user is the trigger to the system, and when the user triggers the system, then we offer the possibility to some partners and some selective partners to push their offers. And we have launched, for example, new initiatives with guys like Spotify, or Deezer, or Booking.com, recently, that can access our audience into our chat extension service. We also have launched the instant shopping solution in the US, where a company like Macy’s or Pink or Rakuten.com can also provide their catalogs and their product to our users, within the interface, the Viber messaging app.
AURELIE: So we’re not just talking about customer service, we’re talking about actual marketing, right, and not just branding, but also direct marketing?
DJAMEL: Yes, we’re talking about direct marketing. Customer service is another stream that we could discuss as well, because we have a lot of success and experience in that stream, and we can come back to that if you want, but to answer your question, yes, we’re talking about direct marketing. Direct offers, and both digital and physical products.
AURELIE: Are you able to track online to offline?
DJAMEL: Not yet, this is not something we have launched, but it is something that we are currently discussing with a couple of partners, that want to propose within their interface the ability, for example, to download a coupon and this coupon could be redeemable both online and offline. This is one thing. The other possibility is to use some kind of location-based technology. So far, we haven’t launched anything in that space, but we also think that in some specific conditions, in specific countries where our market share is very high, it’s an offer that would make a lot of sense, both for our users and for our partners.
AURELIE: Absolutely! So you mentioned dating, Spotify, Deezer, Booking.com, all leveraging messaging platforms for growth. I want to talk a little bit about pitfalls and one kind of pitfall of mobile messaging for growth that was pretty famous, was chatbots, and Facebook was very public about that. You have launched your own Chatbot initiatives last year, as well. Can you share some of the dos and don’ts around chatbots and maybe we can also broaden that conversation and talk about the dos and don’ts around marketing in messaging apps?
DJAMEL: So, chatbots are a long story. Let’s say the following: I really think there is a usage for chatbots, and there is a real value that can be created through chatbots, and we have seen some very popular and very valuable experiences in certain segments like banking, for example, or translation services, or news services. We have some very good chatbots that have been implemented into Viber, that are very useful, very valuable, very well received by our users. But chatbot is probably like this kind of situation where the buzzword makes so much noise that everybody wants to be in it, and there have been a lot of initiatives that have very limited valuable for the users. And also a lot of initiatives, that from the technological standpoint, were not completely finalized, I’d say. So, I know that Facebook has spent a lot of time and energy in investment in this space, and I understand why.
At Viber, we have decided to be a little bit more selective in terms of chatbots that we decided to implement, because we saw a lot of new developments, especially coming from small startups, that were on paper attractive, but in the execution, very badly done. So our vision is that there is a future for chatbots, and we also need to be very selective on the value brought by those chatbots. If I give you a couple of examples, we have some chatbots that have been implemented by telcos and banks in countries like Eastern Europe for example, where the users can in a couple of messages, for example, top up their data plan for their telcos or have information about their bank accounts from their bank or they can send some money to their friends by using a chatbot. All these kind of bots are really valuable, useful, well received, and well executed.
But a lot of chatbots in the customer service area, for example, have been completely missed. A lot of bad experiences. We all know the experiences that have been in the press. So we probably need a little bit more time, all of us, and I’m not only talking about the messaging apps, but also about all the partners developing bots, to perfect the technologies. Speaking about the dos and don’ts, in marketing onto the messaging platform, we really need to understand that we’re living the world of privacy, and privacy is a very, very important point in our business.
AURELIE: So, to not damage your brand, think about your conversation with users, meeting their needs, think about their privacy, and really fully think about the user experience. I know, like me, you’re very enthusiastic about the potential of mobile commerce in messaging. Keeping all those principles that you outlined for us in mind, what does a best practice advertisement for a mobile commerce product or a series of products in messaging look like?
DJAMEL: There are a couple of them. The first one is: some of the messaging app like Viber offer the possibility for eCommerce companies to build their own store within the messaging platform. It’s called public accounts in Viber, it’s called mini-apps in WeChat. Some of them are proposing this, and that’s a way for example to be seen within the app, but it remains in a specific section of the app. What we decided to bring at Viber, and we see a lot of value for both the users and the eCommerce player, is to bring a shopping keyboard (in the US). Meaning that in one tap from your messaging space, you can open your personal commerce space, where you can store your favorite brands and your favorite stores, and then search in these brands and share the results of the search with your friends in one tap. And if within a conversation, someone likes a product, in another tap, go to the store of the provider or the eCommerce company (it could be a mobile web store or an app) and by deep link (if the app is installed) we go to the product page directly.
This experience is pretty well received by our users. We launched this new product [earlier this year], and the results are amazing. We have more than 35% of our users using it on a regular basis in the US. They share content. They see the convenience, and they start to see the value of having this product, but also start to go to the mobile web sites to buy product directly. And we don’t even have the payment solution inside, yet! So we are really optimistic with this product, because as soon as we add the payment solution, which is something we will do in the future, we will make it even quicker and faster and more efficient to buy product within the messaging app.
I don’t think that all products will be suitable for that kind of experience. Vision at Viber is that we think that the messaging app is a space where you share emotions. Information, but actually more emotions. So every product that can be an emotion generator will be suitable for that kind of experience. But I don’t think for example that a bottle of milk will be the right product for this, but everything related to fashion, electronics, gift, accessories, things that we always discuss or new stuff coming in, new technology on the market or stuff like this are very valuable for a messaging experience.
The other kind of product that would be very valuable would be every product that you often buy in groups, or you often discuss with a group before you buy them. For example, food that you want to order for a group of people, or an event that you want to go with friends, or a location that you want to rent for the next vacation with your family or a group. All these kind of products that requires an exchange with your friends and families because you want to have their advice or their vision or their opinion about something, make a lot of sense to be in the messaging app. If it makes a lot of sense for the users, then it makes a lot of sense for the partners, for the marketers, to find a way to be in there and to be able to present their offers.
And you’re right, you said something very true, it’s about the user experience. We associate, very early, our partners to the user experience. We try to educate them in a way that they will not give us a classical campaign that they will share in another platform. We’re not talking about pushing an ad here. We’re talking about giving something to the user that they see as valuable in the experience they have, and the first experience they have is about chatting on a specific subject. So that’s what we try to do with our partners and our users.
AURELIE: Enable me to create my own personal store of my products, based in a keyboard. We know that email was the preferred communication channel for Gen X, messaging is the preferred one for millennials, and Gen Z will predominantly use video and voice. What does this mean for the future of messaging apps?
DJAMEL: I imagine that user behavior is probably gonna change a lot in the next five years, probably even more than it has changed in the last ten years.
Probably a good principle would be to say we always go in the direction of the biggest efficiency. I think what is more efficient is probably to talk to send a message, and to read a sent message, just because it’s quicker. So I strongly believe that a voice communication to send a message and voice-to-text to read a message has a big future. It doesn’t mean that all the text messages will become voice-recognition messages: because people, and especially you Aurelie, do three or four things in the same minute, so while you are talking to me, you’re probably sending a message to someone, and you’re happy to do it by typing on a keyboard!
We will see a lot of evolution in the future. We will see a lot of integration with all the home products Amazon and the Googles and the Apples of the world have launched. We of course are working on these topics as well. But it’s a bit difficult today to define exactly the future of this space, except the principle I’ve just explained: I really think that the voice-to-text will take a significant share of the market.
AURELIE: How about video only messaging apps? A few of them have been pretty popular this year. Marco Polo, for example, has recently won the App Annie awards for fast breakout growth. Any thoughts on how that’s gonna change the face of messaging?
DJAMEL: I really think we should make a difference between what is fun, and what is useful and efficient. It can be fun to use video to send messages, to create some content, for example. I strongly believe in every technology that support the creation of content by users themselves. Imagine a technology that would allow a group of people to create together, remotely, a video – all this makes a lot of sense, and it’s fun. But when you receive a video message, it’s not that efficient, because you have to listen to it, it takes a lot of time to listen to it, much more than to read a message. You have to be in the condition to be able to listen to it, meaning that you can’t do it if you’re in a meeting, for example. So it’s not that efficient. There is real interest and there is value for a certain category of users, and there is a future for that, but I don’t see those technologies as a threat for other kind of technologies, because they’re more fun than useful.
AURELIE: Some really good wisdom out here, Djamel! Thank you so much for your time!
DJAMEL: Thank you, Aurelie!
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