Like every giant smartphone brands that are struggling hard to build ‘ecosystem’ by extending services (music streaming, cloud storage etc.) for their users, messenger apps are on similar routes to acquire and retain users as well. LINE is one of them that did it pretty well. They created a valuable app for users, and later converting them to pay.
Although LINE is my favourite messenger app, I don’t use it as frequent as Whatsapp. Born from the Japanese earthquake disaster in 2011, LINE took a short period to reach 50 million users, faster than Facebook. LINE achieved remarkable milestones within a short period: 1 billion combined downloads and set to IPO soon (You will know all these if you’re a regular e27 reader). Due to its sentimental ‘birth story’, I began paying attention to this app even before I started using it.
The first two messenger apps that I used were Whatsapp and Wechat. I was a very late adopter of LINE Messenger but it converted me to a loyal user. I will be sharing some of my views on the success story of LINE. Disclaimer: These views are based on my experience and observation.
A strong hybrid experience in its ecosystem
The picture below shows some of my interaction with LINE Messenger, these do not include my experience of taking photos with the giant mascot (the world’s biggest Moon character), eating limited edition LINE cookies and more. Yes, the LINE stickers/characters are everywhere, especially the 4 ‘pioneer main characters’.
In Malaysia, LINE, Wechat & Kakao talks are racing to foster partnerships with local events and contests. Each has their own piece of cake, from collaboration on TV programme to marathon race event partner. Overall, I find Wechat to be quite aggressive as I begin seeing Wechat associates (girls in short skirts) going around food courts promoting the app in my hometown, Malacca. It is a rare occurrence there.
Still, nothing beats LINE having their mascots walking around the city. I’m trying to emphasize that LINE has done a good job in shaping their LINE characters with high level of consistency.
While fighting for early adoption among teenagers, messenger apps like Kakao, Wechat and LINE adopt similar approach – using celebrities to be their ambassador. Many of my friends downloaded Kakao Talk because their K-pop idols are the ambassadors and even satirized me by saying “oh come on! You’re still on LINE? That was so yesterday…”.
Enter the Ultimate experience of LINE Stickers
I always wondered why and how LINE managed to achieve such high sticker sales. Undoubtedly, their sticker-characters are highly desirable. I once took it for granted by thinking that no one will spend money on these stickers, well, at least not the adults or elderlies. I was so wrong.
In the subway or even in the barbershop, I witnessed scenes where some 40 to 50 year-old uncles and aunties were visiting the LINE sticker store on their smartphones or tablets, the only difference was that they called them ‘cartoons’ instead of ‘stickers’. They were discussing with their peers on how they interact with their children using those stickers.
In August 2013, LINE reported 230 million* registered users (disregard of Monthly Active Users) and also USD 10 million sticker sales per month. We assume that there are 5 million users who purchased the stickers, their overall conversion rate would be around 2.2 %.
I don’t watch LINE animation, but majority of my friends including myself can tell the names of the four main LINE characters and describe briefly on their ‘characteristics’. A few of my friends who are heavy Kakao Talk users couldn’t even recognize the main sticker-characters. Oh wait, what about Wechat? I couldn’t recall anything about it. LINE design simple characters and used it consistently across all communication and marketing mediums. This strategy further shaped their characters that gave LINE strong competitive advantage over their competitors – the overall brand experience through its main character.
The hybrid offline-online experience through LINE stickers is very commendable. I always wished to see Pokemon costumed characters walking on streets, but it seems to happen only in Japan. No matter how you first knew about the characters – whether through LINE Messenger app or first seen it as costumed characters on shopping mall or encountered any of the merchandises, seeing a LINE character walking on the street is a pleasant experience.
Either way, the initial touch point is great way for users to extend the ‘LINE experience’. For instance, you first encountered a giant Moon statue then you download the app. Your children or you like the app and the stickers that come along with it. You purchased the sticker on the app, then you moved on to buy the merchandise at LINE popup store.
Each interaction makes user more attached to its ‘brand experience’, and improve chances of user actually spending money (monetization conversion). In terms of localized contents, LINE also introduced stickers that are highly associated with local slangs in Asian countries. Below is a LINE sticker of Moon saying ‘Walao Eh!’, a Hokkien slang expression that is widely adopted by Malaysians and Singaporeans.Nonetheless, they also created very powerful localized TV commercial in Thailand.
Like many other 5-star apps, LINE messenger paid attention to its users (they have a decent usability lab in Japan) and constantly crafting delightful user experience. Below is an example where LINE realized that sometimes the stickers and words are too small and hardly visible, users might be sending a sticker that encompasses wrong message, so they made a simple tweak to allow users to enlarge the sticker before sending it and purchasing it. The best part is, you will have the option to enable or disable the enlarge function.
Providing the users option to say ‘no’ to your celebrity official accounts, online shopping discounts and event announcement is essential. There are many users who just want to use the main chatting function for free, if you force them to read a vast amount of advertisement, they will just leave without further consideration.
Having this kind of customers should not be seen as ‘loss of monetization opportunities’, because their continue usage of the app will affect their friends’ willingness to stay and pay. Thus, messenger apps still have to pay attention to provide great user experience to acquire and retain these free users.
The core function of a messenger app is to allow you to connect with your friends and family. If that function is not delivered in an effective manner in the first place, the monetization opportunities would be minimal, unless you’re really obsessed with stickers and you do not mind buying it merely for collection purpose only. If the sticker sales conversion rate is a static 2% as presumed, LINE is certainly thirst for user base growth to increase total sales revenues.
The Not So Secret Ingredient: Usefulness, Usable, Desirability
Desirability of the stickers and characters seems to be a powerful tool for LINE messenger, but it would be less meaningful without usefulness and usability. I have seen a lot of app build that looks really pretty, but it is not useful, it does not deliver any value to me.
If indeed the app is useful, it needs to be usable, aka user friendly.
The final ingredient should be desirability, aka attractiveness. LINE did it right. It is not only about desirability of the stickers which somehow can be mimicked by giant rivals who can pump in a lot of campaigns to improve brand awareness. LINE retains its position for being useful and user friendly to navigate.
From here, I will be comparing messenger apps (my own usage) with 3 essential UX (user experience) elements: Usefulness, Usability and Desirability.
Generally, the core value of a product is its usefulness. It is difficult to persuade someone to use a desirable and user-friendly product if it is not useful or not solving any problem for that person in the first place. On the other hand, it is easier to get someone to use a product if it solves a big problem despite being less user-friendly. Let’s take LINE Whoscall as example, an app that identifies scam calls. After I’ve got my Android smartphone, I downloaded Whoscall just to explore the app.
Although the app itself is very user-friendly, I uninstalled the app from my phone because it is not very useful to me as I didn’t really receive any scam calls. Not long ago, I started receiving sales calls from different banks. So I re-installed the app because it helps me to identify unwanted calls. Also, I found that I can set the icon to LINE style icon which will show LINE characters when numbers are being identified. This certainly makes the app even more desirable for me and my friends to use it.
Stop talking about messenger apps. Do you have what it takes to stand out among rivals that provide such strong brand experience to their users? Think about it. While validating or building your product or business idea, you may not have the big bucks like LINE (backed by NHN) to do ‘all these stuff’, you can always do a quick pulse check by just asking yourself 3 simple questions. Is your product Useful? Usable? Desirable?
A product can be extremely valuable to you, what about to your users? Remember: you are not your users. A simple, quick and dirty way to find out is to simply test your product with your (potential) users. Giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter test regularly with their users, so you (and I) as users receive constant updates and improved experience using their products. Don’t fall in love with your product; fall in love with the opportunities.