When Words Won't Do, a Cartoon Bear Just Might

When Words Won't Do, a Cartoon Bear Just Might
On the messaging app Line, a late-afternoon conversation between colleagues might involve a series of colorful icons, or stickers - a way to invite someone out for a drink or to gently say no:

Man with a mug of beer, winking.

Bear busy at work at his desk.

Man on his knees, devastated.

Bear bowing in apology.

"They're great when you don't have time to type out entire messages but don't want to be rude, either," said Motoko Kondo, 34, who works at a Tokyo design agency. "I sometimes carry out entire conversations with only stickers."

Line is among a growing number of apps jostling for control of the rapidly growing mobile messaging business. Such startups are no longer just competing for users and their time. They are also racing to define how a younger generation - one that has increasingly moved away from traditional text messaging, as well as Facebook and Twitter - will message on the go.

"There's a frenzy of experimentation going on with the future of messaging, with new ways of communicating on mobile that go beyond typing something and hitting 'send,'" said Benedict Evans, a partner with venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, which has invested in social networks and messaging services.

Apps like Snapchat and Blink have increased their user bases through the appeal of spontaneity, transience and privacy, with messages that self-destruct soon after they are opened. Those services have eaten into the early lead of WhatsApp, a no-frills service that focuses on letting users send and receive text, image, audio and video through the Web. Viber has focused on messaging plus free Internet phone calls.

The Tokyo startup Line, along with WeChat from China, has sought to pepper the messaging experience with an array of stickers, social games and even weather forecasts. Their sprawling online offerings make them huge distribution platforms for content, not just messaging services.

"It's messaging, evolved," said Takeshi Idezawa, Line's chief operating officer.

Line has signed up 430 million users, almost 90 percent of them outside Japan. (It does not break out the number of active users.) WhatsApp said in February that it had 465 million monthly active users, while WeChat's parent company, Tencent, said its number of monthly active users reached 355 million at the end 2013.

Such apps have been the target of frenzied dealmaking. Snapchat spurned a multibillion-dollar offer from Facebook last year; Facebook eventually bought WhatsApp in February for $19 billion. The same month, Rakuten, the Japanese e-commerce giant, acquired Viber for $900 million. Yahoo snapped up Blink this month for an undisclosed sum.

Analysts speculate that Line could go public or be an acquisition target for a company like SoftBank, one of Line's advertising clients. Justin Lee, a technology analyst at BNP Paribas, values the service at as much as $15 billion - slightly less than the valuation fetched by Twitter when it made its debut on the New York Stock Exchange in November. Line declined to comment on the issue.

"Line's localization efforts are paying off," Lee wrote in a recent note, pointing to improving momentum, especially in Southeast Asia and Latin America.

The American market is still largely up for grabs. Although WhatsApp dominates in Europe and Latin America, users in the United States have been slow to move to messaging apps from texting, leaving WhatsApp and Snapchat vying for footholds. Much of Asia has gravitated toward local players: Line in Japan, WeChat in China and KakaoTalk in South Korea.

"I do think Line and WeChat have the capability to challenge WhatsApp," said Neha Dharia, a senior analyst at Ovum, a technology advisory firm.

The landscape remains competitive because, more than Facebook and Twitter, messaging apps are likely to be downloaded and then dumped. Users of these apps do not have to build their social networks from scratch, because the apps live on smartphones and are able to tap directly into address books, photos and other personal data. Friend lists and content, like photos, which might lock users into a service like Facebook, are far less important in the temporary world of instant messaging.

So the hot messaging app today can quickly lose favor with fickle consumers.

Asia-based startups like Line, with all their bells and whistles, could give users more reason to stick with the app, said Boris Wertz, founder of Version One Ventures, an early-stage venture capital firm. But at the same time, he said, the abundant content could be harder to tailor to local needs. The question is whether newcomers like Line will translate to a U.S. audience.

"A lot of the Asian platforms have developed much deeper, richer experiences, and I personally think these broader platform approaches have a bigger potential over time," Wertz said. "But that richer experience makes it harder to translate across cultures. Line's heavy use of stickers and emoticons - you couldn't transport all of that to North American culture."

Line is finding it difficult to gain traction in the U.S. After an initial marketing push last year, it has eased off promotional activities and says it is focusing on other markets that need attention more urgently. "There's very strong competition in America," Idezawa said.

Still, Line has been emboldened by dizzying success at home, where it is putting a stamp on Japanese online social life. Since 2011, when Line burst onto the scene in Japan, the app has changed the way the people text (with sticker-only conversations) and the way they talk ("I'll Line you!"). Line's main characters - like Brown the bear and Cony the rabbit - are everywhere, as stuffed toys, books, stationery and animated films. Line says its users send more than 1 billion stickers a day.

Line's chief executive, Akira Morikawa, says he gets stopped on the street by people with suggestions for new stickers; he recently had lunch with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to discuss entrepreneurship.

Line has struck a chord in Japan partly because of the country's affection for all things cute, experts say. But there are more factors at play. The stiff, written form of the Japanese language can be cumbersome to type on smartphones, and stickers make communication easier and faster, said Ryoko Morishima, who has written several guides on social media.

Stickers also let Japanese users express direct feelings that can be awkward to convey in the formal language, Morishima said. Refusing an invitation from a colleague for after-work drinks, for example, could cause discomfort in a culture where an outright no is avoided at all costs. But enlist a bear as the messenger and there is less potential for embarrassment on either side, Morishima said.

"It's just easier when a bear says it," she said.

Line's characters are not just about better messaging, either. Although Line is free to download, it sells premium-edition stickers, and the characters populate its universe of online games - both big moneymakers for the company. There is the merchandising, as well as a line of peripheral apps, including a weather service, a fledgling e-commerce site and a dedicated camera app that allows users to add characters to their photos.

Companies can pay to have Line offer their characters, which users download at no cost in exchange for "friending" the corporation in the app. One of the most popular stickers in Japan this year is Rakuten Cardman, a character introduced by the eponymous e-commerce giant. The character recently threw the first pitch at a baseball game hosted by the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, the former team of New York Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka.

All that has allowed Line to build a solid business model. In the 12 months through March, Line earned almost 60 billion yen ($590 million) from its stickers, in-game sales and ads, just under the $665 million that Twitter earned last year.

"Line has become part of the communications infrastructure," said Kenichi Sugai, a technology analyst at Speeda, a financial information platform based in Tokyo. "Now it's in a global race to win over users and to convince them this is what messaging should be."

The task falls to a handful of top designers in Tokyo, led by Naotomo Watanabe, who create all types of stickers for Line users.

Line says each design is backed up with painstaking research of the languages, customs and even slang used in each market. For Islamic cultures, the team gleaned that a major messaging opportunity exists around Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting. So Watanabe's team designed apps of Brown the bear breaking the fast and exchanging good wishes with Cony the rabbit.

U.S. users tend to prefer stickers that leave no space for misinterpretation, according to Watanabe. So smiles are wide, and stickers are often accompanied by captions like "Awesome!" and "Great job!"

By contrast, in Japan, Line offers characters with smiles, half-smiles and barely there smiles, he said. "Our American colleagues asked us: What's the point of a half-smile?" Watanabe said. "It's difficult to express in words. That's why we use stickers."

© 2014 New York Times News Service


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