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Analysis

Asian Chat Apps Are Changing Customer Relationships

Chat apps give brands a direct line to their audience and allows them to build communities. So why is this crucial marketing channel which is working wonders in Asia lagging behind in the west?

Matt McAllister
July 07 2017

If you own a mobile device, chances are you’re using at least one chat app. In 2016, chat apps usurped social networking apps as the number one app category. The largest services claim hundreds of millions of monthly active users. The Facebook Messenger app alone has over a billion daily active users sending 60 billion messages per day, while more than 1100 calls are made every second on Whatsapp.

Where consumers go, marketers are sure to follow. AmEx, for instance, built a chatbot for the Facebook Messenger app that sends offers based on the user’s transaction history, like hotel recommendations for a recently booked trip to Tokyo. Whole Foods ran a Facebook Messenger campaign that sent recipe recommendations to any user who used the chat app to text the brand a food emoji.

What’s happening in the West pales in comparison, however, to how Asian marketers are connecting with consumers through chat apps such as WeChat, Line, Kakao and others. While Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger are far behind in Asia, these native apps offer marketing capabilities currently undreamed of overseas.

How Chat Apps Work in East Asia

Chinese users do more in WeChat than make calls and write messages: they use the app to talk directly to their favorite brands, pay for goods, hail a taxi, and even settle electricity bills. Similarly, KakaoTalk users in Korea can easily listen to music or have food delivered, all without exiting the app.

Marketers are welcome among this frenzy of activity. Beauty brand SK-II leveraged WeChat’s omnipresence to drive followers to brick-and-mortar stores and also encouraged users in-store to place orders through the brand’s WeChat page. American luxury company Coach banked on the app’s 846 million-strong reach for a referral campaign, where followers gain points by successfully inviting friends (who are surely also on WeChat) to follow the brand’s account.

KakaoTalk enjoys the same kind of popularity, corralling 99% of all internet users in Korea. But unlike WeChat, KakaoTalk charges a fee for official business accounts. Companies pay so they can send push messages to followers. Brands also have access to a “Plus Friends” account, which is essentially a giant chat room for the brand and its followers, where they can distribute exclusive discounts and promos, as well as external content like makeup tutorials and guides for makeup brands.

Ever-Accelerating Customer Service

“The largest opportunity for brands is having a direct line with your audience and allowing them to build communities,” says Josh Burns, a marketing specialist with expertise in the Chinese mobile game market. Messaging apps give brands the opportunity to offer immediate, personal support on the platforms that are used most. Email and web forms, by contrast, force users into interactions that, for many, are awkward.

East Asian markets like China and Korea are hypercompetitive compared to the West. Often, loyalty engendered by customer service is the only barrier keeping users from switching to a competitor. “High value users should get VIP support. If you want to be successful, you need to have resources who can speak the native language,” says Burns. Brands also tend to use their customer support channels to blast info to self-selected users (for instance, those in a sale group) about promo codes and exclusive discounts, whether in nearby stores or online.

In some ways, learnings about Asian apps are only useful within the region. “In terms of monetization, the messenger apps in Asia are light years ahead of Western messaging apps,” said Serkan Toto in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. But several lessons are likely to apply to the West in the future: speaking to customers on their preferred platform, offering more immediate customer service, and providing VIP treatment to valuable customers. Western consumers already report that they’re willing to pay more for better customer experience.

Some capabilities are available in some forms on Whatsapp or Facebook–although they tend to go unused by many marketers. Whatsapp’s broadcast feature, for instance, allows for sending push messages to a maximum of 250 people, and businesses can even market to segments inside the app by sending specialized content to different contact lists. Similarly, Western brands that engage customers on Facebook or Twitter report that those users now spend more, and more frequently.

In both the East and the West, chat apps have become a central part of our daily lives, yet Western marketers are only just beginning to understand how to leverage these apps. To learn how to tap into the vast potential of this powerful marketing channel, Wester marketers need only look towards their Eastern counterparts for advice.

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Matt McAllister

Matt McAllister is the CEO of Fluid PR, Inc. and twenty-year marketing veteran. Matt most recently ran marketing for Tapjoy, a mobile ad-tech platform. Matt also served as VP of marketing and content for High Voltage Interactive, an online ad network that was acquired by Aptimus, Inc. He started his career as an account executive for the PR agency Niehaus Ryan Wong.

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