The world keeps changing. New technologies and new ways of using them keep cropping up. And every time something new and different emerges, the questions that brands have to grapple with are pretty much the same. Will it have legs? Can we use it? How can we use it? When should we start using it? And what impact will it have on the existing technology platforms and channels that we’re already using to reach our customers?
It’s time for brands to start asking those questions about OTT messaging platforms.
Known for their massive audiences and strong customer retention, these platforms are now beginning to make it easier for third-party brands to take advantage of their reach and scale to effectively reach, engage, and monetize new and existing customers. But with many marketers still playing catch-up when it comes to mobile apps and messaging, this compelling new space for customer engagement hasn’t received the time and attention from brands that it deserves.
To help out, we’ll cover:
- What OTT stands for
- What OTT platforms actually are
- Why OTT platforms are courting third-party brands (and what’s in it for those brands)
- How brands can use specific OTT platforms like Facebook Messenger, Kik, and Line to better engage their customers
- And more…
1. What does OTT stand for?
It stands for “Over-the-Top.” Which, in addition to being a (delightfully terrible) Sylvester Stallone movie (in which he enters an arm-wrestling competition to win back his son!), is the preferred term for describing technologies that layer on top of other proprietary information delivery systems.
Originally, OTT was used to describe digital media services (such as Netflix) that allow users to view movies, TV shows, and other content without the involvement of traditional media providers like TV networks and cable providers. But over time, use of the term has broadened to include messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger that allow users to communicate with with friends, family, and others without using their mobile devices’ built-in text messaging capabilities.
2. Are OTT messaging platforms websites or apps?
OTT messaging platforms are strongly associated with mobile. That’s partly because many of them began life as messaging apps (though some, like Facebook Messenger, began as a web-based service) and partly because the rise of mobile has meant that people are increasingly using these platforms on their mobile devices.
But because so many of these messaging services exist as both mobile apps and desktop-friendly websites, OTT messaging effectively straddles both mobile and desktop. That allows these services to support a seamless, platform-agnostic customer experience that makes it easy for users to reach the people they’re looking to reach without concern for what device they’re on.
3. Don’t some OTT messaging platforms do more than just messaging?
Definitely. And, as often happens, China’s been leading the way. WeChat, China’s premier OTT messaging platform, was one of the first to allow users to make purchases and interact with third-party brands within its platform and the rest of the space has been playing catch-up ever since. In particular, Facebook Messenger’s announcement earlier this year that it would open up its platform to third-party chatbots has brought a lot more attention to the space and encouraged brands big and small to start thinking about how to take advantage of these sorts of platforms as part of their customer engagement strategies.
4. Why are OTT messaging companies encouraging third-party brands to take advantage of their platforms?
It all comes down to the platform economy. For most OTT messaging firms, getting third-party brands to move a significant amount of their customer engagement activities to their platform can pay major dividends. These platforms prosper when users engage extensively and regularly with their app or website, making it easier to monetize their audience via advertising and other strategies.
If those users can, for instance, buy a shirt from H&M (or order pizza from Domino’s or watch a news report from ABC News) within a platform instead of leaving for an outside website, it’s easier to encourage those users to stay within the platform ecosystem for longer and to check back more often. And once those users are used to interacting with third-party brands through an OTT messaging platform, that creates opportunities for the platforms to further monetize their user bases by charging those brands for access.
5. Okay, but why would third-party brands want to be on an OTT messaging platform then?
Honestly? Because that’s where the people are.
Take a look at these active user numbers for some of the best known OTT messaging platforms and you’ll get a sense of the possibilities that a lot of third-party brands see in this space:
- WhatsApp: 1 billion
- Facebook Messenger: 1 billion
- WeChat: 762 million
- Kik: 275 million
- Line: 218 million
- Telegram: 100 million
In today’s highly digital distraction-filled world, one of the biggest challenges that brands face is getting and holding the attention of current and potential customers long enough to convince them to take action—whether that’s visiting their website, downloading their app, joining their email list, or making a purchase. Apps can be a powerful tool for customer engagement, but with the average user spending 80% of their mobile app time in only their favorite three apps, it’s becoming harder to get all but the most-engaged members of your audience to consistently interact with your app. By leveraging the massive, highly engaged audience that these platforms hold, third-party brands can grasp opportunities to reach new customers and strengthen relationships with existing customers that they wouldn’t otherwise have.
6. How can brands leverage OTT messaging platforms as part of their customer engagement strategies?
The truth is, there’s no single way to do it. Each one of these OTT messaging services has its own unique rules and restrictions for third-party brands looking to use its platform, and if you go in with the idea that you can build a single comprehensive approach for this space, you’re likely to be disappointed.
To give you more of a sense of how third-party brands can use these platforms to reach, engage, and monetize their customers, we’ll take a look at three prominent OTT messaging platforms that are already hosting outside brands and talk about what we’re seeing right now—and what’s possible.
1. Facebook Messenger
With 1 billion users (and a close relationship with the even larger audience associated with the main Facebook platform), Facebook Messenger is arguably the OTT messaging platform with the largest reach and the most potential for third-party brands. And brands have taken notice, with major companies like 1-800-Flowers, Uber, Fox News, and Whole Foods (as well as the White House) using it to communicate with users. However, while Facebook Messenger has been making it easier for outside brands to leverage the service, there are still notable restrictions on how those brands are allowed to interact with customers through the platform.
Brands using the Facebook Messenger platform are allowed to send transactional messages to users (for instance, telling a user that their order has gone through, or that their package has been delivered) or to create chatbots that respond to user questions and commands. However, in order to keep companies from spamming uninterested users, Facebook Messenger requires that users be the ones to initiate interactions with a given brand—so you can’t communicate with users if they don’t reach out first.
For that reason, Facebook Messenger works best as a channel for communicating with engaged users. Because so many people spend a significant amount of their time within the Facebook Messenger platform, brands that have a presence there are making it easier for users who are already engaging with them to do so there as well, keeping them top of mind and increasing audience engagement. And because Facebook is reportedly rolling out ads in Facebook Messenger that allow users who click on them to message brands, this should increasingly be a strong channel for brands looking to re-engage customers.
This OTT messaging platform is particularly big among media and entertainment brands, with The Wall Street Journal, CNN, Hulu, and artists like Paul McCartney, Major Lazer, and Fall Out Boy all active there. Line, which grew out of an effort to ease emergency communications following a devastating 2011 Japanese earthquake, has a smaller audience than Facebook Messenger—though 200+ million active users is nothing to sneeze at! But while the sheer number of people that can be reached through Line is lower, this platform gives brands significantly more ways to communicate with and engage users, making it easier to use effectively as part of your marketing efforts.
Line allows its users to add brands as friends, the same way that they do with their actual friends. And once a user has added your brand as a friend, you have a lot of channels within the platform to communicate with them. You can:
- Send them direct messages that support text and rich images (and because Line notifies users about messages via push notification, this allows you to reach users in this platform even if they’re not currently using it)
- Post content—including Line-specific stickers and videos—to your users’ timelines, creating regular reminders about your presence on the platform
- Send links to longer posts (as well as coupons, polls, or questionnaires) to your users through the platform’s chat function
Like Facebook Messenger, the opt-in nature of this OTT messaging platform means that it’s best used to interact with engaged customers. But because Line allows users to comment and respond to public posts on your brand’s timeline, supporting both direct and more general customer/brand interactions across the platform, the nature of that interaction has the potential to be richer and deeper.
This OTT messaging platform is known for its strongly engaged audience—with users spending an average of 35 minutes per session in the platform, more than 10% higher than Facebook Messenger and more than one-third higher than Snapchat—and for its large base of users between the ages of 14 and 17. (Kik says that about 40% of American teens use the platform.) So it makes sense that a number of the brands taking advantage of the Kik platform to reach customers—which include CNN, H&M, Sephora, the Weather Channel, and the World Wildlife Fund—are specifically targeting younger users. Target, for instance, launched a “College Stylist Bot,” while Candie’s chatbot takes the form of a quiz game about teen girl group (and Candie’s endorsers) Fifth Harmony.
Kik allows anyone to create a bot for its platform, so in the third-party ecosystem there is a mix of major brands and one-off bots created by users. The setup is largely similar to the one seen with Facebook Messenger and Line: users visit the Kik platform’s “Bot Shop” and select chatbots that they’re interested in interacting with, allowing those bots to engage with them through Kik.
However, there’s an interesting wrinkle—if two users are having a conversation on the platform, either one can summon up a brand-associated bot by writing @ and the name of the bot (so @hm, for instance, would call up the H&M chatbot). This means that highly engaged customers can effectively advertise your brand to their friends and family by using your chatbot to take actions like placing orders or making reservations mid-conversation. Not every brand will be well-positioned to leverage this function to expand their audience, but the potential is there if you’re active on Kik and have an audience of enthusiastic customers.
Possible concerns for marketers
While OTT messaging platforms present a real opportunity for brands to reach and engage their customers, it’s important to be realistic about what’s currently possible.
When chatbots first entered the wider marketing conversation this spring following Facebook’s F8 event, a lot of the coverage focused on the possibility of truly human-like conversations between AI-powered chatbots and consumers. That’s not the reality right now. On all three of the platforms we looked at, customer/brand interactions were either extremely simple, powered by pre-selected responses that customers had to choose from, or marked by frequent confusion when chatbots failed to glean what customers were asking. That doesn’t necessarily make for a bad overall user experience—in fact, the slightly stilted nature of the interactions can be charming, the way that a goofy GIF can be charming—but it won’t be for everyone.
As they currently stand, the simple user-initiated nature of the interactions on these platforms means that they’re not going to replace your current engagement marketing efforts on mobile and desktop anytime soon. And even if they could, brands would be wise not to center the entirety of their marketing strategy around platforms that they have limited control over; balance is key here.
Ultimately, these platforms are only valuable to marketers if they can be used to reach customers in effective ways. That may mean that one platform will work well for your particular brand because of the audience it possesses or the engagement opportunities it offers, while other platforms won’t.
This is a new space, a new opportunity, and experimentation is to be expected and welcomed. Take the time now to think about how these platforms could be useful to your marketing efforts; you’ll be better prepared to take advantage of this opportunity when the time comes.
That being said, one of the big lessons we’ve learned in mobile will be applicable here, too. Remember that your customers are individuals with individual preferences and needs—and treat them accordingly, to the extent that technology allows. That’s how you build the sort of sustainable customer-brand relationships that lead to real, long-term success.