Building Community via Influencer Marketing

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The Viber app in action.
The Viber app in action. Credit: Viber
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Taking a messaging app like WhatsApp or Snapchat to a global audience requires more than one-by-one customer acquisition. When it comes to adopting a new form of communication, not only do consumers have to buy in, but so do their personal networks, otherwise users -- and the app builders -- will only find silence on the other end of the line. In other words, growing a messaging app requires word-of-mouth to spread, but exponentially, and on steroids.

This means that a marketer like Scott Nelson, who leads North American operations at Viber, had to help build a strong community of users before his company's app reached its tipping point. (Today, Viber enjoys 750 million users after just five years.) However, building a bigger community never quite ends for an app like Viber, the David to not just one but several Goliaths in the United States. Read on as Mr. Nelson shares how Viber used traditional tactics plus a smart serving of influencer strategies to grow its home base.

The first campaign

Unlike the aforementioned messaging giants, Viber actually experienced the largest growth outside of the U.S. first, having enjoyed a comfortable global footprint in its nascent years. In late 2015, however, Viber hoped to boost its numbers back at home and began its first-ever marketing campaign. Yes -- its first. "Up until probably a few years ago, we had no marketing department," says Mr. Nelson.

This campaign's first goal was to increase awareness of Viber among those who were completely unfamiliar. "Then," he says, "number two was what I called a reappraisal for those people that knew of Viber but didn't know that we had several different elements in the platform. We wanted to bring them up to speed on the services we offered." Given that it was Viber's first attempt, Mr. Nelson and his team considered strategic focus to be of the utmost importance. "We decided it was best to narrow down to two things and do them very well, as opposed to working at five or six different goals," he says.

Making the message

Mr. Scott and his team turned to a mix of traditional and digital tactics to get the word out about Viber, including an outdoor ad campaign and live partnerships. "We aligned ourselves with well-known artists, and the likes of the Barclays Center to create live experiences within the app," says Mr. Nelson. "We did several different things from traditional advertising elements to deeply social campaigns, so it was a pretty robust effort from September into December of 2015."

The marketing team also took a less traditional, but increasingly common tack for building authentic communities: influencer marketing, with which Mr. Nelson was already familiar. "I've been working with influencer programs throughout my career, and I think ecommerce is probably one of the best blueprints of how to work with an influencer in the most authentic way," he says, and credits lessons learned at Converse with the eventual success of the influencer campaign at Viber.

His team first rigorously vetted potential influencers for their relevance in pop culture and their followers' enthusiasm. And the more up-and-coming the individual, the better. "Our influencers needed to have large groups following their lead," says Mr. Nelson. "That doesn't mean they have millions of followers on Instagram, but more that they have a rabid kind of audience that paying attention to what they do."

He cites one particular influencer as the paragon of success in the campaign. "YesJulz is an entertainer down in Miami, South Beach. She came onto the scene probably two years ago because she started to do some really interesting things on Snapchat," Mr. Nelson says. The tech-savvy YesJulz was making a name for herself in New York City and Los Angeles, so Viber approached her for a partnership. "At the end, she understood the platform and really loved it." After starting her public chat, she eventually collected over 1.2 million followers, who now have another reason to use the app every day.

Composing the next text

After the campaign wrapped, Mr. Nelson and his team looked at a variety of factors to measure its success, including downloads versus brand awareness (which had doubled), social mentions (which increased 700% with a 20% boost in positive sentiment) and U.S.-based users' recurrent use of the app. "A lot of the content that we created, and a lot of the efforts of the campaign were meant to get people coming back to the app on a daily basis," he says. "We did well on that front also." As Viber looks to take its platform into larger regions like Russia, South East Asia and India, Mr. Nelson says his team is constantly brainstorming ways to build a better community than the competition. Whatever form future campaigns may take, influencers will likely play a starring role.

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