Earlier this summer, Viber hired a legion of agencies, including Droga5, Laundry Service and Essence, to better market itself and grow in the U.S. It's indicative of just how far messaging apps have come -- and how far they have to go in the U.S.
Messaging apps have been wildly popular overseas, but have generally lagged in the U.S. Viber, for its part, is hoping to get ahead of competitors like WeChat and WhatsApp and make inroads with U.S. consumers before they flock to other messaging apps.
"When you look at how engaged people are internationally, the U.S. pales in comparison," said Catherine Boyle, senior analyst-mobile at eMarketer. One reason is that messaging apps originally became popular because text messaging was expensive, especially across borders and even between close-knit countries in Europe, and people were looking for more intimate ways to communicate, she said. That didn't apply in the U.S., which has offered cheap text-messaging plans for years.
"The messaging space is hard to talk about without talking about it globally," said Ms. Boyle. But as these types of apps have grown, they're increasingly looking for ways to make money. Apps like WeChat, which is hugely popular in China, and Line, best known in Japan, have rapidly grown beyond just messaging and phone calls.
For brands, messaging apps have been tricky to master. That's slowly changing, but much of the space remains untapped. "We're seeing a lot of experimentation," said Ms. Boyle. "But a common thread is we're not likely to see a rich-media ad or banner ad, and if we do, it'll be in a part of the app that's not necessarily connected to the messaging part, it'll be elsewhere." In other words, marketers can expect to see new forms of paid ads.
Some messaging apps have already formed ad platforms. Snapchat, for instance, has allowed advertising in its Recent Updates area for nearly a year. The company also brought paid ads to market through Discover and Live Stories, though it's steered clear of placing ads in personal snaps or chats.
Others have enabled brand interaction. Line has a partnership with Salesforce that allows brands to send personalized messages, including coupons and content, to users who opt in.
Though most messaging apps started out as an easy and cheap alternative to text messages and phone calls, many have now broadened their services to become portals. WeChat, for instance, is being used to order takeout, buy airplane tickets, book taxis and pay utility bills.
As messaging apps broaden their purview, the opportunities for monetization grow. WeChat began testing ads earlier this year but prior to that it was virtually ad free. Now it's dabbling with ads on its Moments feature, which is similar to a Facebook newsfeed; the posts are marked as "promoted."
Facebook Messenger is also moving beyond messaging. In April, the app launched free voice calling over cellular and WiFi connections. And in March, it announced Messenger Business, which is a customer service portal for brands. Brands can deliver retail receipts and shipping updates via Messenger, and customers can use it to change or place new orders. Facebook hasn't announced any ad programs for Messenger, but the customer service offering opens the platform up to businesses, which could put the app on the path to ad monetization.
Viber, along with many of its competitors, makes a significant chunk of money on stickers, which are emoji-like symbols users send to each other. The company doesn't have promoted posts or ads at the moment, and it's not clear if or when it will move in that direction.
Deciphering accurate active users has been difficult. Often, companies give a total number of users but don't disclose how many of those are actually active.
WeChat is generally considered to have the largest number of monthly active users globally, with 600 million in the second quarter, up 37% year-over-year, according to parent company Tencent's August earnings report. The company doesn't break out users geographically, but most are assumed to be in China.
Viber says it has 600 million unique users, but it's not clear how many of those are active users, or in what regions they reside.
In the U.S., Facebook Messenger, which was broken out into its own app in 2014, ranks at the top, in terms of percent of U.S. smartphone owners who access an app at least once a month, according to Forrester. Google Hangouts ranks No. 2, Snapchat is No. 3 and WhatsApp, which was acquired by Facebook for $19 billion in 2014, ranks No. 4.