Line Hopes Messaging Stickers Help It Take Off in U.S.

The Japanese Chat App Is Also Launching a Pop-Up Store in Times Square

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Line says stickers -- glorified emoticons -- are getting traction in the U.S.
Line says stickers -- glorified emoticons -- are getting traction in the U.S.
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In Asia, emojis and stickers on messaging apps are big, and it's common for people -- even adults -- to pay extra so they can punctuate their text messages with bears or bunnies. Now the Line messaging app says Americans are getting in on the sticker phenomenon too.

Japan's Line Corp., which is trying to popularize its messaging app in the U.S., amid tough competition, launched a contest for artists to design new stickers, with people voting for winners.

Line says the U.S.-focused contest brought in more than 10,000 sticker submissions and 500 million votes since it was launched in late September, in partnership with GIF search engine and artist community Giphy. (Giphy says it's still processing details on the huge voting number -- for example, how many repeat voters there were. It says it blocked bots.)

And it remains to be seen how many people will sign up for Line through the sticker contest, since voting has taken place on the web and migrates to Line next month, ahead of the winner's announcement on Dec. 23. (A couple of spazzy animated cats are among the favorites.)

But Line, which emphasizes stickers to differentiate itself from other messaging apps, says the response exceeded its expectations.

"It shows the popularity of emojis and stickers here in the U.S., although they originated in Japan," said Jeanie Han, Line CEO Euro-Americas.

As a way to show feelings, stickers are getting fancier. Brands have adopted them, especially in Asia (not so much yet in the U.S., though Line offered Linkin Park and Family Guy stickers for U.S. users.) There's also an automated suggestion feature on Line texting, "so if you type in the word 'cool,' you'll see a set of stickers automatically that convey 'cool,'" Ms. Han said. "If you say 'pizza' a picture of pizza will come up and you click on that. We have more than 40,000 stickers and emojis. That's a lot to choose from. We do a lot of thinking for you."

There's weightier content on Line, too, of course. The Wall Street Journal launched an account last Thursday, and it already has more than 137,000 initial users internationally.

The contenders
More than 25 million registered Line users are in the U.S., but Line won't say how many are active. Line has targeted past ads at the U.S. Hispanic market, perhaps in hopes that free messaging and calls would appeal to people with families across borders. It's already made inroads in Latin America.

Chat apps have been a tougher sell in the U.S., where people have access to unlimited messaging and free in-network messaging, said Julie Ask, Forrester Research VP-principal analyst for e-business and channel strategy. "IM apps didn't take root early on because there wasn't a price advantage associated with using them," she said. Success, she said, hinges on the "network effect," with family and friends signing on.

Messaging apps worldwide, including Facebook-owned WhatsApp and Tencent's WeChat, are competing against each other for new users and markets. Line, founded in 2011 by a Japanese subsidiary of South Korea's Naver Corp., is smaller by comparison, with 170 million monthly active users out of a total base of 560 million. But it's being watched because it makes money, mostly from games, but also from stickers.

Line was the top-grossing app worldwide for iOS and GooglePlay combined in October, according to AppAnnie. The Line app made $192 million in the third quarter, more than double the year-earlier period. (Line had been weighing a plan to go public this year in the U.S. and Japan but decided to wait.)

In the U.S. Line is focusing on building its user base and engagement instead of on monetization. Beyond stickers, the company is launching a pop-up store in Times Square in New York on Dec. 10, selling its signature bear and bunny characters as plush toys and on mugs.