"We're paving the road" - Viber on user engagement, a feeling of community, and ads

Tyrone Stewart

Tyrone Stewart talks to Cristina Constandache, VP of global partnerships at Rakuten Viber, about the company's approach to advertising, user engagement, and partnerships.

Cristina Constandache ViberMessaging apps are big business and many of them have moved into providing far more services for users beyond traditional peer-to-peer messaging, such as chatbots and banking services. This move from messaging apps into becoming the Swiss army knives of the app market has seen the number of app users grow to around 2.01bn and is expected to reach 2.48bn by 2021, according to Statista.

One app that reaches a large number of those using messaging apps globally is Viber. The cross-platform, community-focused instant messaging platform boasts over 1bn users and is the most used messaging app in Russia, as well as being hugely popular in the Middle East.

“If you look at industry level, messaging apps are becoming the latest browser. And you see, on average, that users are using four or five messaging apps, which means there is room for everybody,” says Cristina Constandache, VP of global partnerships at Rakuten Viber. “Where Viber is going is creating a sense of community and creating an engagement around people – whether they know each other or not – that have the same passion, the same goal, the same interest.”

Part of a community
The idea of community is massive part of Viber’s play in the messaging app space. It has formed partnerships with the likes of FC Barcelona, Olympique Marseille, and the Golden State Warriors (GSW), as well as singers like Shakira, to connect people with things in common. And, earlier this year, it introduced a group chat feature for up to 1bn people called Communities – which was created because “people on messaging apps are going beyond just one-to-one messaging and want to engage in a more social aspect,” according to Constandache.

With the combination of big names like Barcelona and the Warriors and a community-focused approach, Viber hopes to make the messaging environment a truly social one.

“We started with sport because sport unites people in more ways than one, and FC Barcelona and the Warriors are huge names out there. We see a common interest and we see users actively engaging with the content that they are receiving,” says Constandache. “From there, it’s just understanding what unites people and what makes them excited and giving it back. It doesn’t take away from the main purposes of a messaging app, it’s just adding to that experience and it’s allowing them to engage in a one-to-many dialogue, as opposed to being restricted only to one-to-one.

“I would say that Communities is going to be the main differentiator amongst the other messaging apps. I believe that this idea of engaging with groups and offering them content to exchange is going to spread across the other messaging apps as well.”

Vibing with your audience
With all these users taking advantage of the social aspects of the app, it provides an opportunity for advertisers to reach users in a more personalised manner.

The app gives advertisers the opportunity to go for generic advertising – such as display – or look toward other avenues like stickers, chatbots, and chat extensions for greater segmentation of the audience.

As seen over the last 12 or so months, chatbots have become the go-to for many brands looking to connect with their customers in a more efficient and equally beneficial way. They also enable brands to go “outside of the generic targeting space into the one-to-one communication” and provide direct access to the consumer.

“The chatbots, despite the fact they are still new, and a lot of advertisers are trying to fine-tune their usage, ultimately give you the opportunity to not only qualify the user but also match specific needs that the user may have – both in the utility, transactional, promotional space – so it’s going across the board. But for that, we need to make the user aware that he’s part of this and he has chosen to engage.

“Then you have to be smart about it. If you’re going to be launching the chatbot just to push promotional messages, it’s never going to work because the user might have different needs, so it’s up to you to open a dialogue and understand what the user wants and what he expects from your brand and then fulfil his needs.”

Dw, it's encrypted
Of course, when dealing with personalised advertising the questions surrounding personal data always surface. In Viber’s case, it has no need to worry about data issues – because messages are end-to-end encrypted, and no data is stored or sold to third parties.

With end-to-end encryption and lack of storage of data or messages, Viber targets users with advertising based more so on their behaviours than any solid data points.

“When you’re going into the space of chatbots, stickers, and communities this where you basically have the users opt-in. And the user doesn’t give you any access to data because when you sign up to Viber you can just give a name and your phone number,” says Constandache.

“Based on what the user is willing to tell us, that’s how we serve them promotional messages or advertising. We don’t store the data, we don’t syndicate the data, we don’t sell the data, we don’t buy any third-party and match the profiles – so, it’s all in the user’s hands. With GDPR, obviously, all of these things are now taken to the next level. But we wouldn’t be able to use any of the data that we collect or have access to on the user.

“Unlike the social networks, where you have access to their life online, for us it’s not PII. For us, it’s behavioural, to maybe understand if they are into fashion, if they are into automotive, if they are into travel – but none of this is personal data.”

Got that vibe
Viber’s focus on communities, lack of data, and keeping messages safe, all points to its focus on user engagement, as opposed to marketing. This is further reflected in its partnerships banks, utility companies, and the aforementioned Barcelona, GSW, Marseille, and Shakira.

“Integrations that we are excited about are the likes of banks, utilities companies, the likes of FC Barcelona, and Shakira where you’re offering the users exclusive content that they can’t find anywhere else but on Viber, and you’re giving them a channel that they can chat in real-time with people that they follow – be it singers or athletes,” says Constandache.

“It’s more about finding the middle ground between utility and marketing, but the most important part remains the utility. It’s really the user engagement that is driving all our partnerships.”

Looking ahead, Viber will look to continue with its focus on user engagement and continue to dive even deeper into ways for users to engage – whether that be with brand chatbots powered by partnerships with companies like Sprinklr, or with each other through social gaming powered by Gamee.

We can expect to see user engagement “evolve as we know it” and Viber wants to be the platform that is showing the rest how it’s done through this evolution.

“Having a tool, from a brand perspective, to be in direct communication with users, but also offering the same brand the opportunity to communicate to like-minded audiences is incredibly important and it’s very relevant,” says Constandache.

“We need to be very careful and we need to educate the market on how to not overdo it and to make the user stays at the heart of the exchange, because irrespective of what happens, irrespective of the nature of the partnerships, for us at Viber it’s users at heart.

“So, user engagement I would say is the most exciting feature that we are working on and understanding how to add value to the user experience in a messaging app, because today there aren’t too many ways even from our competitors. It’s effectively building the road… We’re paving the road.”