Messaging app Viber is today announcing a new feature that taps into the bigger trend of messaging apps becoming multi-functional platforms, and also its ownership by e-commerce company Rakuten. Viber will start to present users with items for sale, inspired by your current chat, when you press a small shopping bag icon at the bottom of the screen and search for items.
The feature is due to go live in the U.S. first, on March 6, before Viber looks to roll it out to other markets. It will kick off with a selection of items covering a range of categories — from electronics and home goods through to fashion — from Rakuten’s own Rakuten.com, as well as items curated by some 30 other brands.
The full list is not being made public yet, but Djamel Agaoua, the company’s new CEO, told me that one of them will be the department store Macy’s. There will also be an area in the shopping feature dedicated to “deals” — meaning potential partnerships with firms like Groupon, too.
(One company that is not coming soon to the platform, however, is Pinterest: the “visual” social network counts Viber’s owner Rakuten as a significant investor, and while there would appear to be an obvious affinity between Viber and Pinterest — which has built its whole business around a picture-based ‘storefront’ of sorts — for now all that Agaoua would say is that Viber would love to work with them in the future, but that nothing is going on right now.)
Initially the shopping feature will not be letting users make purchases directly on Viber itself — they will either be redirected to the relevant page in a brand’s app via a deeplink, or to a mobile website if the app is not installed — but Agaoua told me that this is definitely the plan longer term.
“We will do purchasing in Viber eventually, but we decided to launch it this way to learn more about how it is used, and to get it out there as soon as possible,” he said. That’s not to say this was a quick turnaround: Viber has been talking about more alignment with its owner Rakuten and tapping into its commerce expertise for new Viber features for years.
But perhaps the time is most ripe now. This is the latest feature from Viber in a series of updates it’s been making over the last several months to bring it up to speed with the rest of the messaging app pack in terms of functionality, but also as a route to making revenues as a business.
“We are looking to transform Viber into a platform without turning to ‘stupid’ advertising,” Agaoua said in an interview. By this, he did not mean all ads are stupid, but that there are many intrusive formats like pop-ups that are not working well, and that there are better ways to sell to users. “We think that Viber is a natural place for commerce, whether it is shopping or booking restaurants. Every subject that you discuss with your friends, you should be able to get more information about it without leaving the app.”
That’s not to say that Viber’s competitors have resorted to ads either. Apps like Messenger, WeChat and Line have been adding a number of features to take their services well beyond that of simple text and picture messaging to make them more useful and more used.
Most notably, Facebook has opened up Messenger as a bot platform, where dozens of third party developers are creating conversational, AI-based assistants to help users buy things, get information and transfer money. WeChat and Line have been enhancing their respective messaging services with additional features like games and purchasing options for years, which has helped them bring in significant revenues and extended user engagement.
One of Viber’s more recent updates was Chat Extensions — which is effectively a search feature that lets users, while in the middle of a conversation with a contact, call up a third-party service to get reference information (eg via Wikipedia) or a GIF (eg through Giphy), and more.
The shopping extension getting announced today, in fact, will sit alongside the Chat Extension: both are called up by way of icons (shopping bag and “@” symbol, respectively) that provide their respective info in the area on the screen where the keyboard might otherwise be.
Using Viber as a shopping platform is one more development on the theme of social commerce. There was a lot of hope placed on this area by many other companies although not all efforts have proven to be successful.
Twitter tried and ultimately shuttered its in-stream shopping efforts; Facebook has had a couple of attempts with services like Gifts that have not worked out too well, although more recent (and fairly aggressive) efforts to turn its Groups into sales platforms at least seem to be seeing a lot of activity.
This will differ from previous e-commerce rollouts in another way, too. A lot of e-commerce has a huge big data element to it — where the companies selling you things are also sucking up a ton of data about how you and consumers in general behave online. Bhis is something that Viber expressly will not be doing. As the chats are always encrypted, it means that Viber doesn’t have access to anything that is being said.
“We can’t use the conversations in any way,” he said. The keywords that trigger items for sale do only that, and only when you’ve entered them into the shopping extension, so it means that Viber doesn’t amass that data, which if you are a cynic or opportunist you may see as a lost opportunity; or if you are a privacy advocate, may be encouraged to hear.
“We could imagine in the future to search a product and have as an opt-in your conversation history as an option for helping fine tune what you are presented, but right now we think privacy is more important so we didn’t want to break that wall,” he said.
While Rakuten will not be the sole partner for what Viber offers through its shopping portal — as Agaoua describes it, the Japanese marketplace, known as the “Amazon of Japan”, is simply not as popular everywhere that Viber exists — the company played a big role in building the feature.
Agaoua said that Rakuten “lent Viber some resources to build the product together.” That includes working with the company’s Rakuten Marketing division to build the search engine behind the extension and the rest of the technical back end, so that essentially all that the commerce partners need to do is to provide the curated catalog.
In terms of the business deal behind the service, Agaoua said that for now Rakuten will get a cost-per-click or cost-per-purchase fee, in other words an affiliation marketing percentage, on each piece of traffic or transaction it sends to the commerce brands. When it eventually creates a service to control the transaction, and if the commerce partners use it, it will likely to be able to increase its commission to transaction fees, too.
But for now, the actual sales aspect seems to still be in the air as Viber and its partners figure out how best to utilise this new feature. Agaoua notes that part of the attraction for companies to partner with it to sell items is that it will get access to an engaged audience of users in a key demographic.
In the U.S., he said that its biggest proportion of users, 50%, are between 25 and 35 and skew female at 55% women. The company does not break out its active user numbers but has previously said that there have been 800 million downloads of the app to date.