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Answering the call to greater engagement (and revenues): WhatsApp, WeChat and chatbots

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’39 Steps’ to more revenues

Not that we like to dwell on “I told you so” situations, but Zeitgeist has been rambling on about the missed opportunities of WhatsApp – relative to its Asian counterparts like Line and WeChat – for at least a year now. The platform, owned by Facebook, has had a real opportunity to borrow a page from its analogous peers in the East, particularly with regard to B2C opportunities, for some time now. It was hugely gratifying therefore when last week it was announced that WhatsApp will allow businesses to send messages to users of the platform.

Whatappening in business

The Financial Times suggests example messages along the lines of “fraud alerts from banks and updates from airlines on delayed flights”. It’s about random companies sending you somewhat-tailored messages. Snore. The potential here is so much more monumental. Think of the potential for a fast-food service, or a news publisher (we said think; we’re not going to do all your work for you). What the platform won’t do is start serving banner ads in the app. Firstly because Facebook surely acknowledge what a horrendous impact this would have on UX; secondly because WhatsApp strongly pushes their e2e encryption feature.

Interestingly, the way this will work is that Facebook will get access to your phone number (if you haven’t succumbed to their pleas asking for it already). It will formalise the link between your old-school Facebook account and your not so-old-school-but-not-quite-Snapchat-either WhatsApp account, as suggested by New York magazine. Apparently Facebook will also be able to offer you friend suggestions. Whew, yeah because that’s a tool I really am concerned about and wish was more useful and efficient.

The potential we referred to earlier (we’re still not going to do all your work for you) is around chatbots. Chatbots and this new era for WhatsApp surely make sense. And people are clamouring for them. According to eMarketer’s data from May, nearly 50% of UK internet users say they would use a chatbot to obtain quick emergency answers if the option were available. About 4 in 10 also said they would use a chatbot to forward a question or request to an appropriate human.

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Whatsappening in the rest of the world

But to say WhatsApp has been missing the boat in terms of additional data insight or revenue streams outside Western markets is a touch unfair. As the FT detailed at the beginning of the month,

“Whether you are in the market for a nicely fattened goat from the United Arab Emirates or freshly caught fish in the port of Mangalore in India, you can place your order on WhatsApp”

Indeed, it seems though outside Western markets the app is used in an entirely different way. Even within Europe there are differences. In Spain it is extremely common to make and receive calls over WhatsApp. In the UK, many a caller has been befuddled by my attempts to reach them via the platform. The likes of WhatsApp though are particularly crucial in emerging markets like India, where many citizens have never registered for and may never now register for an email address. If this sounds ludicrous, it means you’re old. It’s why the aforementioned pleas from Facebook for your phone number, why Twitter occasionally does screen takeovers when you open the app asking for it, and why in a recent project engagement I managed, we recommended a major international film and TV broadcasting company that they do the same for their own login feature. The data below for emerging markets shows the astounding reach WhatsApp has managed (and the foresight in its purchase by Zuck):

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While Benedict Evans of Andreessen Horowitz says the platform has struggled to acquire new customers for businesses versus Facebook and Instagram, it undoubtedly has been successful in strengthening relationships with existing customers. This is fine in Zeitgeist’s eyes. Retention is cheaper than acquisition; if you create a good CX you don’t need to worry about getting new customers. The emphasis should be on engendering loyalty, not on scrambling to reach the newbies all the time.

WeChat’s inimitable template

At the start of the piece we mentioned China’s WeChat (or Weixin) messaging platform, of which Zeitgeist is a big fan. Others are too, which is why by some estimates it’s worth $80bn. One of the advantages inherent in both WeChat and WhatsApp is that users have naturally gravitated to these applications without the need for them to be incentivised or “walled garden”ed into such interaction. And such engagement doesn’t start before you’re old enough to even lift a mobile device, again, you’re too old. As The Economist detailed in a piece earlier this month,

“[Four year-old Yu Hui] uses a Mon Mon, an internet-connected device that links through the cloud to the WeChat app. The cuddly critter’s rotund belly disguises a microphone, which Yu Hui uses to send rambling updates and songs to her parents; it lights up when she gets an incoming message back”

For the child’s mother, WeChat has replaced such antiquated features as a voice plan, as well as email. The application also integrates features for business use that mimic that of Slack in the US. According to the article she even uses QR codes to scan business associate profiles more than she uses business cards. QR came a little late to Western markets and despite the intentions of agencies like Ogilvy in the 2010s, has failed to take off. Its owner, Tencent, has used its powerful brand and powerful authentication convince millions to part with their credit card details. The likes of Snapchat and WhatsApp have yet to make the convincing case for this. It is this crucial element that allows the father of said family to use the app for eCommerce, contactless payments in store, utility bills, splitting the bill at restaurants, paying for taxis, paying for food delivery, theatre tickets and hospital appointments, all within the WeChat ecosystem. It is then no surprise that a typical user interacts with the app at least ten times a day.

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Although we mentioned no incentivisation has been necessary, a state-backed campaign last Chinese New Year saw a competition for millions of dollars in return for people vigorously shaking their handset during a TV show, the way to both have the app interact with a TV programme as well as the way for users to make new friends who are also users, according to The Economist, which reported that “punters did so 11 billion times during the show, with 810m shakes a minute recorded at one point”.

McKinsey reported last year that 15% of WeChat users have made a purchase through the platform; data from the same consulting firm this year shows that figure has now more than doubled, to 31%. Can such figures be replicated in the West? Time and culture have led to WeChat’s pervasive effectiveness and dominance. Just like QR codes have never taken off in the West, so SMS and email never took off in China, so there was never a competing platform to ween people off when it came to messaging. What some people had used was Tencent’s messaging platform QQ, the successor of which became WeChat. QQ contacts were easily transferable. Gift-giving idiosyncracies, leveraged and promoted with a big marketing push, as well as online games (from where over half of revenues derive) are both still nascent behaviours and territories for consumers and platforms, respectively, in the West.

Next steps

It’s fascinating of course that none of these apps for a moment consider charging for voice calls; that would anachronistic and simply bizarre. With WhatsApp’s latest announcement, it takes a step in the right direction, opening up additional revenue streams while also trying to develop a more cohesive ecosystem for its user base. Whether users in Western markets will be comfortable with a consolidation of features on one platform – owned by a company that is viewed by some as already having consolidated too much data on them – is an open question, and surely the first hurdle to begin tackling.

UPDATE (30/9/16): While messaging platforms are great, there are other opportunities to consider too. Shazam, the app that was a godsend for Zeitgeist while at university wanting to know what song was playing in the club, has been around for a while. It’s impressive then that is has managed to double its user base in the past two years, continuing its expansion into TV content. Product placement in the US has helped, and Coca-Cola worked with them on a big campaign last year. The company is breaking even for the time since 2011. An interesting platform to consider, for the right partner…

 

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On newspapers – Time (Inc.) for a shift in strategy

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It’s no secret that the publishing industry is struggling mightily as customers shift from paying for physical newspapers and magazines to reading information online, often for free. The shift has caused ruptures among other places at that bastion of French journalism, Le Monde, with the recent exit of the editor as staff rued the switch to online. So-called ‘lad’s mags’, the FHMs and Loaded magazines of the world, have been hit particularly hard, as the family PC and dial-up internet gave way to personal, portable devices and broadband connections, which provided easier access to more salacious content than the likes of Nuts could ever hope to provide. FHM’s monthly circulation is down almost 90% from a 1998 peak, according to the Financial Times. Condé Nast have pushed bravely into the new digital era, launching a comprehensive list of digital editions of its wares when the iPad launched in 2010. More recently, the company launched a new venture, La Maison. In association with Publicis and Google, the idea is to provide luxury goods companies with customer insights as well as content and technology solutions. We’ve often written about the need for more rigorous customer insights in the world of luxury, so it’s refreshing to see Condé Nast innovating and continuing to look beyond newsstand sales. We’ve written about other ways publishers are monetising their content here and here.

Time Warner is not alone then in its struggles for new ways of making money from previously flourishing revenue streams. According to The New York Times, Time Warner will be spinning off its publishing arm, Time Inc., with 90 magazines, 45 websites and $1.3bn in debt. In 2006, the article reports, Time Inc. produced $1bn in earnings, which has now receded to $370m. Revenue has declined in 22 of the last 24 quarters. This kind of move is not new. Rupert Murdoch acted in similar fashion recently when he split up News Corporation, creating 21st Century Fox. But with the publishing side of the business there were some diamonds in the rough for investors to take interest in; a couple of TV companies, as well as of course Dow Jones’ Wall Street Journal, which has been invested in heavily. Conversely, the feeling of the Time Inc spin-off was more one of being put out to pasture, particularly as the company will not have enough money to make any significant acquisitions. Like the turmoil at Le Monde, there have been managerial controversies, as those seeking to shake things up have tried to overcome historical divisions between the sales and editorial teams – something other large business journalism companies are reportedly struggling with – only to be met with frustration.

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Setting that aside, Time Warner moved swiftly. A day later, the FT reported that the company was “finalising an investment” in Vice Media. We have written extensively about Vice previously, here. The company certainly seems to know how to reach fickle millennials, through a combination of interesting, off-beat journalism, content designed to create its own news, as well as compelling video documentaries that take an unusual look at topical subjects. Such an outlook however does not preclude it from partnering with corporations. As a millennial myself, it seems what people look for from those like Vice is authenticity, rather than the vanilla mediocrity arguably offered by others. We don’t mind commercialism as long as it’s transparent. It does not jar then when Intel is a major investor in its ‘content verticals’, or when last year 21st Century Fox invested $70m in the company. This bore fruit for the movie studio most recently in a tie-up promoting the upcoming Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. The sequel takes place 10 years after the 2011 film, and Fox briefed Vice to create three short films that would fill in the gaps. A great ploy, and the result is some compelling content to keep fans engaged in the run-up to the film’s release, particularly in territories where the film opens after the US market. Such activity is far beyond the purview of the traditional newspaper. But this is not necessarily a bad thing. Publishers must face up to the reality that newspapers alone will not deliver enough revenue to be sustainable. Seeking other content revenue streams while engaging in strategic partnerships with other companies looks, for now, to be a winning formula.

UPDATE 08/07/14: When it comes to engaging with millennials, mobile is most definitely the medium of choice. The FT reported today on Cosmopolitan magazine’s 200% surge in web visitors, year on year in May. Fully 69% of page views were from mobile devices (compared to a 25% average for the rest of the web). The publication has also wised up to the type of content this group likes to consume, as well as create. Troy Young, Hearst’s president of digital media, said the new site is “designed for fast creation of content of all types… Posts aren’t just text and pictures. They’re gifs, Tweets, Instagrams.” Mobile will only get the company so far though. PwC thinks US mobile advertising spending will account for only 4.6% of total media and entertainment advertising outlays this year. Cosmo is looking beyond mobile though to “exclusive events or experiences”, perhaps along the same lines as those other businesses are practicing who are looking for additional revenue streams. The article suggests users might “pay to see the first pictures of an occasion like Kanye West’s and Kim Kardashian’s recent wedding”. Beggars can’t be choosers.

UPDATE 10/07/14: Have all these corporate manoeuvres on the part of Time Warner been in the service of making itself appear an attractive acquisition? As the famous and clandestine Sun Valley conference takes place this week, rumours abounded that Google or 21st Century Fox were both interested in buying TW. This according to entertainment industry trade mag Variety, which commented, “Time Warner could be an attractive target. Moreover, unlike Fox or Liberty Media, it is not controlled by a founder or a founder’s family and with a market cap of $63.9 billion it is a relative bargain compared to the Walt Disney Co. and its $151 billion market cap”.

Super Safe Super Bowl

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The Super Bowl, an annual orgy of excess for those seeking to tubthump their products on television, where a 30-second spot can cost up to $4m, is taking an increasingly holistic approach to promotion, using social media to make for a more integrated offering. In the end it was Twitter that came to the fore during this year’s event, when a power cut during the game created a captive audience for savvy brands (such as Oreo) to take advantage of.

It was interesting yesterday to hear the talking heads of CNBC reviewing the success of the advertisements that played during the game (click the headline image for a link to the discussion). Zeitgeist’s thoughts were provoked particularly on the question of whether the risk of outrage from social media backlashes was now so great that advertisers were becoming far more risk-averse than in the past, preferring instead to tug at heartstrings with ads like Budweiser’s, below, which was admittedly Zeitgeist’s favourite.

Out (of pocket) for a byte to eat

August 23, 2010 3 comments

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well”, wrote Virginia Woolf. A friend of Zeitgeist’s is coming to town on Friday for what will surely be a sybaritic weekend. For the first time, Zeitgeist found themselves on Toptable booking dinner at a very nice restaurant nestled in London’s Mayfair district. The reservation came with an offer of 50% off the usual a la carte menu price. What had Zeitgeist done to deserve this? Nothing. So what is in it for the restaurant? See previous answer, perhaps. As any Toptable devotee knows, offers like this are plentiful, and reflect the state of the restaurant industry as a whole, particularly in the premium sector.

Zeitgeist was walking in Notting Hill about eighteen months ago with, as it happens, this same friend. We happened to pass Nicole Farhi’s restaurant, which sits next to a Daylesford Organic. Both were teeming with people literally overflowing into the streets enjoying their expensive brunches. “Credit crunch, what credit crunch?” my observant friend quipped at the time. It was hard to disagree. The numerous plates of food and cups of coffee being consumed by these Chloé- and Zegna-wearing denizens were totally out of sync with the times. Perhaps what these people had been doing though is downtrading. Instead of going out somewhere special for a dinner, they had instead chosen to go somewhere more informal for brunch. Or perhaps instead of going away on holiday for a weekend break, they had decided to stay at home and enjoy the fruits of London. This is an anecdotal example but the argument is supported by the reams of analysis conducted by those boffins at places like Forrester and Datamonitor; JWT’s AnxietyIndex wrote in May “Ostentation is out, practicality is in.” Witness brands like Starbucks and Louis Vuitton.

It’s this lack of ostentation and sense of frugality (which, for the most part, still pervades) that perhaps explains why, writes The Economist, “Visits to posh restaurants in America declined by 15% between May 2008 and May this year… Fast-food restaurants, on the other hand, saw traffic decline only 2%.”. It would be nice to know how a “posh” restaurant is defined, but otherwise it makes for an interesting statement. The decline at both ends of the dining spectrum lends credence to the notion that there is a “cocooning” going on where people are quite happy to order in or to cook their own meals, surrounded by their HDTVs and microwaves. Clearly though it is the high end that is fairing particularly poorly.

The article notes that Restaurant Week – held during the dog days of summer in Manhattan, when the city fills with tourists and any sensible residents have escaped northward – lasts for six weeks this year, and notes that the 21 Club “usually sees its business increase by around 25-40%” during the Week. So, similar to Taste of London, the event must attract those who would not usually consider dining at such a place (for such a price). Are these the customers the restaurant wants though? No mention is made in the article as to retention rates. As pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, (which contains details of several interesting promotions),

“‘Having dollar menus and value menus has become unsustainable, from an operating profit standpoint, so restaurants need to be able to establish consumer continuity with loyalty programs. Instead of getting customers in three or four times per year for special events, they need to get them in two to three times per month,’ says Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of Strategic Resource Group, a consumer consulting firm.”

The industry has had to adapt though as the Internet plays an increasingly dominant role in people’s lives, not only exposing the consumer and restaurant to every bad review detailing every morsel of undercooked food and every supercilious waiter, but also forcing the establishments to adapt to people’s psychology when shopping online, which mostly falls under the category of ‘bargain hunter’. A similar thing has happened with high-end fashion. Members-only sites offering significant discounts on luxury brands have sprung up everywhere. The Economist reports that two of these, Gilt and Rue La La, have begun offering restaurant discounts as well:

“Gilt, for example, recently sold a four-course meal at the Tribeca Grill, a restaurant owned by Robert De Niro, an actor, for $160 (36% off). Shopping sites like these attract image-conscious restaurants, because only the site’s members can see that the restaurant has started to offer leaner prices.”

The other lure for the restaurant in this case is knowing that those whom the offer will be seen by are likely to be a suitable target audience for your establishment; at the very least a more specific one than might be found on somewhere like Toptable. These restaurants are innovating (mostly because they have to). The prospect of drawing crowds is an attractive one. Sites like Groupon offer significant discounts on meals, but which only become active once enough people have signed up to the offer. Foursquare similarly relies on encouraging a group of people doing virtual battle in order to obtain a mayorship that grants them free coffee at Starbucks or free champagne and a great seat at Galvin’s Windows. In the long term, having offers that keep the customer loyal (and accustomed to a consistently-priced menu) will hopefully, for the sake of the restaurants, trump the savage discounting some have become imbroiled in. For Zeitgeist, value-add to the proposition is far more attractive than saving on a regular meal. Let’s hope others think the same.