Kik CEO: “Hey internet are you listening? Messaging has peaked”

It has certainly been an interesting month for messaging apps in the U.S.

Around the same time the New York Times penned its zeitgeist proclamation that messaging apps like Snapchat will become hubs of content and commerce like China’s WeChat, we learned from Comscore that these apps have plateaued in the U.S. in terms of growth. The companies are still attracting new users, but the rate of adoption is slowing in the 18+ crowd.

Right on schedule, Snapchat launched its Discover media feature this week, showcasing content from companies like CNN and Vice in a big departure from its former chatting focused strategy. Was Snapchat leaving messaging behind?

Kik CEO Ted Livingston, one of Snapchat’s biggest messaging competitors in the U.S., has been wondering the same thing. Although the apps is ranked sixth in U.S. social networking apps by iOS download, and 26th in apps overall, Kik is also struggling from a slowdown in growth.

I caught up with Livingston to get his take on what’s happening in the U.S. messaging app world, what he thinks of Snapchat’s Discover tool, and whether a “WeChat of the West” is still possible. What follows has been edited for length, order, and clarity.

Kik just hit 200 million registered users, but the Comscore data showed Kik –and all the other messaging apps — have flatlined in terms of growth. What did you think of that?

I can tell you from Kik’s perspective, we’re not growing as fast in the U.S. as we were in the past. I can tell you it’s not bullshit. We were very relieved to see [the Comscore data]. We were thinking maybe there’s something wrong with just us, but it’s everyone. Hey internet are you listening? Messaging has peaked!

What do you think is happening? Is messaging not actually the future of social media?

App adoption in general is plateauing in the U.S. On top of that smart phone adoption has plateaued in the U.S.

Chat in the West is a commodity. When a 15-year-old kid says, ‘Can we chat on Kik mom?’ Mom is like, ‘No, why would I?’

For us that’s where the [WeChat-like] platform play starts making sense. One you have critical density among youth and you have these non-commodity services on top of chat, teens will bring in everyone else they know. They’ll bring in parents because they need to buy something for them, or a friend because they need them to plan events. The platform may become a ticket to the rest of the demographic.

So that’s where the future growth will come from?

Yes.

How does the plateau impact your plans in the present?

In a world where we are the only one plateauing, then we have the worst strategy. We’ve got to figure out how to keep up with everyone else.

When everyone is plateauing the question is what do we do now?

On that note, what do you think of Snapchat’s Discover? Is this the beginning of its big WeChat play?

Now it’s less about connecting with your friends as following brands. I’m like, ‘Oh shit, they’re just becoming a media company?’

Some have argued that media is just their first step in becoming a portal to other experiences, like gaming or personal budgeting apps.

I would say it’s definitely a step to becoming a platform…a broadcast platform (as opposed to a messaging platform). Snapchat started somewhere in between Kik and Instagram: private broadcast. But with the Stories feature they have gone more and more towards broadcast. So they are now a broadcast tool.

What is the best content to go from a broadcast tool to broadcast platform? To me it’s media. Makes complete sense.

Did you see that coming?

I did not, that’s not what I would’ve done. To me it’s very relieving because it takes some pressure off us. A messenger by itself is extremely difficult to monetize and it always has been in history. On the other side it’s brutally simple to figure out how to monetize a broadcast network like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and now Snapchat.

Maybe [Snapchat] has a great answer [with Discover] but it takes them further away from being the operating system that WeChat has been.

Bebo attempts the near-impossible: A comeback

Remember the popular ’90s social networking app Bebo? Yeah, me neither.

The Facebook predecessor, which dominated British social networking for awhile, sold to AOL for $850 million in 2008. The corporate behemoth wasted no time at all in killing it.

But Bebo will not go softly into that dark night. In July of 2013, founder Michael Birch, with the help of his business wingman Shaan Puri, bought back the brand for a pittance of what he sold it for. Last week, he relaunched it.

The new Bebo is a whole new beast. Gone is the social network of yore, and in its place is — what else? — a chatting application.

Bebo is now all about the custom avatar, letting you pick from a range of hair styles, colors, skin tones, glasses, clothing, and accessories. Then when you chat with a friend on the app you can animate your avatar using hashtags. Check me and Product Hunt founder Ryan Hoover in #goddamnit, #chucknorris, #Snapchat #firstworldproblems #ohsnap and #hashtags. There’s no one set list of hashtag illustration options — you have to play with the app to figure out what you can animate. But the options seemed endless.

Clockwise from top left: #goddamnit, #ChuckNorris, #Snapchat, #firstworldproblems, #OhSnap, and #hashtags

Clockwise from top left: #goddamnit, #ChuckNorris, #Snapchat, #firstworldproblems, #OhSnap, and #hashtags

Within minutes of chatting with Hoover, I started feeling unnaturally fond of my avatar, like she was my little sister in the cartoon dimension or something. One of my favorite features was a custom emoji keyboard that automatically populated in the app, turning regular winky faces and smirks into an approximation of your own face. I wish they’d break it out into a third-party keyboard that integrates with regular iOS 8 messaging.

carmelemojisIt’s easy to dismiss Bebo as yet another frivolous first world app. And it totally is. But the app gives chatting an element of personalization, emotion, and imagery.

It could do for messaging what the emoticon did for text: Add a layer of sentiment that was previously hard to translate. Given that we’re moving to an increasingly chat centric world, that matters.

But that’s only if you dream big for Bebo. In reality, the app will struggle to convince people to download it in this noisy app environment. There’s a cognitive barrier to the conversations themselves, where you feel the need to conjure up witty hashtags in the hopes they’ll turn into funny pictures. In other words, it’s not an entirely natural way to chat.

Could it overcome those problems and revamp the Bebo brand? I guess we’ll see; after all, #YOLO.

The #YOLO animation on Bebo

The #YOLO animation on Bebo

Kik’s new hashtags reveal the potential of a chat network

Kik continues to ship new features for its chatting application. Following on the heels of Promoted Chats and its in-app browser comes the hashtag. It’s an easy way to create a group chat and invite people to join it within the Kik app. You send them the hashtag name (like #SFSoccerMoms or #CollegeDebateFriends). When they click it they’re taken to a group chatting page, which allows up to 50 participants.

“It’s a way to let you be whoever you want to be, with whoever wants to talk to you,” Kik CEO Ted Livingston wrote in a blog post announcing it. “It’s a social network on your terms.”

Kik’s group hashtag isn’t news that will particularly excite many people over the age of 25 (Kik’s prime demographic is under that age). But it’s a compelling feature, if only because of what it represents.

Group hashtags offer a rudimentary look of what could constitute a social network focused on “chatting.”

It’s almost a Path-like feature, recreating the intimacy of the Facebook of yore. With a chat cap of 50 people, it keeps conversations to smaller, more contextual groups. You don’t have to worry about sharing the details of your weekend with the world, trying to whitewash it for grandma, while simultaneously entertaining your friends. Instead, you can embody your particular sense of self with each individual group.

Group chatting is nothing new of course, and as a standalone feature, it’s not a company. But in conjunction with Kik’s other features, like individual messaging, promoted chats, and an in-app browser, the group hashtag element has great promise. It allows users to communicate easily, without the hassle of an administrator having to invite select members. It provides the same kind of thematic discovery and social organization that hashtags do on Twitter, for tracking news events, or on Instagram, for exploring similar images.

This is what a social network with a core of texting, instead of a newsfeed, could look like.

Animated Gif showing how Kik's hashtags feature works

Animated Gif showing how Kik’s hashtags feature works

 

 

 

 

 

The next WeChat is hiding in Canada and eyeing the U.S.

Four years since its launch, Kik is positioning itself as America’s version of WeChat, the messaging behemoth of China. It believes it has the right product (text messaging, the old-fashioned kind) and the right audience (almost half of U.S. youth) to become a proper mobile first platform.