Subway commuters in New York and Boston might notice something unusual in the coming weeks: Entire stations decked out in advertising for an app. Messaging service Viber, which has 664 million users worldwide, but still trails behind competitors in the United States, wants to crack the American market.
In its new “Chat” campaign–aimed at college students, a key American market–Viber is wrapping advertising in the West 4th Street subway station in Manhattan and the Harvard and Boston Park Street stations on the Boston T.
Other aspects of the campaign include partnerships with Spotify, The Fader, and Paper magazine. Viber is also developing new functionality in their app for 2016 that is aimed at American users. The company would not discuss it on the record at press time.
The service, which competes with rivals such as WhatsApp and Kik Messenger, is a shining example of the globalization of the app world. It was founded by four Israeli entrepreneurs and still based in Tel Aviv, acquired by Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten last year for $900 million, and boasts a British chief marketing officer responsible for its U.S. campaign. For Scott Nelson, head of Viber North America, his company’s goal is simple: to boost its American profile.
In North America, Viber has the advantage of being a lesser-known app that has name recognition while remaining a relatively blank slate. “When I joined the company, the first thing we did was talk to users about the mobile messaging app base,” Nelson says. “When we asked about Viber, 90% of everyone we talked to had a smile come across their face, or a quick smirk,” he recalls, “They had a visceral reaction in a good way to Viber, and always had a good experience,” says Nelson, adding, “I’m not just saying that as a marketer.”
Both Line and WeChat have made ambitious efforts to build an American audience in 2015, and the Canadian firm behind Kik Messenger received a $50 million cash infusion from China’s Tencent earlier this year to become “the WeChat of the West.”
Parent company Rakuten’s monetization strategy is still modest. The company makes money from selling sticker packs to users, but most other functionality remains free. Their push on the subway and in magazines is essentially a way to quickly build up their audience base and compete with bigger players.
Although each of these apps is aiming for very different audiences and demographics, for Viber and its competition to succeed, they must identify the areas where Facebook and Snapchat have weaknesses and then peddle a solution that appeals to a large U.S. audience.
Viber, like its competitors, faces one huge hurdle in its plan to crack the American market: There’s simply less demand for messaging apps. The cheap and abundant text-message packages of American mobile carriers are very much an exception worldwide. In many other countries, SMS messages are still costly to send and receive in bulk. That helped Viber, WhatsApp, and Kik roll out to global prominence as app substitutes for expensive text messaging.
Likewise, while one of Viber’s biggest global growth areas has been international VoIP calling as a Skype substitute, this is also less of a concern for the United States.
“It’s fair to say American users use Viber differently,” Nelson tells Fast Company. He also points out that while their core global user base is 24-32, American users skew in the 18-24 range.
Viber’s American campaign, a first for a company that previously relied on organic growth, targets that college demographic. “It’s a reappraisal of the product. One of the objectives around Chat is that while users in the United States use Viber for free calling and texting, they also might talk to bloggers on it, play games, or send stickers.”
That’s why Viber is focusing on group chat capabilities and Reddit/ProductHunt-style questions and answers with brands and names including YesJulz, Alec Monopoly, Christmas Abbott, Sincerely Jules, Barclays Center, The Infatuation, and Mashable.
Nelson adds that YesJulz, a Miami-based “Snapchat star” who has carved a lucrative niche as a social media ambassador for brands, visits various college campuses to promote Viber at tailgate parties and other events.
In this way, Viber is positioned as a college student-friendly communications platform that’s more open than Snapchat, less anonymous than Yik Yak, and with far fewer parents than Facebook.