There’s a reason the word “messunderstanding”—a misunderstanding in a text message exchange—has made its way into the arbiter of slang, Urban Dictionary. When you can’t see someone’s face or hear their voice, it is easy to misinterpret tone or read incorrectly between the lines.
“When we started communicating online, we lost something essential to communication. We lost empathy, and with it, the ability to express ourselves properly,” says Travis Montaque, founder and CEO of Holler, a tech brand with a fun, effective way to fill this communication gap.
Holler’s free app integration gives users access to animated stickers they can share in text messages, chat apps, or wherever conversations are happening—from online dating apps to Venmo, Holler’s newest partner. The stickers are nuanced and poignant. A purple, pensive dog resting his head upon a tightly clenched paw conveys a sense of sadness and introspection that is hard to put into words. Simone, one of Holler’s recurring characters, conveys aspirational confidence as she sinks, straight-faced, into a split while opening a paper fan that says “slay.”
But the stickers are not the full story. Holler knows how to recommend the right ones, at the right time, using proprietary artificial intelligence (AI). The app currently delivers more than 800 million content recommendations per day, up from 20 million in February 2019. Those recommendations include branded stickers, a novel marketing solution companies such as Snickers, Ikea, and Fox are leveraging to join user conversations in an authentic, playful way.
Earning a spot on Fast Company’s “Most Innovative Companies” list is the latest in a long list of recognitions for Montaque. He founded his first company when he was in college: Splyst, an app that used machine learning to deliver personalized news and video content. While brainstorming ways to increase engagement, Montaque hypothesized people would share more content if they didn’t need to add text. (Because content makes you feel a certain way, but sometimes you can’t find the words.) In 2014, years before Facebook Reactions, he replaced text with 12 emojis, and sure enough, engagement skyrocketed.
Montaque took note, building a team of scientists, engineers, and animators to “dig into the phenomenon of visual communication.” Later that year, Splyst became Emogi, a content recommendation engine for stickers. They rebranded in August 2019 to convey they are about more than emojis. When something is missing, what do you do? You holler. Holler is on a mission to deliver what is missing from digital conversations.
Montaque credits innovation to a knack for quick iteration, a company-held belief that ideas can come from anywhere, and the strength of the interdisciplinary team. Holler animators have worked at General Mills, Disney, Nickelodeon, and Cartoon Network. The AI team includes leaders from NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense. This combination is what makes the marketing product successful. Branded stickers are shared four times more than regular content, a testament to the creative side and also the tech-side’s ability to create the right content and deliver it at the right moments.
There are more than stickers on the horizon, hints Montaque. Consumers have many needs in messaging, and Holler intends to meet them. “We will continue to use a blend of AI and creativity to transform the conversation experiences people have every day.”