The world keeps changing. New technologies and new ways of using them keep cropping up. And every time something new and different emerges, the questions that brands have to grapple with are pretty much the same. Will it have legs? Can we use it? How can we use it? When should we start using it? And what impact will it have on the existing technology platforms and channels that we’re already using to reach our customers?
It’s time for brands to start asking those questions about OTT messaging platforms. Known for their massive audiences and strong customer retention, these platforms are now beginning to make it easier for third-party brands to take advantage of their reach and scale to effectively reach, engage, and monetize new and existing customers. But with many marketers still playing catch-up when it comes to mobile apps and messaging, this compelling new space for customer engagement hasn’t received the time and attention from brands that it deserves.
OTT stands for “Over-the-Top.” Simple? Not really. It is the preferred term for describing technologies that layer on top of other proprietary information delivery systems. Originally, OTT was used to describe digital media services (such as Netflix) that allow users to view movies, TV shows, and other content without the involvement of traditional media providers like TV networks and cable providers. But over time, use of the term has broadened to include messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger that allow users to communicate with with friends, family, and others without using their mobile devices’ built-in text messaging capabilities.
OTT messaging platforms are strongly associated with mobile. That’s partly because many of them began life as messaging apps (though some, like Facebook Messenger, began as a web-based service) and partly because the rise of mobile has meant that people are increasingly using these platforms on their mobile devices.
But because so many of these messaging services exist as both mobile apps and desktop-friendly websites, OTT messaging effectively straddles both mobile and desktop. That allows these services to support a seamless, platform-agnostic customer experience that makes it easy for users to reach the people they’re looking to reach without concern for what device they’re on.
China’s been leading the way. WeChat, China’s premier OTT messaging platform, was one of the first to allow users to make purchases and interact with third-party brands within its platform and the rest of the space has been playing catch-up ever since. In particular, Facebook Messenger’s announcement earlier this year that it would open up its platform to third-party chatbots has brought a lot more attention to the space and encouraged brands big and small to start thinking about how to take advantage of these sorts of platforms as part of their customer engagement strategies.
Third party brands are taking advantage of this because of the platform economy. For most OTT messaging firms, getting third-party brands to move a significant amount of their customer engagement activities to their platform can pay major dividends. These platforms prosper when users engage extensively and regularly with their app or website, making it easier to monetize their audience via advertising and other strategies.
If those users can, for instance, buy a shirt from H&M (or order pizza from Domino’s or watch a news report from ABC News) within a platform instead of leaving for an outside website, it’s easier to encourage those users to stay within the platform ecosystem for longer and to check back more often. And once those users are used to interacting with third-party brands through an OTT messaging platform, that creates opportunities for the platforms to further monetize their user bases by charging those brands for access.
And brands have a chance to target a large number of people. Take a look at these active user numbers for some of the best known OTT messaging platforms and you’ll get a sense of the possibilities that a lot of third-party brands see in this space:
WhatsApp: 1 billion
Facebook Messenger: 1 billion
WeChat: 762 million
Line: 218 million
In today’s highly digital distraction-filled world, one of the biggest challenges that brands face is getting and holding the attention of current and potential customers long enough to convince them to take action—whether that’s visiting their website, downloading their app, joining their email list, or making a purchase. Apps can be a powerful tool for customer engagement, but with the average user spending 80% of their mobile app time in only their favorite three apps, it’s becoming harder to get all but the most-engaged members of your audience to consistently interact with your app. By leveraging the massive, highly engaged audience that these platforms hold, third-party brands can grasp opportunities to reach new customers and strengthen relationships with existing customers that they wouldn’t otherwise have.
I would love to give you a easy solution on how to use it. But the challenge is, there’s no single way to do it. Each one of these OTT messaging services has its own unique rules and restrictions for third-party brands looking to use its platform, and if you go in with the idea that you can build a single comprehensive approach for this space, you’re likely to be disappointed.
While OTT messaging platforms present a real opportunity for brands to reach and engage their customers, it’s important to be realistic about what’s currently possible. When chatbots first entered the wider marketing conversation this spring following Facebook’s F8 event, a lot of the coverage focused on the possibility of truly human-like conversations between AI-powered chatbots and consumers. That’s not the reality right now. On all three of the platforms we looked at, customer/brand interactions were either extremely simple, powered by pre-selected responses that customers had to choose from, or marked by frequent confusion when chatbots failed to glean what customers were asking. That doesn’t necessarily make for a bad overall user experience—in fact, the slightly stilted nature of the interactions can be charming, the way that a goofy GIF can be charming—but it won’t be for everyone.
As they currently stand, the simple user-initiated nature of the interactions on these platforms means that they’re not going to replace your current engagement marketing efforts on mobile and desktop anytime soon. And even if they could, brands would be wise not to center the entirety of their marketing strategy around platforms that they have limited control over; balance is key here.
Ultimately, these platforms are only valuable to marketers if they can be used to reach customers in effective ways. That may mean that one platform will work well for your particular brand because of the audience it possesses or the engagement opportunities it offers, while other platforms won’t.
This is a new space, a new opportunity, and experimentation is to be expected and welcomed. Take the time now to think about how these platforms could be useful to your marketing efforts; you’ll be better prepared to take advantage of this opportunity when the time comes.
That being said, one of the big lessons we’ve learned in mobile will be applicable here, too. Remember that your customers are individuals with individual preferences and needs—and treat them accordingly, to the extent that technology allows. That’s how you build the sort of sustainable customer-brand relationships that lead to real, long-term success. Good luck.
Check out my related post: What is digital marketing?