Last year was about acquiring users, this year will be all about retaining them: Mark Hardy, Viber Global

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Updated: January 20, 2015 5:15:02 AM

Social messaging mobile apps are increasingly becoming more popular than traditional text messages.

Social messaging mobile apps are increasingly becoming more popular than traditional text messages. It is not surprising given that they come free against the SMSs for which customers have to pay. The space, however, has begun to get crowded with Whatsapp, WeChat, Line and homegrown players such as Hike. Another player making fast inroads in the space is Viber Global, the social messaging app owned by Japan’s leading online retailer Rakuten Inc. Launched in December 2013, Viber kept a low profile in the Indian market for some time even as its rivals made noises with their advertising campaigns on mainstream media. It, however, took the traditional route and came up with an interesting campaign last year and has since been making efforts to be seen and heard.

To be sure, the efforts are showing results. A year ago, it had only 16 million users in India. Post its ad campaign, it claims to have seen its user base grow 130%. Mark Hardy, Viber’s global chief marketing officer, who was in India recently, says over the top mobile business is growing fast in India and Viber, which allows its users to send free messages and make free international calls is making its own contribution to grow the space. India, incidentally, is one of the top five countries for Viber in terms of revenue generation, he discloses besides sharing plans for the Indian market with Anushree Bhattacharyya.

Edited excerpts:

How has the OTT services business evolved in the last one year?
The market for mobile based apps, especially the OTT apps business, has never been this colourful. With so much innovation, product development and experimentation happening, everyone is trying to do something interesting at their own level. Today, each player is evolving from being a simple messaging app to being a socially relevant app.

Do you agree that even before the space could evolve fully, it has become crowded already with most players offering more or less similar services and there isn’t much differentiation in offerings?
We have our own story to tell. While Viber is known for free calls or video calls, it is also known for allowing users to send text messages, stickers, or providing social media platform such as Public Chats and games services. Viber as an application is about constantly giving big reasons for people to use it. For example, the introduction of free video calls turned the tide in our favour. This game is also about creating assets by creating more local content through regional stickers, games, etc. Also as a brand Viber is different. It is not the purple version of the blue one or the yellow one. The fact that Viber is a social mobile entertainment platform sets it apart from the rest.
We are interested in sustained and managed growth that will give us a long term business. We are not interested in chasing a first pole position. I wish the local competitors good luck. I think we are all operating in a very interesting space and no doubt they’ll learn from us and so would we.

What are your plans for 2015?
We don’t want to be seen as just another foreign company trying to make a dent in the market. After acquiring new users in 2014, this year we will focus on retaining them. We are constantly listening to our consumers in India and responding with unique features and solutions. For instance, in our effort to offer local content, we introduced a pack of stickers during Diwali last year. The idea was such a hit users that we borrowed it and extended it for the Indian diaspora in the UK. Also we have inked partnership with bloggers, Bollywood actors to ensure that we are able to create content which is not only original but one of its kind. For example, for the launch of our social media platform Public Chat last year, we roped in celebrities such as Sachin Tendulkar, Anoushka Sharma and Ranveer Singh among others.

What are the various monetization models you employ?
We are in the business of micro-payment where the users have to spend a small amount of money for availing of few services. Our revenue comes from stickers which retail at $1.99 and Viber Out which allows users of Viber to call non-users of the app at a subsidized rate. The gaming service which we recently launched is also expected to add to our revenues.

Are there any plans of integrating Viber with Rakuten Inc? Also, does having a resourceful parent help in growing faster?
To begin with, Viber will remain Viber and we have no plans of becoming Rakuten Mobile. We will very much remain a separate business owned by Rakuten. What is really exciting for us is the fact that Rakuten has a huge digital business. The company is very skilled in e-commerce, service provision, product designing as well as loyalty reward scheme. The next step at Viber is to take home learnings from our parent and figure out ways to offer better services to our users. So in the future don’t be surprised to see Viber venturing into e-commerce.

Being a Japanese company with not much understanding of the Indian consumer, how do you plan to build brand pull for Viber in India?
The OTT business is about gathering deep understanding of the consumers, their lives and how they tend to deal with various situations. We constantly track social media conversations apart from monitoring any kind of buzz related to Viber. We also keep track of the sentiments surrounding the brand all the time. We saw a 130% growth in the user base following the launch of our first marketing campaign in July last year. We plan to launch our next campaign in the first quarter of this year.

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