Cross-platform Social Messaging Apps are Making Social Networking Increasingly Competitive

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The rise of cross platform social messaging apps will increasingly threaten the influence and stickiness of conventional social networks in 2014 and beyond. It is a potentially transformative trend that will see increasing numbers of app developers looking to re orientate their social integration strategies to facilitate messaging and content sharing with communities outside of Facebook Twitter and other more established social networks.

"Cross-platform social messaging apps have become hugely popular, particularly among younger demographics, and the leading services have continued to grow their user bases at impressive rates into what are now sizeable communities," said Canalys Senior Analyst Tim Shepherd. "It is important to understand that consumers are not using these services solely as a free-to-send alternative to SMS and MMS. They also are increasingly where users turn for group messaging, and for sharing photos, links and other content, and are the communities where their friends and contacts are most easily and verifiably reachable. While features vary, cross-platform messaging apps are essentially bare-bones social networks in their own right. It is reasonable to assume that as a user's social interaction and engagement with these services grows, it will often leave a correspondingly diminished level of engagement and interest in services such as Facebook. Social networking companies will need to respond to this competition with a renewed focus on the quality of the user experience they offer, and look to add value through feature innovations and enhancements, or else risk user attention being wholly or partially lured away."

The leading service of this kind, WhatsApp, has in excess of 350 million active users around the world, with services such as WeChat and Line also boasting hundreds of millions of users. Canalys App Interrogator research shows that in almost all markets, several titles of this type are consistently among the top free apps. In a snapshot survey made on 30 November 2013, leading cross-platform social messaging apps appeared among the top 20 free iPhone apps in the Apple App Store in 57 of the 58 markets Canalys tracks - and there were between two and five in the top 20 lists in 38 of those markets.

In the US, picture-messaging app Snapchat, as well as WhatsApp, Kik Messenger, BBM and Viber were all among the top 50 free iPhone apps in the Apple App Store in November 2013, while Snapchat, Kik Messenger and WhatsApp made the top 50 free titles in Google Play too. Collectively, active users of cross-platform social messaging apps already number around 1.5 billion - albeit with some individuals using multiple services - and are set to surpass 2 billion in 2014.

"Though globally successful, these services have proved particularly popular in Asia, and it is no coincidence that several of the leading services worldwide are from Asian companies. Different services have thrived in different markets, and a home market advantage has proved to be valuable - notably for WeChat in China, Line in Japan and KakaoTalk in South Korea," said Shepherd. "International expansion has been helped where locally relevant and valued features are available, but ultimately consumers go where they friends are. It is not uncommon for consumers to have several different messaging clients on their mobile devices to ensure they can reach all their contacts and make the most of the different features and functionality on offer, from free VoIP to social games to media sharing. Consumers are showing that their loyalty to specific socially-oriented services cannot be relied upon and leading social networking companies should heed the warning to guard against complacency."

"The challenge now for these social messaging service providers is how they monetize their services without compromising user experience and so, engagement," said Canalys Research Analyst Joe Kempton. "Various monetization strategies have been adopted in this space, from paid-for downloads - rarely used as they create an unnecessary barrier to uptake - to in-app purchases of virtual goods, such as emoticon "stickers" or social game content, to subscriptions for unlimited use. Through BBM Channels, BlackBerry aims to monetize BBM through sponsored content from celebrities or brands. In the future, we expect to see more services explore sponsorship and advertising potential, but service providers must tread carefully. The presence of prominent ads is one aspect of Facebook and other social networks that has left a portion of its audience disenchanted and more willing to explore alternatives."

In 2014, a growing number of developers will look to these services to enable social elements of their apps. "Where appropriate, there is significant value in integrating social elements into apps to improve the user experience and help drive awareness and engagement. Developers will want to tap into these engaged and growing dynamic communities, particularly in markets or with demographic groups underserved by major social networks. Going beyond Facebook and Twitter integration to enable content sharing, messaging and recommendations via cross-platform social messaging apps will become common, and this will only add to the lure of these services, while partnerships potentially open up new revenue streams," said Shepherd.

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