That might be the look on your face when you hear that emoji are a highly promising new advertising tool. But it’s true.
As Andreessen Horowitz partner Benedict Evans recently mused in a blog post: “The potential to turn messaging into a platform is the Trojan horse that drives a lot of the excitement in the sector. It’s one thing to sell stickers and quite another to sell users.”
The Trojan horse metaphor is apt. Emoji are the way in. Users download them because they’re fun and sharable. But once they’re there, embedded directly into some of the most widely used apps on the market, keyboards are also a springboard for more meaningful use cases.
Snaps is one company looking to take advantage of that potential. The New York City-based startup, which secured $6.5 million in Series A funding last month, bringing its total to $11 million, has a unique twist on native advertising – using branded emoji to help marketers be part of the conversation, for real this time.
“But you can’t just push yourself in,” said Jill Manchester, SVP of marketing and branding strategy at sour gummy candy brand Trolli, a subsidiary of Lemonheads maker Ferrara Candy Company. Trolli, which makes Sour Brite Crawlers, targets teens and people in their early 20s. “They can smell if you’re trying to sell them things.”
In its quest for something that could pass the authenticity sniff test, Trolli and its agency of record Periscope started working with Snaps, which allows advertisers to create, distribute and host free downloadable keyboards populated with GIFs, stickers and emoji through a SaaS-based CMS – basically, branded versions of the digital smiley-face, frowny-face and winky-face pictograms that the users of messaging apps liberally sprinkle throughout their digital communications as emotive shorthand.
The 10-person company, which only started offering its keyboard product in January, already counts Burger King, Viacom, Kraft, Sony Pictures, Secret, Kate Spade, Dos Equis and, of course Trolli, among its clients.
Trolli rolled out its TrolliMoji keyboard at the beginning of May to help support its integrated Weirdly Awesome campaign, which celebrates the brand’s quirky personality. For example, Trolli’s take on the high-five emoji is charmingly demented – each finger of the hand has another hand perched on top of it to create the ultimate high five.
Although the initial rollout was campaign-based, Trolli plans to keep updating its keyboard with new emoji and GIF content as a way to keep the interest alive, Manchester said.
It’s exactly how CEO Christian Brucculeri would prefer the platform to be used – as an owned media channel users can engage with beyond a single activation.
“In a way, you can think of it like a Facebook page,” Brucculeri said. “You don’t run a campaign on your Facebook page and then suddenly stop posting. This is the same. Messaging can and should be a way to share and distribute content.”
The numbers don’t lie.
Facebook Messenger hit 600 million monthly active users last month, and WhatsApp, which surpassed 800 million MAUs in April, sees more messages sent on its platform daily than the total number of SMS messages sent globally each day. LINE, the top messaging app in Japan, announced in May that it had made $75 million off of the sticker market in its first year, an amount second only to LINE’s game-related revenue. And according to Swyft Media, a competitor of Snaps on the branded emoji scene – clients include Dreamworks, MillerCoors, 1-800-Flowers, SEGA and Miramax – 6 billion stickers or emoji are sent every day via mobile messaging apps worldwide.
In fact, the top four messaging platforms put together (WhatsApp, Facebook, WeChat and Viber) have 2.125 billion MAUs – the same number of monthly users as the top four social networks (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram) combined. But as BI Intelligence rightly points out, messaging app users are mobile-only, while the social network numbers also include millions of computer-only users.
Investors are taking notice. Chat app Kik, for example, which boasts more than 200 million MAUs of its own, raised $38.3 million in Series C in November, bringing its total funding to more than $70 million.
“We’ve spent the last four years and $50 billion building out pipes to allow brand marketers to reach their audiences … [but] messaging has definitely aggregated the audience at scale,” said Amit Shah, SVP of online, mobile and social media at 1-800-Flowers.com, speaking at the Mobile Media Summit in NYC.
1-800-Flowers works with Swyft Media, which helped the brand create a themed sticker pack in the lead-up to Mother’s Day. Over three days, the pack was downloaded 225,000 times and the images were shared 742,000 times – but it wasn’t just a fun little mobile-only effort. Users who engaged with the stickers were also given access to a promo code within the messaging app that many later used while making their flower purchases on a desktop.
“Attribution, behavior and conversion – it can be an easy loop in messaging,” Shah said.
For its part, Snaps is planning several product rollouts this year, the fruits of its new funding, geared toward making its platform more valuable to advertisers in terms of ROI and attribution. One such product, slated for the end of Q2, is something Snaps is calling “pro-mojis” – a portmanteau of promotion and emoji – which would serve as easily sharable, visually appealing coupons that users could scan at a point of sale to tie messaging together with offline behavior.
The company is also flirting with the idea of requiring users to register – that’s not the case now – in order to link keyboards and phone numbers and reward people for their use, as well as beacon integration so that advertisers can send targeted offers to people in specific locations, like a retail outlet or a movie theater. And according to Brucculeri, Snaps will be running brand lift studies with several advertisers to try and identify increases in purchase intent or recall as the result of its branded keyboards.
“To a certain extent, we’re going to let our customers and their verticals define our product road map and create a marketing infrastructure for the messaging space,” Brucculeri said. “The goal is to be more than just a branded emoji company.”
But in the meantime, Snaps clients, like Viacom-owned lifestyle cable channel Logo TV, are focused on pure branding and engagement. Logo launched an emoji keyboard in mid-April to support "RuPaul’s Drag Race," its reality show about the search for “America’s next drag superstar.”
After just one day, the RuPaul drag race keyboard was downloaded approximately 102,000 times and launched more than 1.2 million times, with more than 726,000 pieces of content shared.
“There’s always the challenge, as with any digital or social execution, around showing that what you’re doing is impacting actual viewership,” said Stephen Fishbach, VP of digital at Logo. “But we see this as an opportunity to create something that lives where our audience is – on mobile. For now, it’s something fun to engage our existing audience better and to reach new people.”
That said, the value proposition of emoji is clear, said Shah, pointing to the ample engagement 1-800-Flowers saw around its Mother’s Day stickers.
“Emoji are the only non-interruptive currency left,” he said. “It’s not as superficial as it might seem on the surface.”