Sean O’Brien: How Anonymous Chat Apps Can Avoid Disappearing Like Their Content

The private chat space is bigger than people realize, but not as robust as traditional messaging.

The last several months have brought a great deal of attention to ephemeral and anonymous apps such as Secret, Rumr and Snapchat. In a recent interview, Mark Zuckerberg said that, “private communication is a bigger space than people realize,” and he is absolutely correct. Whisper, for example, an app that lets users post short messages to strangers without their names attached, said it garnered 3 billion monthly page views in December and is said to be raising a $30M round from investors.

However, these apps are very different than other, “traditional” mobile messaging apps, such as WhatsApp, Kik and Viber, in that they are missing a key component that have made the others successful –building real affinity and connections between users. In the same interview, Zuckerberg noted, “some of these interactions are better rooted in some sense of building relationships” and that is both the challenge and opportunity for anonymous/ephemeral apps. Unlike traditional messaging apps, messages sent from apps like Rumr and Snapchat do not identify their sender and/or “self-destruct,” making it more difficult to establish the long-term communities and connections that keep users coming back again and again. At the same time, it’s this type of secrecy that attracts users to these apps in the first place –so the challenge is to use this asset in a constructive way that creates long-term users, lest they eventually flee to the next “big thing” in mobile just as fast as they arrived to the anonymity/ephemeral trend. Here are three ways these anonymous and ephemeral apps can foster connections between users, empowering the likes of Whisper and Secret to continue their explosive growth and stay relevant.

Build a Platform, Not an App

Most traditional mobile messaging apps quickly realized that the path they needed to follow to grow and keep their users coming back was adding services and opportunities to foster engagement and connection amongst users. Combining social networking features with communications, the apps making headlines (and money) now are the ones broadening themselves to become social platforms that enable commerce and content. Alibaba recently invested $215 million in mobile messaging app-maker, Tango, with hopes of giving users access to other experiences, such as game-playing and photo-sharing. A rival to Tango , Viber, was acquired for $900 million by Rakuten to grow the messaging app into a platform, folding Viber into mobile commerce, the company’s “key priority.” Similarly, LINE has created a game platform inside the messaging app where users can both download the same game in the context of LINE and play against each other. There is a major pattern here: messaging apps are adding valuable services to their core strategies, from voice calling to gaming, to attract the interests of new users and maintain the attention of current ones.

Likewise, anonymous and ephemeral messaging apps need to expand their services if they hope to compete and continue their growth a year or even six months from now –but they have to match the privacy/anonymity features that users enjoy and create new opportunities that differentiate from the current “platform” options available.

By incorporating additional reasons for users to engage each other over the app’s platform, anonymous and ephemeral apps can build a pipeline of new experiences for people to have with one another, ultimately strengthening connection and increasing the likelihood users will “stick” on the app.

Create Mass Appeal and Avoid Fragmentation

As mentioned, privacy is the “trump” card that this app category holds –an important issue for people all over the world. While traditional apps have struggled to create a truly global footprint and there are different apps for different countries (mobile users prefer WeChat in China and WhatsApp in Europe, for example) ephemeral/anonymous chat apps could be the new breed that breaks down current geographical differences and become the first truly “global” messaging app. Secret announced very recently it is expanding to the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand and according to analysts, the potential opportunity overseas is “massive.” By aggressively expanding to other markets, these apps can avoid the fragmentation traditional apps have experienced and create a new affinity among users for “global secrets” unavailable through any other channel.

Foster a Community

Who knew a year ago, before the Snowden leaks, that the next wave in personal communication would be about secrecy? The apps that focus on anonymity have a leg up on other “traditional” messaging apps in that users generally feel at ease about their privacy when using them. By now, it’s well-known that apps like WhatsApp and Tango are not immune to the NSA, and most people are still uncomfortable with the idea of “Big Brother” looking at their messages. While apps like Whisper and Secret may still be subject to efforts by law enforcement, what users truly care about –anonymity to their immediate community within the app –is for certain. For many, sharing information amongst a community of anonymous users is more freeing and conducive to self-expression.  The key is — how can you get users attracted to this dynamic to stick? One solution: offer unique content that engages users, creating appeal that touches their personal interests. We have entered an era where people engage and express themselves in everything they do –from the graphic on their t-shirt to the logo on their gym bag. In the mobile messaging universe, emoji and digital stickers embody this desire while maintaining the apps’ anonymous characteristics user’s love. Finding ways to offer more content that speaks to the type of user attracted to these apps will be crucial to growth.

Over fifty million people are currently using Snapchat -clear evidence that anonymous/ephemeral apps are a force within mobile with a huge window of opportunity in front of them. To seize it, these apps need to quickly adopt a strategy to nurture a deep connection among users within their communities and can do so by building platforms, looking for ways to expand globally and provide content that speaks to users.  The message to the Rumrs and Whispers of the app ecosystem: if you don’t want to be as short-lived as your users’ content, it’s time to step out from the shadows.

Sean O’Brien  is the Co-Founder of TextPride, a mobile branded content company that helps mobile messaging apps bring users and the brands they love closer together.

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