The Evolution Of Line India: From Messaging To A Content Discovery Network

Interview with Damandeep Singh Soni, Line India to understand how the messaging app has evolved in the country with its offerings such as Line messaging, games and voice call

Line Japan

2014 saw messaging apps at the pinnacle in developed markets. With WhatsApp getting acquired by Facebook, Viber getting sold to Rakuten and Kakao Talk merging with Daum Communications, we have witnessed the end of the rise of mobile-focused independent messaging startups that started just five years ago. Ephemeral messengers like Snapchat, as well as anonymous apps like Whisper, Secret, and Yik Yak are the answer for the next generation of messaging in developed markets.

India and the rest of the emerging markets, which is more or less now shaping into a mobile economy, have a different story to tell. According to the recent research by GlobalWebIndex, APAC and India in particular are the biggest markets for mobile messaging. The study further states that the use of mobile messaging applications has increased 113 percent year-over-year in 2014 and is showing no signs of decline.

WhatsApp remains the undisputed leader followed by WeChat, messaging players like Viber and Line are growing in acceptance in India. While India has become the fastest growing market for Viber, Japan based Line that entered the Indian market mid 2013 has achieved more than 30 million registered user base in India. The Naver Corp owned mobile messaging and calling app which has 560 million registered users with an active base of 170 million monthly still hesitates to reveal monthly active users when it comes to individual countries.

Over the last two years, Line not only has acquired users but brought in some interesting localized features and is making content discovery easy for the users on the messaging platform. Credit should be given to Damandeep Singh Soni, Head of India Business Development who came on board early 2014, at a time when the company couldn’t double the 10M users by end of 2013.

“Over the past 11 months in 2014, messaging apps have expanded as a category due to the acquisitions and growth of various players. My job was to work on a way to achieve growth given that the market had competition and at the same time drive relevant user proposition to the Indian user,” Damandeep said to Lighthouse Insights over a telephonic conversation.

Recollecting his work graph over the last year at Line India, the ex Nokia sales director shared that he has focused on three main initiatives for Line.

One of them was creating local stickers for the Indian diaspora, partnerships with ecommerce players like Jabong and Flipkart to avail deals for Line users. Additionally Line also had Bollywood partnerships and tie ups with local newspapers such as Jagaran Josh, Dainik Jagaran, BBC Hindi, among others.

Going forward the messaging app is planning on a bunch of features and one of them is Line’s real time transmitter engine which converts language. The plan is to implement this in India for various regional languages and increase user engagement.


Localised stickers

Sharing the localised stickers journey Damandeep recollected that when he had joined Line, the app didn’t have enough local stickers. “The hypothesis that we used to hear was that they won’t work in India. However my belief has been the other way round, see the amount of emoticons being used by users on WhatsApp and other messaging players. There was a latent need of localized stickers, Indians anyway love to communicate with visual expression and so we invested a lot of time and effort in building stickers specifically for local markets.”

These stickers cater around different themes, festivals, Bollywood, local expressions, among others. “Using stickers on messaging platforms have evolved new use cases. Today the messaging platform has evolved from just being a replacement of simple SMS delivery platform to content discovery platform where users can express emotions freely in a variety of ways.”

But do Indians buy stickers?

It is a fact that Line was the first messaging company to show the world how to make money out of stickers but India is a completely different market. “In the past Indians have bought stickers regularly. What we have seen is that Indians invest in branded stickers and use them as their bragging rights.

Other thing is that some of the stickers offer unique features in terms of characters/emotions, even that works very well. So we have seen a growing trend over the last year with Indians buying stickers though we haven’t pushed much of this on the user’s face. We want the user to discover it and own it.”

Line games

Damandeep Singh SoniLine made $192 million (20.9 billion yen) in Q3 2014 with revenues doubling year-on-year. Most of the revenues came from in-app purchases within its connected games platform, which includes more than 50 titles, followed by stickers.

Over time Line has focused on gaming due to the constant inability to create a development platform that can rival the App Store or Google Play in terms of users or developers.

In August last year, Line stated that while it is a messaging company, it is also a gaming company. It announced that it will create a US$100 million fund tentatively titled “Line Game Global Gateway”; 490 million users have downloaded its games 410 million times, and in December 2013, App Annie placed it at the top spot for app publisher revenues, largely due to its prowess in gaming.

Later Line Games were extended to India after its competitor WeChat introduced WeChat Games. The section was also introduced in a bid to increase its active users in the country and also possibly to increase its revenues in turn.

Damandeep informed that gaming requires a lot of localization. “We are working with local developers so that we have a mix of games to offer to our users. We have a lot of learnings on the gaming front from the global market and we are looking ahead to implement wherever it fits the bill.”

Content partnerships with brands and Bollywood

Content partnership has been the other piece that Damandeep has been aggressively chasing in 2014 and which is yet to grow in 2015. “From TV to portals to social media we had content recommended to the user. Now we have the mobile device which marries all of them in terms of content discovery and consumption. And within the mobile phones reside messaging apps which is now becoming the center of content discovery life cycle of the user. From Line’s point of view we want to make the content discovery a bit easier for the user without any intrusion.”

Last year BBC started using Line to share news from its official account in 11 countries including India. In India Line users had the option to add or subscribe to BBC Hindi’s news services and receive text, videos, graphics and audio news bulletins. “For us the reason to partner with brands is to make content discovery easier for a user.”

On the Bollywood front in the last quarter of 2013 Line roped in popular Bollywood Actress Katrina Kaif. The TVC launched during Diwali saw Katrina promoting the free voice and video call feature of the app. Line also introduced free India-exclusive stickers featuring photographs of Katrina Kaif. In addition to this partnership, Line also tied up with Sony India to pre-install the app on their flagship smartphone, the Xperia Z1 and Xperia C.

Occasionally in 2014, Line tied up with Bollywood movie promotions like WeChat India had done earlier. One of them was for the Bollywood comedy movie, Humshakals. It released a co-branded TVC, created an official account and stickers.

Line voice calling

Along with messaging, games, content, Line extended its voice calling feature in India too. The service allows users to make low-cost calls directly to mobile phones and landlines in India and worldwide. The company also claims that its rates are lower than Viber and Skype. However Damandeep shared that since voice based calling is backed by good internet infrastructure in the country, which India lacks as of now, the service is yet to get bigger spikes.

Infrastructure bottlenecks for the OTT players also remains a big concern for him and he wishes that in the coming future India steps up its efforts. “Today we are a mobile first economy, there are so many people logging on the internet for the first time so from that point of view we need to really step up our efforts in building infrastructure. It is not about taking up Line only, it is also about basic services like PNR status, flight schedules, etc. that will only make life easy for the consumer.”

User privacy – USP of Line

One of our biggest USP is we respect privacy

In this one year Line India has seen some serious push in terms of user acquisition and creating new opportunity for revenues. But the fact is that it is a highly competitive space which is dominated by players like WhatsApp, WeChat, Hike, Viber, among others. So the services that Line offers are more or less offered by a majority of players, which leaves us with a pertinent question – What is that one USP that stands Line apart from the race?

“The decision to not track our users,” replied Damandeep. “We are strict about our privacy, that means we cannot target our users even if brands want. As a messaging platform we understand messaging is a core thing of a user’s life.”

At a time when Indians are ignorant about privacy issues it is good to see Line respecting user privacy. Only time would tell if appreciating user privacy along with Line messaging, games, voice calling, and more will give a stiff competition to the bigger players in India.

Image courtesy: DNA India