Brands take steps toward messaging apps

Gatorade is one of a growing parade of brands eager to reach people inside messaging apps.

Gatorade owns one of the iconic television moments of the Super Bowl, the dousing of the winning coach with a huge bucket of the sport drink, ice included. For the 2016 game, though, the brand wanted to reach more younger people, who tend to watch less TV.

The company turned to Snapchat, the mobile photo messaging app popular with teens and millennials. Aiming to “democratize the dunk,” according to Kenny Mitchell, senior director of consumer engagement, Gatorade created a “sponsored lens” ad that allowed people to overlay an animated dunk of the drink onto their selfies or their friends’ photos. They did so 165 million times in just two days.

Gatorade is one of a growing parade of brands eager to reach people inside messaging apps. With at least 1.4 billion monthly users collectively worldwide, apps such as Snapchat, WhatsApp and Kik, and Weixin and Line in Asia, have become the main daily hangout for many young people, sometimes even surpassing the time they spend on social networks and playing games.

But should brands insert themselves into one of the most personal activities online? Many apps, such as games, allow advertising, but who wants ads from Pampers cluttering their most intimate chats with friends?

Avoiding that potential to antagonize is one reason that many messaging services have either not allowed marketing or severely limited it. The founders of Facebook-owned WhatsApp have said they dislike advertising and won’t show any on their service.

Marketers are wary, too.

“If we misstep with certain audiences, they’ll unplug,” said Suzy Deering, chief marketing officer at eBay.

That doesn’t mean brands are completely unwelcome on messaging apps. But it does mean that so far on these services, they are remarkably restrained in their approaches, focusing less on promotion and more on providing entertainment or utility — or both. In some cases, the marketing isn’t even in the form of paid ads.

On WhatsApp, for instance, the shoe brand Clarks avoided an overt sales pitch, and instead created three virtual characters to promote its venerable Desert Boot, allowing users to connect to them on the app to receive messages, videos and music playlists.

That’s just one way marketers are latching onto the customs and idiosyncrasies of messaging. Branded emojis have been popular recently on messaging and social media apps, but the marketing company Inmoji has extended them with clickable brand logos that provide videos, offers and contests inside the message. Starbucks used them to encourage people to send a drink offer to friends nearby.

Some brands are getting more adventurous. Several marketers are experimenting with chatbots, automated programs that engage in conversations with people. Although Microsoft’s artificial intelligence-driven bot was hijacked recently to spew racist invective, these kinds of chatbots, already popular in China, avoid the issue with preprogrammed responses.

an interactive marketing technology startup, to promote its 2015 movie “Insidious: Chapter 3.” People could converse on the Kik chat app with a bot version of a main character in the film, Quinn Brenner. A sample snippet of a chat:

Quinn: Do you believe in life after death?

Me: Not really.

Quinn: A little while ago I might have agreed with you… but lately…

This might sound crazy… but I tried to contact my mom on the other side.

Me: Did it work?

Quinn: It was like I could still feel her, you know? I thought if I just reached out, maybe I could speak with her. …

Over a period of a few days, the Quinn-bot sent increasingly intense messages about being haunted and threatened. Some 350,000 people exchanged an average of 69 messages. Kik, which has done 80 of these “promoted chat” campaigns, on Tuesday plans to open a “bot shop” for consumers to try out more of them.

“Bots are a creative canvas just starting to be realized,” said Josh Jacobs, president of Kik Services, a company unit exploring messaging-related services like banking and shopping.

In fact, these kinds of interactions might not be advertising at all. Several marketers say they are talking to Facebook about connecting clients to users of its Messenger app for personalized customer relations, such as answering questions or making appointments.

They expect the social network to announce plans, possibly including technology to create chatbots that would enable shopping and other services on Messenger, on April 12 at its F8 conference for software developers.

Facebook declined to confirm the plans or the timing. In a blog post on its advertising philosophy to be published on Monday, the company notes that it often waits to see how people interact naturally with businesses before trying out a paid format.

“An interaction in messaging may look very different from other marketing,” Matthew Idema, Facebook’s vice president of monetization product marketing, said in an interview.

Apps such as China-based Weixin, known as WeChat in the United States, have already started to facilitate direct e-commerce, such as booking airline tickets and car rides. Facebook recently starting allowing users to call an Uber vehicle inside Messenger. And last year it began experimenting with a new Messenger-driven personal assistant, M, that uses artificial intelligence and real people to book restaurant reservations and order flowers.

In reality, nearly all the marketing in these apps remains experimental. Because the apps vary in their user appeal and acceptance of ads, companies often have to create different campaigns for each app, a costly and time-consuming process. And they lack the tools to track results as well as they can with other forms of advertising.

Besides, said Kira Wampler, chief marketing officer at the ride-hailing service Lyft, “We have a lot on our plate with our other marketing channels.”

But perhaps not for long. “Messaging is a more human and conversational way to interact, much more powerful than throwing out a bunch of media dollars,” said David Hewitt, a vice president for mobile strategy at the agency SapientNitro.

Focus Features, a film division of NBCUniversal, used a chatbot created by Massively,

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