In the award-winning 2013 movie Her, a man (played by Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with a computer operating system equipped with artificial intelligence. The OS becomes the man’s supportive and engaging companion, which may seem like science fiction, but in 2015 it’s not that far off. Why? Because the messaging app Kik is making it possible for brands to have one-on-one conversations with us.
Late last year, the Ontario-based company launched Promoted Chats, its core ad product and answer to Promoted Tweets. Since August, more than 80 brands have signed on—BuzzFeed, Racked and Burger King among them—and over 350 million total messages have been exchanged.
“A big part of our vision is empowering America’s youth and providing great content experiences,” said Paul Gray, director of platform services at Kik. “We wanted to build a way for brands and publishers to connect with audiences one on one and at scale.”
To accomplish these goals, Kik turned to artificial intelligence. The company’s creative team works with brands to determine their objectives and start fleshing out conversation ideas. When a Kik user sends a message to a brand—anything from a simple greeting to a specific question—Kik’s AI system detects keywords and sends back contextually relevant brand content. It could look like push messaging promoting a photo gallery, as when photo app Pixable writes, “Hey! Remember to reply with ANIMALS, LOL, CELEBS to see things worth sharing!” or it might be more of a dialogue. It all depends on the nature of the campaign.
If this all sounds too bizarre, consider that Kik’s audience is very young. According to the company, 40 percent of Americans ages 13 to 25 years are using the app (Kik has 200 million registered users overall). For digital natives, texting with a robot isn’t any stranger than conducting a Google search.
“Our users are used to chatting with Siri on their parents’ iPhones. They know that you can talk to bots and bots will answer back,” Gray said.
A study commissioned by Kik last year showed its users spend 35 minutes per session within the app, beating out both Facebook Messenger (27 minutes) and Snapchat (21 minutes). It’s this high level of engagement coupled with a unique product offering that’s attracting major brands. MTV, for example, uses Kik to promote high-profile events like series launches and concerts. Leading up to MTV’s Woodie Awards, it customized conversations to boost interest in lesser-known performers. Adopting a concierge-style approach, the network asked fans which artists they liked and made music recommendations. The effort demonstrates Kik’s potential to aid in content discovery.
MTV also recently chatted about the new season of its series Teen Wolf, and even invited users to play trivia games in order to built anticipation. It shared video clips that are viewable in Kik’s custom mobile browser, which keeps consumers inside the app.
Other companies are banking on humor to entertain their followers. Funny or Die tells jokes and shares animated GIFs based on its videos. This approach has attracted 1.5 million chatters in 3 months, and generated conversion rates on chat messages linking to videos and GIFs as high as 10 percent. Through chat campaigns like one promoting a new themed product line that offered the chance to win tickets to the premiere of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, headphone manufacturer Skullcandy has racked up more than 30,000 chat users, a follower based 3 times as large as what it has on Twitter.
Credit for devising one of the most creative campaigns thus far must go to Focus Features and marketing technology company Massively. In March, to promote the June release of the horror movie Insidious: Chapter 3, Focus launched a Kik bot based on the movie’s protagonist, Quinn Brenner. Quinn is stuck in bed after an accident and experiencing a disturbing haunting, and he’s eager to tell you all about it. Details about her life provided an extra layer of context for viewers of the film (you can still experience the story on Massively’s mobile app.) As the campaign went on, the experience kept getting spookier. Gray said that Quinn would sometimes text users pictures of demon footprints in the middle of the night.
“It was about fear, but also fun and comedy, and people really enjoyed it,” Gray added.
Those who engaged with the Quinn character bot sent an average of 35 to 40 messages to the INSID3 brand account.
Unlike other forms of content marketing—say, native ads—the brand activity in Kik is unique because it’s the consumer who initiates the conversation. As Gray put it, “The user is always in control.” That said, triggering a brand conversation is tantamount to opting-in to all future messaging, so users receive an ongoing stream of content delivered via individual messages to each user’s Kik account.
An added benefit of Kik Promoted Chats, to both users and brands, is the intimacy of a direct conversation. “There’s a move toward more semiprivate messaging,” Gray said, noting that many young consumers have had bad experiences with posting publicly on social sites.
At the same time, consumer expectations for brand communications are higher than ever. Studies have shown that 72 percent of those who complain to a brand on Twitter expect a response within an hour. “How does a brand do that with two million followers?” Gray asked. An airline brand immobilized by a series of cancelled flights has little choice but to try to appease every passenger. “Other consumers look at that and think, all this brand ever talks about is its negative feedback.”
In contrast, Kik is a place where brand interactions can be personal, despite the fact that responses are generated by a bot. Brands become like buddies, there for you at the tap of a key, always ready to send relevant content. Seventeen magazine keeps its followers interested with celebrity news, photos, and videos. The apparel brand Vans shares links to new episodes of its documentary series #LIVINGOFFTHEWALL.
Brand success on Kik is measured by video views, mobile store purchases—whatever the advertiser considers the most crucial consumer response. While the Promoted Chat program is still in its infancy, Kik sees big potential for CPG and beauty brands promoting products that are better suited to private communication.
As Gray said, “We’re not about shouting at consumers, but starting a conversation.”