Ariana Grande and Paul McCartney don't seem to have much in common. They both make pop music, but that's where the similarities end. Except Grande and McCartney are both using Line, the 3-year-old free messaging app, to keep their fans in the know.
McCartney and Grande both signed up for Line's Official Accounts, a separate tier of paid membership reserved for businesses and popular figures, as a way to communicate with their fans and promote their tours and albums. But the app/celebrity relationship is mutually beneficial--Line wants to crack the U.S. market, and music might be just the ticket.
Making it in America
Line has about 10 million users in the U.S., out of 490 million total registered accounts. The company doesn't disclose monthly active users, the metric typically used to compare services.
Here's the thing about messaging apps: Once one has taken root among your social group, city, or country, it's hard to think about switching. Japanese users have an emotional connection to Line, created in 2011 to help people communicate after the tsunami. In China, WeChat reigns supreme. WhatsApp and Viber are popular in the U.S., though Americans aren't particularly devoted to one service over another. It comes down to which app your friends use. Do your relatives live in Japan? You might use Line. Are you a teen? Your friends have already convinced you to use Snapchat.
But Line wants to be the app Americans turn to when they send a message, so it's signing on popular singers like Grande, McCartney, Katy Perry, and Linkin Park to make its service more appealing. Line doesn't disclose how many brands or celebrities have used official accounts since the company introduced the tier two years ago.
Those artists are using Line in different ways. Grande is promoting a new album, so her Line fans get access to a remixed version of her single "Problems." McCartney and Linkin Park have sticker packs emblazoned with their faces in Line's sticker store. McCartney signed up for Line to promote concert dates in Japan and gathered nearly 4 million followers in two weeks. He now has 11 million Line followers--and only 2 million on Twitter.
The sticker strategy
Stickers, which are basically larger, more expressive forms of emoji, have proved big business for Line. The company sells sticker packs and games to make money, an effort that's clearly working: Line reported second-quarter revenue of $179 million, up 56 percent year-over-year.
"We want to be very careful in the U.S.," said Jae Kim, Line's head of U.S. strategy. "It's a very large market--it's the third largest market globally from a mobile standpoint. Users here are very specific. The value proposition to the user has to be clear. They have to understand the brand. Once people get the value proposition of the platform and the unique content that can be distributed, people will have a lot of fun with that."
Line thinks of stickers as a form of communication that can replace words altogether. An update for Android last week introduced a suggest feature that lets users search for stickers by keyword. If you want to say "bye" to a friend, typing "bye" in the text box will turn up stickers and emoji that might convey that for you.
The sticker strategy may seem silly or childish--I confess to being a sticker skeptic--but Kim said Line has bigger plans for stickers. The app may become an e-commerce portal where you send stickers to brands to make a purchase. For instance, you could send the official account for Domino's Pizza a pizza sticker and wait for the pepperoni pie to show up at your door.
"It's not just the sticker, it's what the sticker enables," Kim said.
Line also makes money off its games, which could soon see celebrity tie-ins. Kim said there are two elements to in-app gaming. The first is gamification through the official accounts, things like contests. Line is also in talks with musicians to create games together, which could be huge money-makers. Kim Kardashian isn't even a singer and her mobile game is raking in heaps of cash by using a tried-and-true tactic Line knows well: the in-app purchase.