LINE originated as a free mobile chat, messaging and calling service; an alternative to applications like WhatsApp and Viber, which is available on desktops as well as all major mobile operating systems. The major difference between LINE and these platforms was the variety of emoticons, or stickers” that could be used in the messages. LINE’s rise in popularity, especially in 2012, has been phenomenal. It now has over 32 million users in Japan (with 12 million using it daily) and well over 70 million users globally. Even the Japanese Prime Minister’s office has an account!

As a result of its success, the company has recently adapted the app to be more than a messaging service; it’s now a social media platform, looking to brands to drive future revenue. The pivot from messaging service to social media platform happened on July 18 and there are now 14 companies that have jumped on board. Discussions are now taking place to increase the gaming potential of the platform and adapt the emoticons to accelerate growth in non-Asian markets. That said, LINE will keep its free chat and calling service for the foreseeable future.

Here are the five things you need to know about LINE:

1. It’s growing very fast, and could be paving the way for the next generation of mobile social media

LINE only launched in mid-2011 and had just over 11 million global users by the end of the year. The application surpassed 65 million users recently and is on track to reach 100 million by the end of 2012. LINE also has held the number one spot in the free app section of iTunes in 25 countries, including the UK, Russia, South Korea, Japan and Australia. With Facebook still struggling to adapt to mobile social media, the surge in popularity for LINE may be a sign that consumers are drawn to a more simple method of communicating with brands.

2. It has a young audience, but overall there are (almost) equal numbers of men and women

In terms of demographics, LINE is almost an exact 50/50 split of men and women. But 10-19 year old female users are the most regular users, with over 60 percent using the app every day. Overall, 10-30 year olds make up over half of all LINE users, which perhaps isn’t surprising considering the nature of the app and that it’s quite cartoonish. Thirty percent of users are students, and the split between iPhone and Android devices is also 50/50.

3. There are two main options for brands using LINE: “Sponsored Stickers” and “Official Accounts”

  • “Stickers” are the various characters people used to communicate with each other (smiling bears, cartoon girls looking shocked, rabbits kissing each other, etc.). Companies can either adapt one of LINE’s characters (e.g. a bear holding the brand logo) or create one from their own character (e.g. a cartoon Spiderman used to promote the recent Hollywood blockbuster). These stickers are then put into the Sticker Shop, where users can download them for free. Each campaign creates eight (or 16) versions of the sticker and, so far, the average number of downloads is four million over a four week period.
  • “Official Accounts” are currently being used by several local and international companies like Coca-Cola and Japanese convenience store, Lawson. Official Accounts are offered for four, eight or 12 week periods and pop up in the “new” section of the app. Once users choose to friend the account, all posts appear in the same area as those from friends. Typically, opening an official account attracts over 400,000 followers during the first four weeks.

4. Content is very offer-driven, much like Groupon or Living Social

Although LINE has switched to a social media platform in order to appeal to brands, it is almost an anti-social network because of one fundamental difference from the likes of Facebook and Twitter: Communication from brands to consumers is one way and quite dry. There is very little room for content that is engaging, but not necessarily relating to a specific offer or contest. The people at LINE said they encourage companies to make sure each post” has a clear financial benefit to the user.

Despite the posts from Official Accounts” appearing in the same area as messages from friends, users are only following for offers and contests. Some may argue this is the same with certain Facebook and Twitter accounts, but here there is not even a façade of general engagement and brand building. In fact, LINE actively discourages clients from posting anything other than offers and discounts, but prohibits them from including links to an e-commerce or registration site (although brands may include links to websites for general information).

5. It’s not a cheap option!

LINE is very expensive compared to Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms. The brands that have used it so far have clearly had success in building up a big audience over a short amount of time when they want to promote a specific proposition (e.g., a new movie, special deal on tickets to a Disney event etc.), but it isn’t cheap. This is partly due to the LINE designers needing to create the characters for the stickers as you can’t use external designers.

In summary, LINE appears to be a very useful tool when you have one or two pieces of extremely timely information that you want to create some buzz around. Ideally, you not only have timely information, but also some great prizes or discounts. It doesn’t profess to hold the same long-term engagement tools as Facebook, but it certainly offers a new and dynamic option for marketing campaigns, especially those targeted at a younger audience.

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