BlackBerry Ltd. has four new plans to make some money from BlackBerry Messenger (BBM), its flagship instant messaging platform.
And while it hasn’t settled on just one plan, it will be trying out all four of them in concert to see what sticks – and to see what consumers and enterprise users alike want out of the platform.
Right now the messaging service boasts about 85 million monthly active users, 65 per cent of whom log onto BBM every day, David Proulx, senior director of BBM, said at a press briefing Tuesday.
“We view the monetization key opportunities as additives to the experience. So it comes at the users’ benefit, not the expense of the user, which is a really important philosophy or design principle,” Proulx says. “We believe that’s not an impossible balance to strike … Nothing we ever do will compromise the core utility of BBM.”
One plan BlackBerry is positioning BBM as a mobile payments service, allowing users to transfer money to each other, both locally and internationally. Use cases might include settling debts – for example, sending a friend money to split a bill at a restaurant – or even sending money to another country without having to deal with wire transfers.
While there’s no timeline on when BBM users might be able to take advantage of this, back in May 2013 the smartphone maker announced it had rolled this model out to Indonesia.
Another plan for monetizing BBM stems from its success within the enterprise market. As privacy and security have traditionally been BlackBerry’s strong suits, it launched the eBBM suite, an enterprise solution. One of the features in the suite is BBM Protect, which gives two registered users an extra layer of encryption for their instant messages. That feature would be priced on a per-user, per-month basis.
Mobile marketers will also get a piece of the BlackBerry pie with BBM Channels, a service that will see brands and companies sending sponsored text and image content to anyone who has agreed to receive it. If users are following the channel for the Toronto Maple Leafs, for example, they may begin seeing content from another sports franchise on BBM.
However, if they choose the “ignore” option, they will never see that content again, and users will never receive more than three invitations to follow a channel each month. Users will not see sponsored content based on the keywords they use in their private chats, Proulx says.
And to make BBM more fun for consumers, there’s a new virtual store branded as the BBM Shop. It will sell virtual stickers, or large emoticons, some of which will be free and some which may cost a little over $2.
While BlackBerry is willing to experiment with its plans for monetization, it’s still focused on adding more users to the service, Proulx says.
“The number one feature of a messaging service or social service is, how many people can I connect to?” he says, adding that was one of the biggest reasons for BBM’s expansion to support iOS and Android in 2013. “It’s important to note we’re not taking our eye off the ball on audience growth.”
To attract more users, BlackBerry is partnering with original equipment manufacturers, many of which are regional to India, Indonesia and other countries, to get the BBM app preloaded onto the smartphones they release. The company is also working with wireless carriers to get BBM into consumers’ hands.
Essentially, the four plans to monetize BBM come down to trial and error, says Carl Howe, a mobile analyst with Yankee Group in Boston, Mass.
“They’re trying a bunch of things to see which of them are the most promising, and in some ways they’re letting their customers vote,” he says. “I don’t think that’s entirely a bad idea … I think this shows they’re being a little bit more open to new ideas and new ways of doing things.”
However, Todd Coupland, a financial analyst with CIBC, said he’s taking a “wait and see” approach. Successfully monetizing BBM hinges upon the size of its user base, and how many of its users are coming from iOS and Android, he says.
“What is the actual use case of non-BlackBerry users? I think it’s an important [statistic] in terms of the long-term potential for BBM,” he says. “All the instant messaging platforms are looking around for what a revenue model is. So I guess we’ll see.”
While money transferring and sponsored content through BBM Channels sound interesting, Coupland doesn’t know if an enterprise version of BBM will catch on. For example, CIBC is rolling out BB10, but he says he can’t picture the bank adopting BBM for its instant messaging needs.
But on the whole, he says BlackBerry is on its way to reversing its fortunes, especially as it’s laying off staff and cutting operation costs.
Howe agrees, pointing out BlackBerry has a fairly loyal install base, with users who won’t abandon the brand as they appreciate the functionality of its hard keyboards and BlackBerry’s reputation for running secure operating systems.
“I think rumours of BlackBerry’s death have been greatly exaggerated. It’s certainly not the number one company in its market, but not being number one also doesn’t mean you’re dead,” he says. “If they’re solving problems and if their customers are happy … you may be a smaller business, but you’re not going to go out of business.”
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