(Originally published on The Drum, November 2020)
A lot can change in ten years. The past decade seems to have disappeared in the blink of an eye, but our lives are almost unrecognisable from 2010. Then, we were obsessing over the Lost series finale and Lady Gaga’s meat dress, getting used to being annoyed by generic banner ads, and messaging like crazy.
What we weren’t doing though was sharing memes, gifs, videos, emojis or other digital media, or seeing highly personalized ad content – at least not on our phones. The most widely used data application was still SMS; we could reach one another quickly, easily and very briefly – no more than 160 characters thank you – but it was a pretty bland experience.
So let’s give thanks for progress. Because at the same time, the smartphone was overcoming its initial limitations and starting to gain ground, while IP telephony was about to make the leap from expensive corporate luxury to accessible consumer tool.
That’s really where messaging platforms began. If you can make a voice call over the internet without having to get tangled up with various mobile network protocols, why not use the same technology to send text and visual content to other devices as well? This is exactly what Rakuten Viber started to do a few months after its initial launch as a Voice over IP service.
Since then, messaging hasn’t looked back, while calls and ads have become a whole new experience as more and more functionality has been introduced to provide what consumers want and businesses need.
Rakuten Viber’s platform exists because humans like to share. First it was calls and messages to another person. But one-to-one soon became many-to-many with group messaging. No gang of friends or colleagues is without a group chat these days. All you have to do is stay on top of whatever the subject is that minute, and navigate the delicate politics of leaving a conversation. Rakuten Viber also hosts Communities for people with similar interests, and you can even run polls with your contacts to gather their opinions on life, the universe, or what the best biscuit is.
Messaging also gives us the means to express ourselves more, well, expressively. And that means visuals and moving content. We introduced stickers in 2012, and 1.3 billion are now sent on average by our users each month. We even celebrated Rakuten Viber’s first wedding in 2015 with a specially created pack, inspired by two customers who lived more than 10,000 km apart but kept their relationship growing over Rakuten Viber. Now of course, personalization is the thing, and what could be more personal than creating your very own stickers and GIFs?
Privacy and security have also become increasing concerns as our online world has opened up, which means we want our interactions to be protected. That’s why, as well as encrypting messages end-to-end so only those sending and receiving them can read them, on Rakuten Viber you can hide chats on shared devices, or set a self-destruct timer to make a message disappear after a certain time period - on both sides of the conversation.
It used to be the case that businesses led technology adoption and consumers would follow. With mobile and messaging however, it’s been the opposite. With consumers spending more and more time on their devices and in their messaging app, it makes absolute sense for brands to get in there and connect with them where they’re already hanging out. And so in 2016 Rakuten Viber also became a business business. With our messaging solutions, companies can reach out to a new audience, and communicate better with their existing customers in a native environment. They can send targeted offers and promotions to turn prospects into paying customers, and gain their loyalty over time by building deeper relationships. They can even do business with them, offering products and services that customers can use without having to leave their messaging app.
As for actually talking on the phone, while we do this less than we used to, it’s still easier (and cheaper) than before. Rakuten Viber Out is an affordable way to make calls to any mobile or landline number, anywhere in the world, and has been around since 2013. Video calls followed the next year, and now you can have group calls with up to 20 people, which is ideal in our new stay-at-home, work-at-home reality.
The point is that by using the internet – which is pretty much limitless – along with other technologies like chatbots and artificial intelligence, it’s possible to keep on developing the services that help people and companies stay in touch on their own terms.
Imagine a world today without this type of messaging platform. How would we share all the things most important to us, from big news stories to the major events in our own lives? How would we stay connected and do the things we need to? It doesn’t bear thinking about. Seriously, would anyone choose to go back to plain text and 160 characters? No, me neither.
It’s almost impossible to say what the world will be like by 2030, but one thing’s for sure, and it’s that messaging platforms are only going to get bigger and better. So here’s to the next decade, and even better connections.