A primer on messaging for publishers

Kunal Gupta, CEO, Polar

Follow your audience.

Over the next 5 years, another two billion people will join the internet but experience it in a very different way than you and I did over the past 20 years. It won’t be through a PC, laptop, browser, operating system or app store. It will be through a messaging interface.

Today, these messaging interfaces are delivered in messaging apps, like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, LINE, Viber, Kik, SnapChat and others. Messaging interfaces may pervade all digital services we use or stay concentrated within messaging apps.


Messaging apps have greater reach and engagement than social networks today, and yet we describe messaging as still in its infancy. The top 4 messaging apps have a combined monthly active user base of 3 Billion with the average user opening a messaging app 9 times per day.

A long-term view

Messaging is the new internet and it’s unfolding right front of us. And this will change the way media is created, consumed, distributed and monetized. When it comes to media and messaging, I am less focused on what may or may not be happening today, and more interested in what may be possible in the future.

This is what the Publisher 2020 initiative is all about, looking at the long-term trends impacting the business of content. If you find yourself saying ‘messaging and media don’t work well together today’, you are right. But that does not mean they will not work well together tomorrow and this is a world that publisher brands need to pay attention to.

The rise of messaging apps

Some may disagree with me on this, however I feel that the fragmentation of messaging apps will only increase over the next 5 years. Here is a summary of the top messaging apps today that you should be aware of:

In case you are wondering, I have separated out Weixin and WeChat. They are both owned by Tencent (who also has invested $50M in Kik), but they are drastically different experiences for users in China (Weixin) and outside of China (WeChat).

What impresses me the most about SnapChat is not their use of a new media format (vertical video) or their focus on millennials, it is rather how quickly they amassed an audience of 100 million daily active users. How many more ‘SnapChats’ will we see over the next 5 years? New messaging environments, hyper focused on a specific media format and audience segment, leading to extremely high engagement (SnapChat boasts 6 Billion video views daily).

Here are a few messaging apps you have not heard of:

  • Yo: users send a simple message (“Yo”) with a sound to friends
  • FireChat: creates a messaging network of users off-the-grid using bluetooth, not connected to any mobile or internet networks
  • Yik Yak: popular on college and university campuses for anonymous messaging
  • Jolt: popular amongst high schoolers in the US, similar to Yik Yak
  • Hike: local messaging app only second to WhatsApp in India
  • Zalo: popular in Vietnam based on local cultural interests

And there are more messaging apps that I have not heard of yet that are gaining popularity amongst pockets of the global internet population, be it based on geography, demographic, format (multimedia), constraints (dissapearing content) or device (think of what new applications IoT will introduced for messaging).

See Trushar Barot and Eytan Oren’s Guide to Chat Apps for a comprehensive look at the space of messaging apps and examples of how media publishers are experimenting today.

Revenue models will be different

Today messaging apps are primarily used for peer-to-peer communication, i.e. sending messages to one another. This is generally a commodity, similar to how telecommunication companies do not (anymore) generate significant revenues from text messaging services. It’s a loss leader for messaging apps, they do not expect to generate revenue directly from this service.


Where social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and others have built a revenue model anchored in advertising, messaging will be different. Advertising will still be part of the equation but I don’t think it will be the primary means.

Mobile is projected to account for 30% of US e-commerce traffic, which works in favor of messaging apps as we are already getting quite comfortable making payments on our mobile devices. And messaging is not only mobile-first but mobile-only.

Opportunities for publishers and brands

There will be many more opportunities for publishers and brands to engage with audiences inside messaging environments in the near future. There are limitations today as many of the messaging apps are in their infancy (despite their billions of combined users) however they are “opening up” with APIs and services to build ecosystems within their environments. You can now hail a Lyft cabthrough Facebook Messenger.


Publishers experimenting with messaging environments today are primarily using them to drive audience acquisition (where a user discovers content but clicks out to a publisher’s website).  See this example from The Economist pushing charts to LINE users and linking back to their site and how BBC is using Viber and Whatsapp.

We will have to think beyond using messaging to get clicks back to a website, as publisher’s may not have a website that matters in the future. The new Quartz app is a step in the direction of conversational content, where you chat with the news versus simply reading it.

The manner in which brands will interact with audiences will be fundamentally different than other channels. The intimacy, trust and personal nature of this environment (think mobile times 10) will mean that sending users messages they don’t want will damage a brand. In an era where users are increasingly using ad blockers in their web browsers, brands need to take note and be thoughtful on how they enter this environment. The brands that audiences are most likely to engage with initially include retailers, restaurants, sports teams, movies and artists.

How the adoption of messaging is different

The rise of messaging is quite different than what we experienced over the past few decades watching the rise of the PCs, the internet, smartphones, tablets and apps.

First, innovation is starting in the East and moving West. In the past 30 years, China has become a global economic powerhouse, and in technology is often called out forcopying innovation from the West but doing it faster, cheaper and sometimes better. This time around, China is the innovation leader in messaging, with Weixin serving as a model that WhatsApp, Kik, Facebook Messenger and others are now copying.

Next, where in the internet and on social, advertising was the first and primary business model, I am seeing that with messaging, commerce will lead. Advertising will follow. The image here is a look at Weixin mobile payments capabilities.

And finally, privacy and security are fundamental to a messaging environment and not an afterthought, like it has been on the internet. All businesses, be it publishers, brands, retailers or enterprise, need to understand how critical privacy is for users in a messaging environment. This has to be front and center as you design a presence here.

Where we go from here

As you can probably tell, I am bullish on the opportunity that messaging provides for publishers and brands, hence the reason we have decided to focus upcomingPublisher 2020 community discussions and research on this topic.

I’ll be sharing more research, opinions, examples and ideas on how publishers can think about the future of their business in a messaging-led world.

The future is here and at our fingertips.

Kunal Gupta is the Founder & CEO of Polar and a Founding Member ofPublisher 2020.  He leads a talented team transforming the media publishing industry with technology. Polar provides a technology platform that over 2,000 publisher sites around the world use to strengthen and grow their digital content marketing businesses. Connect with him on LinkedInMedium orTwitter.