A few months ago, Tech in Asia wrote a piece about BeeTalk, a little-known social app that took Snapchat, Tinder, Line, and WeChat and rolled them all into one. Like Snapchat, users could send disappearing texts and photos. Like Tinder, users could flip through photos of nearby users to initiate friendships (or something more). Like WeChat, users could shake their devices and match up with other users shaking their phones at the same time. And like Line, BeeTalk is sticker-tastic.
The piece drew a lot of interest from our readers, but BeeTalk didn’t immediately strike us as an app worth watching, and we quickly forgot about it.
Fast forward two months later, and the the entire city of Taipei is plastered with ads for BeeTalk. Much like how Naver made sure that Line’s mascots appeared in subway stations and convenience stores all over Taiwan, the BeeTalk team has made sure that seemingly every street corner and subway station features a billboard print of BeeTalk’s titular insect and some extremely attractive users.
So who are these guys? Where did BeeTalk get the money for this massive marketing campaign? And is this company crazy to think that there’s room for yet another chat app in Asia?
Sean Yang, BeeTalk’s head of regional marketing, explains that BeeTalk aims to be the cool social app that your parents aren’t using.
“Line and WeChat are helping you communicate with people that you already know,” says Yang, who hails from Taiwan but works from BeeTalk’s base in Singapore. “You use it with your mom and your grandparents. The age of those apps’ average users keeps getting higher and higher. We’re trying to help you make friends with people you don’t already know.”
That’s a pitch that will sound familiar to anyone who’s been following the mobile messaging space, or the evolution of social networks in general. Adoption starts with teenagers, but once Aunt Susie gets on board, the cool factor disappears, and apps like Snapchat emerge from the fold to reclaim the youth demographic.
Luckily for Garena, BeeTalk’s parent company, Snapchat hasn’t yet taken over Asia. Keen to fill this market void, BeeTalk has carved out a marketing formula of celebrity partnerships, print advertisements, television coverage, and extensive media outreach in an effort to make sure that users flock to the app – either for the disappearing messages, or the thrill of “hot or not”-esque photo-flipping.
So far, Garena has managed to find some success for BeeTalk in Thailand and Taiwan, two markets where BeeTalk has fully launched (it’s currently in a “soft launch” phase in Thailand, Vietnam, and Singapore). To date, the app has racked up 10 million users across Asia. Taiwan marks its strongest growing market, where it accumulated two million users in just six weeks.
It may seem unusual for Garena to roll out BeeTalk in Thailand and Taiwan first, as these countries mark Line’s strongest markets outside of its native Japan. But Yang says that these markets were chosen as starting points for BeeTalk because the success of Line already proves that local users crave communication apps that are feature-rich.
The queen bee of cool-kid mobile
Garena’s bet on BeeTalk marks a major first for the company. Best known as a distributor for witchy, wizardy games across Southeast Asia, it’s now making efforts to move beyond the profitable PC gaming industry and into the prickly but fast-growing mobile internet space. In addition to BeeTalk, which operates as an independent team within the company, Garena recently announced a new venture arm for investing in internet and mobile startups.
“We are an internet company,” Yang says of Garena. “However, if you take a look at what we usually do, we’re basically PC only. The mobile internet is something that we can’t really ignore right now. It’s relatively late to enter this market now, but I still think it’s a good time. We see the needs that BeeTalk can fulfill are things that Line and WeChat can’t fulfill.”
Garena’s entry into Asia’s mobile social space carves out a rough pattern that contrasts that of North America. In the west, WhatsApp emerged from the Silicon Valley school of startuphood, as did cool-kid followers like Kik, Snapchat, and Tinder (though Kik was founded in Waterloo, Ontario). All of these apps, particularly WhatsApp, maintain a dogmatic aversion to traditional forms of advertising.
In the east, Line and WeChat grew out of NHN and Tencent – two internet giants that saw mobile messaging as the first frontier of smartphone usage. With money already in the bank, these firms poured money into clever ad campaigns in an effort to charm potential users.
Garena, like Tencent, built its reputation on PC gaming. One can easily imagine some boardroom discussions where executives looked to the Shenzhen-based company for inspiration. Since BeeTalk’s early inception in 2013, the team has grown to include 100 members, including local marketing staff. That’s already double the size of the team of 40 some-odd employees that built WhatsApp.
But BeeTalk and Garena believe that advertising is only part of the equation. The majority of BeeTalk’s budget goes to product development, and Yang would rather devote the marketing team’s resources to forming local partnerships than plastering subways with paper ads.
“If you look at KakaoTalk in Vietnam, they spent maybe three times as much as what [domestic competitor] Zalo was spending on advertising. And after a few months they just ran away,” says Yang. “We have the budget and resources for advertising, but if people don’t like the product, they won’t use it.”
Editing by Paul Bischoff, images via BeeTalk/Facebook