Giant Moon figure

Like all giant smartphone brands that are struggling hard to build an “ecosystem” by extending services (music streaming, cloud storage etc.) for their users, messenger apps are on similar routes to acquire and retain users as well. LINE is one of them that has done pretty well. It created a valuable app for users, later converting them to pay.

Although LINE is my favourite messenger app, I don’t use it as frequently as WhatsApp. Born from the Japanese earthquake disaster in 2011, LINE was faster than Facebook to reach 50 million users. It achieved remarkable milestones within a short period: one billion combined downloads and it’s all set for an IPO. Due to its sentimental “birth story”, I began paying attention to this app even before I started using it.

The first two messenger apps that I used were WhatsApp and WeChat. I was a very late adopter of LINE but it converted me to a loyal user.

I will be sharing some of my views on the success story of LINE. Disclaimer: These views are based on my experience and observation.

A strong hybrid experience in its ecosystem
The picture below shows some of my interaction with LINE Messenger. These do not include my experience of taking photos with the giant mascot (the world’s biggest Moon character), eating limited edition LINE cookies and more. Yes, the LINE stickers/characters are everywhere, especially the four “pioneer characters”.

LINE Messenger Ecosystem

In Malaysia, LINE, WeChat and Kakaotalk are racing to foster partnerships with local events and contests. Overall, I find WeChat to be quite aggressive as I have started seeing WeChat associates (girls in short skirts) going around food courts promoting the app in my hometown, Malacca. It is a rare occurrence there.

Still, nothing beats LINE having its mascots walking around the city. I’m trying to emphasise that LINE has done a good job in shaping its LINE characters with a high level of consistency.

Also Read: No laughing matter: This is how LINE’s 4 main characters came about

While fighting for early adoption among teenagers, messenger apps such as Kakao, WeChat and LINE adopt similar approach — use superstars to be their ambassadors. Many of my friends downloaded Kakaotalk because it had K-pop idols as its ambassadors. They ridiculed me by saying, “You’re still on LINE? That was so yesterday…”. So I tried Kakao, but it just did not click with me. I didn’t like the stickers too. Today, most of my friends no longer use Kakao. Perhaps, celebrity-ambassador marketing strategy did not work well in terms of user retention.

Enter the ultimate experience of LINE stickers
I always wondered why and how LINE managed to achieve such high sticker sales. Undoubtedly, its sticker-characters are highly desirable. I once took it for granted by thinking that no one will spend money on these stickers, well, at least not the adults or oldies. I was so wrong.

I have been a witness to 50-year-old uncles and aunties visiting the LINE sticker store on their smartphones or tablets. The only difference is that they called them “cartoons” instead of “stickers”. They were discussing with their peers on how they interact with their children using those stickers.

In August 2013, LINE reported 230 million registered users (not including monthly active users) and also US$10 million sticker sales per month. If there were five million users who purchased the stickers, their overall conversion rate would be around 2.2 per cent.

LINE Sticker Monthly Sales

Also Read: [Updated] Asians love their stickers! No wonder the region is seeing innovation

I don’t watch LINE animation, but majority of my friends, including me, can tell the names of the four main LINE characters and describe their characteristics briefly. LINE designs simple characters and uses it consistently across all communication and marketing medium. This strategy further shapes its characters and gives LINE a strong competitive advantage over its competitors — the overall brand experience through its main characters.

The hybrid offline-online experience through LINE stickers is highly commendable. No matter how you first came to know about LINE characters — whether through LINE Messenger app or as costumed characters in a shopping mall, seeing them walking on the street is a pleasant experience.

Either way, the initial touch point is a great way for users to extend the “LINE experience”. For instance, you first encountered a giant Moon statue, then you downloaded the app. Your children or you like the app and the stickers that come along with it. You purchased the sticker on the app, then you moved on to buy the merchandise at a LINE popup store.

Each interaction makes the user more attached to its “brand experience”, and improve chances of the user actually spending money (monetisation conversion). In terms of localised content, LINE has also introduced stickers with local slangs in Asian countries. Below is a LINE sticker of Moon saying “Walao Eh!”, a Hokkien slang expression that is widely used by Malaysians and Singaporeans. Nonetheless, it has also created a very powerful localised TV commercial in Thailand.

Moon saying Walao Eh

Also Read: Japanese chat app LINE launches ‘Singapore Special’ stickers

User-centred approach
Like many other five-starred apps, LINE paid attention to its users and constantly kept crafting delightful user experience. Below is an example where it realised that sometimes the stickers and words are too small and hardly visible, and that users might be sending a sticker that sends off wrong message, so they made a simple tweak to allow users to enlarge the sticker before sending it and purchasing it. The best part is, you have the option to enable or disable the enlarge function.

LINE Sticker Function

Providing users the option to say ‘no’ to celebrity official accounts, online shopping discounts and event announcement is essential. There are many users who just want to use the main chatting function for free. If you force them to read a vast amount of advertisement, they will just leave without further consideration.

Having such kind of customers should not be seen as “loss of monetisation opportunities”, because their continued usage of the app will affect their friends’ willingness to stay and pay. Thus, messenger apps still have to pay attention to provide great user experience to acquire and retain these free users.

The core function of a messenger app is to allow you to connect with your friends and family. If that function is not delivered in an effective manner in the first place, the monetisation opportunities would be minimal, unless you’re really obsessed with stickers and you do not mind buying it merely for collection purpose only. If the sticker sales conversion rate is a static two per cent as presumed, LINE certainly needs more for user base growth to increase total sales revenues.

Pretty, but not useful
Stickers and characters seem to be a powerful tool for LINE, but it would be less meaningful without its usability.

The final ingredient is keeping it desirable to its users. LINE did it right. It is not only about desirability of the stickers which somehow can be mimicked by giant rivals who can pump in a lot of campaigns to improve brand awareness. LINE retains its position for being useful and user-friendly to navigate.

LINE Building Great Product

From here, I will be comparing messenger apps (my own usage) with three essential user experience elements: Usefulness, Usability and Desirability.

Pic 7 - Table (optional)

Generally, the core value of a product is its usefulness. It is difficult to persuade someone to use a desirable and user-friendly product if it is not useful in the first place. On the other hand, it is easier to get someone to use a product if it solves a big problem despite being less user-friendly. Let’s take LINE Whoscall as example, an app that identifies scam calls. After I’ve got my Android smartphone, I downloaded Whoscall just to explore the app.

Although the app itself is user-friendly, I uninstalled the app from my phone because it is not very useful to me as I didn’t really receive any scam calls. Soon after, I started receiving sales calls from different banks. So I re-installed the app as it helped me identify unwanted calls. Also, I found that I can set the icon to LINE style icon which will show LINE characters when numbers are being identified. This certainly makes the app even more desirable for me and my friends to use it.

Also Read: The Next Leap: 5 things you need to know to build an awesome user interface

Last words
Do you have what it takes to stand out among rivals that provide such strong brand experience to their users? Think about it. While validating or building your product or business idea, you may not have the big bucks like LINE (backed by NHN) to do “all this stuff”, you can always do a quick pulse check by just asking yourself three simple questions. Is your product useful? Is it usable? Is it desirable?

A product can be extremely valuable to you, but what about your users? Remember you are not your users. A simple, quick and dirty way to find out is to simply test your product with your (potential) users. Giants such as Google, Facebook and Twitter test regularly with their users, so you (and I) as users receive constant updates and improved experience using their products. Don’t fall in love with your product, fall in love with the opportunities.

Soon Aik is a UX Consultant at, one of the quickest growing online usability testing services in Asia today. He is a passionate advocate for better digital customer experience in Asia. Apart from helping clients to test websites or mobile apps, he spends his time dancing. 

The views expressed are of the author, and e27 may not necessarily subscribe to them.

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