Hey messaging apps, quit the crap and give us active user numbers

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WeChat social media

One of the biggest trends of the last few years is messaging apps. Dozens of startups and major web companies have leapt into this social space, and hundreds of millions of people around the world – billions, even – have taken to messaging apps in place of SMS or email.

Amidst this rush, it’s tough to tell which mobile chat apps are performing well and which are struggling. That’s because the companies involved put out a mish-mash of numbers. Some messaging apps disclose their download numbers, many reveal their registered user-base, and a couple divulge their monthly active user numbers. The trouble is, two of those three metrics are meaningless.

If we’re to see clearly — and report effectively — on this massive social media sector, we need the right kind of metric. Lamentably, most apps are terrified to reveal the metric that matters, the true number: monthly active users (MAUs).

The problem
The other two counts of a user-base are rubbish. Here’s why. Imagine you have a bakery. (An apt analogy, since Rocket Internet’s Oliver Samwer says, “Run a startup like a bakery. Bake in the morning, sell during the day, and count at night.”) At this bakery, you give out 1 000 free samples on the street; so can you then claim you have 1 000 customers? No, you cannot. That’s why a free app’s download numbers are utterly meaningless.

OK, so at your bakery you have a customer who comes into the store, looks around, and makes one purchase. That’s the equivalent of an app’s registered user. It’s good that you have a new convert, but the odds are against him or her sticking around. There are a lot of other bakeries in the neighborhood. He or she might never return again, so why do apps insist on counting this individual as a user/customer forever? It makes no sense.

So, the only number that matters is the one that pertains to your regular customers. In a bakery, that’s the guy who drops in every month and even has a prepaid card for your store. In messaging app terms, it’s someone who uses the app at least once per month. That’s why monthly active usership is the number that we should be looking at – and which the app companies should be revealing.

Whatsapp and WeChat get it right
The only messaging apps getting it right are WhatsApp and WeChat. WeChat, made by Chinese web giant Tencent (HKG:0700), is forced to reveal monthly active user numbers for WeChat in its quarterly financial reports; Whatsapp, a private company, does so willingly and freely nearly every month.

WhatsApp has 430 million MAUs right now, while WeChat had 272-million active users when Tencent last coughed up numbers in its Q3 2013 report. They are the largest two standalone messaging apps in the world, which is perhaps what emboldens WhatsApp to reveal numbers even though it has no obligation to do so. Arguably, WhatsApp is proving a point that it’s battling Facebook Messenger and Google Hangouts (for which there are no discrete active user numbers outside of the main numbers on Facebook or Google+) with its very stripped-down service that’s focused on pure messaging.

So, WeChat and WhatsApp have thrown down the gauntlet by revealing ‘real’ numbers that tell us how many are active on those services. Those numbers cut out the deadweight of people who signed up for the free service and then never bothered with it again. That devalues the registered user numbers given out by major rivals like Line. Yes, Line has over 230-million registered users around the world, but we have no clue how many are active in total. Is it 50 percent of them, which would be fairly respectable? Or a meagre 25 percent, which would be massively embarrassing?

Alicia Lee Roh from Line Corp, the Japan-based spin-off company from NHN that runs the popular messaging app, explains to Tech in Asia that Line only reveals MAUs for “our big three markets: Japan, Thailand, and Taiwan.” However, only a percentage is given, not a raw number. Line Corp says that between 70 and 80 percent of its users in those three nations are active in the app monthly. That’s data for October 2013.

Still, that’s no closer to an answer of how many of Line’s total users are MAUs. That means it’s still impossible to compare WhatsApp, WeChat, and Line directly.

Show me yours first

We also contacted representatives of KakaoTalk, Nimbuzz, and Viber, all of which are messaging apps proving popular in Asia. Only Viber’s Yaron Schechtman was willing to engage with this social media issue. “If everyone released their active numbers, we will be happy to release ours,” he explains. That makes it something of a chicken and egg problem. Schechtman adds:

So far, it’s only Whatsapp [revealing MAUs]. WeChat numbers are all/mostly China. Let them, Line, and KakaoTalk reveal numbers outside of their “home countries” and we will gladly do the same.

Viber’s business development man also suggests that there’d be confusion if MAUs are revealed, since the number will by definition be smaller than that of either of the other metrics. Schechtman explains:

There is a lot of confusion in the media between registered and active users. We constantly see articles mixing the two. If we released our active numbers, it is quite likely that they will be mixed together with the registered numbers from our competitors, portraying Viber as smaller than it is.

That is indeed a concern for startups that need to convey a sense of heft up against massive rivals like Facebook, Skype, and WhatsApp. Viber, for example, has over 300 million registered users, so that figure — though not the most meaningful one — gives the Israel-based messaging app the largest possible number to promote. Plus, it’s a number that will, in most cases, keep on rising, while MAU numbers might experience seasonal dips. No company wants to admit to falling numbers.

So there we have the answer; sadly it’s not the solution. The consensus seems to be that MAUs are too risky, too sensitive, a bit too complex. It’s a pity that most messaging apps are sticking with counting the registered user-base – clearly it’s far too stiff and unrealistic a metric for such a fast-changing social media landscape.


This article by Steven Millward originally appeared on Tech in Asia, a Burn Media publishing partner.

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