It’s a question I’ve been asked quite a bit recently. Blackberry is THE handset of choice for teenagers and early 20s. And the reason is BBM. Why BlackBerry messenger? First and foremost it’s free without a contract. It allows group conversations, it allows anonymous forwarding of messages. That’s the main reason why teenagers use BlackBerry, but there are a few other reasons. BlackBerrys have buttons. Touch screens are slow and hard to use on the move. Buttons can be used with two thumbs making it much faster to type. And BlackBerrys are cool. Maybe you thought the iPhone was cool? It is if you are over 25, but not if you’re a teenager. Just as BBM started to catch on, the BlackBerry was paraded around by the likes of Paris Hilton, various rappers and in Gossip Girl.
Of course the thing about BBM is that it’s adoption is the same happy accident as SMS. It was clearly invented as a business tool, but teenagers liked it because it was fast and cheap. Before BlackBerry knew it they were the teen object of desire.
So why wasn’t it MSN? After all teenagers were already using MSN on their PCs? The primary reason is one of cost. You needed a data tariff on the handset before you could use it. BBM is free. Both handset manufacturers and operators have tried to introduce something similar. In the UK there is Orange friends. Nice idea, but it’s not going to work. Firstly, operator-based communication channels have a history of failure (dare I mention Vodafone 360?). Teenagers don’t mind being tied to a handset, but they don’t like being tied to a particular operator. Operators aren’t cool. Handsets are.
So what about things like Skype, iChat and other messenger services? The short answer is that it’s simply too late. BBM has stolen the market, and it is nearly impossible to catch up. If all your friends are on BBM, switching to another channel is akin to social suicide. There are also a few usability issues to throw in. If you want to use MSN or iChat you need to keep the app open. BBM is already there.
Will BBM see the end of SMS?
There is no evidence that BBM will see the death of SMS. True, teenagers are switching away from email, but they are still using SMS to communicate with those who don’t have BBM (they’re called adults). One key issue is that the last time teenagers adopted a cheap, fast messaging system it was SMS in the 90s and look what happened to that. We are now at a point where more people use SMS globally than make phone calls. SMS also brings massive revenues for the operators. But BBM will not necessarily have the same rate of adoption for a couple of reasons. Firstly, unlike SMS it isn’t universal. It’s only Blackberry and they have little over 5% of the global handset market. SMS was built into every GSM network as standard. Secondly, there’s no significant revenue opportunity for the operators. The value of BBM is in selling handsets. True, the operators make money on their handsets, but their primary source of revenue is in subscriptions – making money from voice, SMS and data (maybe).
From a brand marketing perspective, this means that SMS is still significant. It is still very much the call to action, the thing that more than 90% of people use, more than 90% of text messages are read and more than 90% of people remember what a brand message said. BBM has a long way to go before it can catch that up.