Mobile instant messaging: The killer app and its implications for marketers

IM users value functionality most, but are not strongly opposed to in-app ads, finds a recently study across 10 Asian markets by Lightspeed Research.

May 29, 2013 03:17:00 PM | Article | Campaign India Team

Lightspeed Research / GMI studied instant messaging at the end of April 2013. The study included 3,113 respondents aged 16 or above, who owned a Smartphone and use social-messaging apps, in Australia, China, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore. Survey respondents came from Lightspeed Research’s MySurvey and GMI’s GlobalTestMarket panels. The results are presented below and in the associated infographic gallery.

Smartphone ownership

Eighty-one per cent of total respondents were smartphone users, with the highest penetration being South Korea at 94 per cent, closely followed by Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, China and Indonesia. A caveat here is that online panelists tend to skew toward early tech adopters (especially in developing countries). Hence smartphone penetration in the study is likely to be slightly higher than among the general population.

Operating systems

Sixty-two per cent of total respondents were Android users, followed by iOS, at 22 per cent. The rest are Symbian, Windows and Blackberry users, which accounted for a small percentage in most markets. In markets such as South Korea and Malaysia, the splits between Android and iOS are extreme, at 87/9 per cent in South Korea and 73/14 per cent in Malaysia. In Australia, the split is closer to 50/50.

The study finds that Android has won market share from iOS recently in many Asian markets, given the variety of phones available at a wider range of prices, which is important in many Asian markets where income ranges are also greater than many developed markets. The iPhone is seen as a premium phone and is unaffordable for many in Asia.

It is also interesting to note Blackberry's famously strong market share in Indonesia, with similar shares to Android, while iOS only accounts for 5 per cent of the market. However, aside from Indonesia, Blackberry only recorded a single-digit share in most APAC markets.

Mobile instant-messaging usage

Eighty-nine per cent of total smartphone users interviewed are current users of mobile instant-messaging apps. The highest percentage is found in South Korea, followed by China, Hong Kong and Indonesia, where more than 95 per cent of smartphone users are using mobile instant-messaging apps. One of the lowest usage rates is in Australia, where 36 per cent of smartphone users are NOT using mobile instant messaging.

There is nothing to suggest that mobile instant messaging is used only by younger age groups.

Forty-three per cent of total respondents send and receive more than 10 messages a day, with 10 per cent claiming they send and receive more than 50 messages a day. There are no significant country differences, except that in countries where the penetration for instant messaging apps is high, the percentage of heavy users also seems to be higher (examples include Indonesia, Hong Kong and South Korea).

App awareness

The mobile instant-messaging apps people are most aware of in these 10 countries are Facebook Messenger,  Skype,  WhatsApp, Yahoo Messenger and Google Talk, in the order of mostly mentioned. Facebook Messenger has the most awareness in Indonesia, the Philippines and India. WhatsApp is most known in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong. The “local heroes” are Kakao Talk for South Korea and QQ for China, which own most of the market in their home countries.

Amongst the 34 instant-messaging apps mentioned in the survey, the top five dominate 40 per cent of total share of awareness, and the top three received similar counts. Each respondent on average is aware of five to six different instant-messaging apps.

Most popular apps

WhatsApp dominates the region with 28 per cent of respondents saying it is the app they use most often, followed by Facebook Messenger with 13 per cent. A user base of 28 per cent of all Smartphone users in the 10 countries studied is very large, and we believe it will be a real challenge for others to catch up in the near future.

However, WhatsApp is not the leader in all countries. For example, Kakao Talk in South Korea is the one being used most often (90 per cent) and the second most-used app, Line, is the favourite of only 3 per cent. A similar situation was found for China, where more than 50 per cent of respondents said QQ is the one they use most often, followed by WeChat at 25 per cent. For Indonesia, it is Blackberry Messenger, due to the high penetration of Blackberry users. Line is most popular in Japan, with 56 per cent of respondents in Japan using it most often.

App loyalty

We asked respondents which app they would switch to if their favourite were no longer available.

The three most popular choices here, in order of importance are, WeChat, Line and Facebook Messenger, with a more or less even spread. It is interesting to note that both WeChat and Line have launched some above-the-line advertising campaigns in some of the countries included in the study. Does it mean that this advertising is working? 

A surprising finding from our research here is that 21 per cent of all respondents claimed they would not pick any of the 34 mobile instant-messaging apps mentioned. Where is the gap and opportunity? Why is WhatsApp so much more popular than the others? What could others do to catch up?

Asked what would make them switch apps, the top three reasons given were

  1. It is no longer free of charge
  2. Most of my friends stopped using the app
  3. The app crashes too often.

What is interesting from this question is that attributes such as the ability to play games and availability of emoticons are seen as much less important. Users value the functionality and reliability of such apps, rather than the add-on fancy features.

Another interesting finding here is that “introducing an advertising element when using the app” proved not to be strongly unpopular amongst the respondents; for most people, the addition of advertising would not be a reason to switch apps. Does this imply that app owners can consider allowing advertisers to insert some ad and use this as a path for additional revenue stream? What extent and what form of advertising would users accept?

User motivations

When we asked people why they started using instant-messaging apps, we found no real surprises, as the majority of responses given involved staying in touch, that the apps are free, and that they make it easy to share photos and videos.

What we did find interesting was some of the verbatim responses given by older respondents, which were all about staying in touch with children and grandchildren or being “in with the group”. For example, a 69-year-old woman in Australia wrote the following: “The marriage of my two sons and the distance they live away from home and the grandchildren is the only reason why I started using this.”


In our opinion, this study reveals several areas of opportunity: For media buyers who can figure out how to maximise return on investment using this medium (while realising the medium may be an effective way to reach older consumers as well as digital natives), for creative agencies who can devise effective advertising within apps, and for telcos and app developers to capitalise on the key areas of growth.

Jeff Tsui is senior director, Lightspeed Research, Hong Kong.

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