BlackBerry is finally starting to look at BBM as a business, and not just a complimentary chat service to its core smartphones.
The company's next update for the messenger service introduces a number of elements -- including stickers and sponsored posts -- that are designed to generate revenue. The update will be available to BlackBerry, Android, and iOS users, and is scheduled to launch next week.
It's a sign of things to come for BlackBerry, according to David Proulx, senior director of BBM business development for the company. He teased more revenue-generating features and services that would come to BBM as the company increasingly looks to take advantage of its 85 million registered users.
Mobile messaging services are red hot right now off the heels of Facebook's $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp. Last week, Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group led a financing round of $280 million in messaging app Tango. Interest in these apps goes beyond the core chat functions, potentially allowing for additional services.
"There's a broad scope of opportunity," Proulx told CNET. He added, however, that the additions wouldn't intrude on the core chatting experience, and that it would remain focused on messaging first.
BlackBerry touts not only the 85 million registered users figure, but also the statistic that 65 percent of its monthly active users are also active on a daily basis, which Proulx said was key to the adoption of these kinds of services.
BlackBerry could certainly use the financial support. It posted a third-quarter loss of $4.4 billion, and will likely be in the red for the next few quarters -- at least. The company is scheduled to release its fiscal fourth quarter on March 28.
Of course, the revenue from the BBM will be a drop in the bucket, and isn't likely to have a significant impact for a while. But it's a start.
Jumping on the sticker craze
You wouldn't think a company with a reputation for security and its work with larger corporations would be so high on virtual stickers, but that was the leadoff pitch in BlackBerry's BBM monetization strategy.
The latest update for BBM brings BBM Shop, which is its platform to sell virtual goods. Proulx insisted that anything sold on BBM Shop would be relevant to the BBM chat experience, helping to augment or enhance it.
"It's not going to be a flea market," he said.
The first goods found in the BBM Shop will be virtual stickers. BlackBerry has commissioned an artist to create a number of stickers to begin with, but it will also launch with stickers based on the WWE professional wrestling property, as well as the UK children's stop-motion animated show "Shaun the Sheep."
Proulx acknowledged that stickers have limited popularity in the US, relegated largely to younger users. But he said that they are extremely popular in Asia, and he sees the trend expanding in other markets. The company will work to ensure geographically relevant content for users, he said.
BBM Shop will eventually host other virtual wares, but Proulx declined to talk about its future plans.
Doing more with BBM Channels
The update, meanwhile, will also add more capabilities with BBM Channel, its Twitter-esque means of broadcasting thoughts, messages, or links to content to a broader range of people than the typical one-to-one BBM message.
BBM Channels has a featured channels page, where it will charge certain companies for a prominent position. The company will also charge for sponsored posts that will pop up on the "Updates" section of BBM, which provides a feed of status changes and other new messages from channels.
The sponsored posts will be clearly marked as such, and will offer an invitation to join that particular BBM Channel.
BlackBerry will also allow select advertisers and companies pay for sponsored invitations that would pop up in the "received" section of a user's "Invites" section.
The sponsored posts and invitations border could be seen as intrusive to BBM users, bordering pure advertisements.
But Proulx said BlackBerry would limit the number of companies able to send sponsored posts or invitations, as well as limit the frequency. For example, he said users would only get a low-single-digit number of invitations each month.
The company would work to make sure the invitations and posts are at least geographically relevant to people. BBM users can also choose to ignore the company sending a sponsored post, preventing them from getting a post from that company again. There isn't, however, a way to opt out of it completely.
For companies looking to build their brand, this is a relatively inexpensive and easy way to set up a presence with mobile users.
To give a sense of adoption of BBM Channels, one of its featured channels, WWE, has 112,274 subscribers. Time magazine has 67,380 subscribers.
Proulx also teased additional work with BBM that will help it generate more revenue down the line. BlackBerry has already touted its Enterprise BBM suite of services, and Proulx said the first such service will be BBM Protected, which companies to pay an extra fee for an added layer of encryption to both the delivery and storage of BBM messages. That includes protection for messages exchanged within the company, as well as two companies that subscribe to BBM Protected.
Proulx stressed that BBM Protected wouldn't mean a separate version of the chat application. If the message goes to a coworker within the company, they are automatically encrypted without the employee having to do anything. The encryption would happen on the server end.
BBM Protected will be the first service under the Enterprise BBM umbrella of features, Proulx said, who targeted a summer launch.
BlackBerry is also looking to get into the mobile financial services business -- albeit in a limited way -- by linking a person's bank account to their BBM profile, allowing them to send or receive money via their phone. Proulx noted that BlackBerry is already holding trials for BBM Money in Indonesia, and could eventually expand the capability elsewhere. A local bank handles the transactions and money transfers, but BBM acts as the bridge connecting the two.
"We have no plans to be a bank," he said.
He said he didn't have any specific information on whether the trial gets expanded, or whether BBM Money actually makes it to the US.
It's one of the services he said could add value to BBM without taking away from the chat experience, an example of the fine line BlackBerry will have to walk to ensure that it doesn't anger its customer base.