Messaging app Viber is today announcing a new feature that taps into the bigger trend of messaging apps becoming multi-functional platforms, and also its ownership by e-commerce company Rakuten. Viber will start to present users with items for sale, based on keywords in your current chat, when you press a small shopping bag icon at the bottom of the screen.
The feature is due to go live in the U.S. first, on March 6, before Viber looks to roll it out to other markets. It will kick off with a selection of items from Rakuten’s own Rakuten.com, as well as items curated by some 30 other brands. The full list is not being made public yet, but Djamel Agaoua, the company’s new CEO, told me that one of them will be the department store Macy’s.
Initially the shopping feature will not be letting users make purchases directly on Viber itself — they will either be redirected to the relevant page in a brand’s app via a deeplink, or to a mobile website if the app is not installed — but Agaoua told me that this is definitely the plan longer term.
“We will do purchasing in Viber eventually, but we decided to launch it this way to learn more about how it is used, and to get it out there as soon as possible,” he said. That’s not to say this was a quick turnaround: Viber has been talking about more alignment with its owner Rakuten and tapping into its commerce expertise for new Viber features for years.
But perhaps the time is most ripe now. This is the latest feature from Viber in a series of updates it’s been making over the last several months to bring it up to speed with the rest of the messaging app pack in terms of functionality, but also as a route to making revenues as a business.
“We are looking to transform Viber into a platform without turning to stupid advertising,” Agaoua said in an interview. (Super ironic choice of words from a person who previously worked in — you guessed it — mobile advertising.) “We think that Viber is a natural place for commerce, whether it is shopping or booking restaurants. Every subject that you discuss with your friends, you should be able to get more information about it without leaving the app.”
That’s not to say that Viber’s competitors have resorted to “stupid ads” either. Apps like Messenger, WeChat and Line have been adding a number of features to take their services well beyond that of simple text and picture messaging to make them more useful and more used.
Most notably, Facebook has opened up Messenger as a bot platform, where dozens of third party developers are creating conversational, AI-based assistants to help users buy things, get information and transfer money. WeChat and Line have been enhancing their respective messaging services with additional features like games and purchasing options for years, which has helped them bring in significant revenues and extended user engagement.
One of Viber’s more recent updates was Chat Extensions — which is effectively a search feature that lets users, while in the middle of a conversation with a contact, call up a third-party service to get reference information (eg via Wikipedia) or a GIF (eg through Giphy), and more.
The shopping extension getting announced today, in fact, will sit alongside the Chat Extension: both are called up by way of icons (shopping bag and “@” symbol, respectively) that provide their respective info in the area on the screen where the keyboard might otherwise be.