I love emoticons. They’re great. My personal favourites are the smiley face guy with the sunglasses, and the wink, followed by what I can only describe as the “ok” emoticon. I’ve developed an expertise in the language (and it is a language) of emoticon. Crafting a sentence, or describing a situation with a string of emoticons has become an art form. Emoticons are ubiquitous, and as digital communication has evolved,emoticons have become the language of the mobile generation.

Then I saw stickers …

I first encountered stickers several months ago on Path, and my immediate reaction could only be described as disappointment. I had anxiously been wondering how Path would eventually monetize. The company alluded many times to at some point offering “premium features” that would provide “obvious” value to their users. At the time, the company offered premium photo filters, but I naively believed these forthcoming features would be truly valuable, and enhance my ability to share important moments with close family and friends (the core tenets of the company). Then they released the stickers - I hated the stickers! Were these the premium features we were waiting for? Is this really it? Stickers?

Path however, was not alone, soon followed: MessageMe, Facebook, Couple, Kik, and basically any other mobile messaging application. Not only did I think these stickers seemed cheap, ugly, and mundane — but I thought they were a lazy way to monetize, and I was disappointed that these consumer technology juggernauts couldn’t do any better. It was shocking to me that the most effective business model these companies could manifest was throwing a couple stickers on their messaging platform and hope some teenage girls would discretely purchase them to the dismay of their parents. I even had a well respected VC suggest that we rethink our business model for the consumer mobile application I founded, and focus on stickers, or a similar type of virtual good. I was dumbfounded. Was this really the best some of our most talented engineers, designers, and business minds could come up with? Did “peak sticker” represent our cultural low point? More importantly, were people actually buying these things? To my chagrin, people were buying stickers … lots of them.

“If any app can make a giant like Facebook rethink their strategy, then that is the surest sign of the potential power of these services”

As many people know, stickers were first introduced by the popular Asian mobile application Line. With 230 million registered users, the app has seen phenomenal traction of late. Not only were they the first movers in the sticker game, but they were the first to truly scale sticker distribution. Line announced that last month, they generated $10 million in sticker revenue alone, and their users were sending 1 billion stickers per day. Naturally, I had to see what all the fuss was about and 10 days ago I downloaded the app. Something shocking happened: I added FC Barcelona as a friend, and was prompted to download their own branded sticker pack, and I saw this guy (the Lionel Messi sticker)…

Messi Sticker from Line App

Now, I’m not really a soccer fan, but I do love sports. I found that I couldn’t stop playing around with these Barca stickers. I then downloaded the Real Madrid sticker pack. Sure enough, these stickers were awesome. It was at that moment that I saw the true value in the sticker phenomenon.

Here’s the thing with stickers, like emoticons stickers are a language, with each pack of stickers representing a different dialect. When you don’t speak the language of a specific sticker pack — the stickers are irrelevant, and likely appear insignificant. However, if you do speak the language, if Brown the bear, Cony the rabbit, (Line characters popular in Asia) or Lionel Messi resonates with you, then stickers become a personalized creative way to communicate with friends. When stickers provide this connection, an emotional bond is forged with the application providing a compelling value added reason to adopt a specific mobile platform — a massive achievement in the crowded messaging space.

Path, has two sticker packs that I really love the NFLPA pack and the Breaking Bad pack, and both represent the future of stickers, and the value they bring to users, brands, and consumer applications:

Stickers allow users to foster an emotional and financial investment in messaging applications. As a fan of both football and the Breaking Bad, these stickers are deeply personalized to my tastes, and I’d much prefer to use these packs over any emoticons. More importantly , I’ve actually spent real money ($1.99) on both of these packs and now have a vested interest in continuing to use the application. I want to use the stickers I just purchased, and my hope is that I will be able to shepherd some friends into Path’s messaging app in order to do so (which I effectively did last night when watching Breaking Bad.) Stickers also provide value to apps because they provide a competitive advantage amongst other mobile messaging platform. The mobile messaging space has never been more crowded. Previously the key differentiator would be traction and scale. Since the core experience of all mobile messaging was virtually the same the platform was only as valuable as the people on it. Now, with stickers, the inverse is true, it’s the app that provides value not just its users. The adoption of stickers allow mobile messaging apps to engineer their own barriers to entry providing reasons for retention and engagement.

Both of these packs on Path were launched to coincide with the start of the NFL season, and the final season of Breaking Bad, cunning marketing strategies for both brands. On a daily basis users now literally have their feelings tied to these brands, as they express themselves through these graphical depictions. As a user there is a negative association to the brand when they pollute my Facebook or Twitter feed with with “sponsored or promoted” materials — that is not the case with branded sticker packs. For brands, stickers may be the most efficient advertising mechanism on mobile

Strategically, brands can now collect data on most used stickers in these applications and adjust their a marketing and creative efforts to coincide with fan reaction: teams can print jerseys of specific players more efficiently; TV shows can assess fans reactions and decide when to raise that characters profile; and movies have data on what actor should be most prominently displayed on their promotional materials. Mobile messaging apps provide measurable distribution and engagement platforms for these icons at a low cost. On Line, the football team packs are given away for free so long as the team is added as a friend. Now FC Barca can communicate personalized messages to me across the world based on my personal engagement with their stickers. In the not too distant future, every sports team, brand, TV show, and movie will likely have their own sticker pack the same way they had their own toys a generation ago. Yet different than toys, stickers require no manufacturing costs, are measurable in real time, and are capable of being used daily. Stickers represent the first native mobile experience between brands and fans, and represent a massive opportunity.

Are stickers an insignificant trend representing a low point in digital communication? The sheer volume of revenue stickers have collectively generated for mobile messaging applications can not be taken lightly. With more forthcoming brand partnerships, revenue and engagement tied to stickers will likely continue to grow exponentially. One need not look further than the originator of stickers to assess the validity of the sticker phenomenon as the future success of Line will likely be a microcosm of what will become of stickers. Is it merely an an Asian trend used by teenagers? Or, will Line become the seminal mobile global media and entertainment platform? If my personal transformation is an indication, the future is bright for both stickers and Line.