Heather Galt knows what it’s like to lead a marketing team for a major communications company. For 10 years, until August 2011, she held various consumer and B2B marketing positions at Research in Motion — now named BlackBerry.

Now the head of marketing for the messaging app Kik, she handles a platform whose brand is in many ways a polar opposite of her former employer. Whereas Research in Motion had to change its name to BlackBerry due to confusion and brand equity issues, Kik’s brand is a memorable, three-character word that doubles as a verb (Kik users say “Kik me” to request new contacts on the platform). While BlackBerrys are now considered passé, Kik couldn’t be cooler — 70 percent of its 150 million registered users are between 13 and 25, Galt said. And while BlackBerry continues its slide into irrelevance, Kik is signing up approximately 250,000 new users per day, she added.

These are all good signs for Kik now that it’s trying to attract advertisers and publishers. Kik thinks it can help brands reach its coveted set of young users while helping publishers distribute and monetize their stories on mobile. But like BlackBerry with smartphones, Kik will have no shortage of challenges. First, it must stay differentiated in the increasingly competitive world of mobile messaging. To boot, its points of differentiation — that it’s private and, at times, risqué — may hinder its advertising promise.

What makes Kik special is that — unlike other popular mobile messaging apps like Line, Snapchat and WhatsApp — Kik does not require users to sign up with their phone numbers. Rather, users have usernames — like AOL’s Instant Messenger before it — thus giving users more control over whom they interact with, Galt said.

“You have full control over who you talk to and what information we might know about you,” Galt said. “If someone is bothering me, they’re not going to call me at 3 in the morning and I’m not going to have to change my phone number.”

Providing a more private environment has also been an effective way for Kik to differentiate itself from non-messaging platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which are inherently more public. There have been more than 18.7 million Instagram photos tagged #kikme, presumably so Instagram users can chat one-to-one on Kik. There’s even an Instagram account dedicated to helping users find new Kik contacts.

The audience has grown considerably over the past year — from 10.6 million U.S. uniques in July 2013 to 17.8 million this July, according to comScore, a 67.7 percent increase.

Kik’s ability to facilitate one-to-one conversations is also integral to its ads pitch: Brands can promote their Kik accounts to attract followers and then message that audience at will.

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After allowing several brands, platforms and publishers — including Funny or Die, Moviefone and The Weinstein Company — to promote their Kik accounts for free this summer, Kik is now starting to charge for promoted accounts, Galt said. Earlier results have been positive, she said: Funny or Die attracted 1 million new users in July alone.

Galt added that 10 percent of Funny or Die’s Kik connections have viewed the videos sent to them. Considering promoted accounts began in July, it’s hard to gauge whether that constitutes a success. But it’s odd that a vast majority of the users who opted in to receiving messages from a publisher would decline to view what they’ve been sent.

“We really wanted to make sure that any opportunity we offered to brands was not intruding on the core messaging experience,” Galt said. “The messages are there when you want to open it.”

Such is the duality of so-called private platforms when it comes to monetizing: When users expect privacy on a platform, they tend to be more averse to advertising.

“The hardest part is being authentic. Almost as soon as advertisements are there, you’ve ruined the experience for this audience,” TBWA\Chiat\Day’s director of digital strategy, Rohit Thawani, told Digiday.

And that audience is young Americans who have a healthy amount of cynicism and self-righteous indignation, especially when it comes to advertising, Thawani added.

There’s also the conception that Kik’s privacy features essentially make it a sexting app. Indeed, many Instagram users who promote their Kik accounts do so by showing off their profiles or abdominals. When asked what kind of brands would be best-suited for Kik, Thawani suggested Durex and Trojan.

Galt said that such associations are overblown and that surveys show Kik users primarily talk with their friends.

But if brands are to be successful on Kik and other messaging apps, they need offer utility, Thawani added. “I’m not sure that most brands can say they belong there.”

Image via Shutterstock

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