Viber will launch on April 1 a controversial strategy of charging $ 4.5K per month to chatbot operators to send up to 500K of messages to users on its platform

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Viber, the courier application owned by the Japanese online trading company Rakuten, is about to implement a controversial new strategy that will entail costs for companies that manage chatbots on its platform.

The conventional wisdom is to work with content companies to help users access and keep messaging platforms engaged, but Viber, which has struggled to keep pace with rivals like WhatsApp and Line, is overturning situation.

As of April 1st, Viber will charge $ 4,500 per month to chatbot operators for their ability to send up to 500,000 messages to users. Those who go beyond this beach will be able to send up to one million messages per month for $ 6,500. The new fees are being passed on to companies that operate Viber chatbots, but Viber has suggested that its new monetization plans are noted in an email to TechCrunch.

"The robots can be published for free; However, to ensure the best discovery and the best quality of content for robots, we will introduce a commercial commitment in the coming months. The main goal of this operation is to ensure that users receive a constant stream of highly relevant and relevant content, and a commercial engagement is one of the key tools to ensure a quality user experience, "Debbi Dougherty, Viber B2B Marketing & Communications Manager, explained.

This is a risky strategy that will probably alienate companies that exploit chatbots on Viber, as well as brands that have opted for a bot strategy.

These costs appeared unexpectedly, much to the surprise of startups who spent time developing chatbots for the Viber platform.

"For an early start, it will not work," TechCrunch Edmundas Balčikonis, co-founder of Eddy Travels, a travel assistance service currently part of the Techstars Toronto program, told TechCrunch.

Balčikonis said his startup was attracted to the Viber platform because it provided all the documentation and APIs needed to create a chatbot from the start and in public. After spending eight months developing his Viber bot, Eddy Travels plans to double his efforts with Facebook Messenger and Telegram, where his robot-based service runs at no cost and has seen multiple users and more commitment.

"Viber encouraged us to build the bot, but never discussed the price and there is no price in the documentation of the website," he said. "Messenger is showing a lot more strength for us … we had no significant engagement on Viber."

Indeed, the strategy seems to be quite the opposite that Viber must adopt to gain market share from the leaders of the chat application. WhatsApp – the largest email service in the world with more than 1.6 billion active users a month – currently does not support chatbots, but instead of taking advantage of its strengths, Viber is trying to reduce its number of chatbots business under the guise of "a quality user experience".

The times are already hard at Viber. TechCrunch spoke to six chatbot startups that are developing a range of services for customers, including banks, insurance companies and media, but we have not found any projects on Viber. Everyone said that his desire to work on the Viber platform would decrease further if he was forced to pay for the privilege.

Viber is popular in some parts of the world, including the Philippines, Myanmar and some Eastern European markets. The current managing director, Djamel Agaoua, a seasoned advertising executive, has promised to work on the business figure and the business model when he will take the helm in 2017. Under his leadership, Viber has pushed its function of Community discussion for brands and attempts to use e-commerce, but little is known about progress.

Rakuten's latest 2018 financial report was released this month and it makes little mention of Viber, other than the fact that the service and Rakuten Mobile, its MVNO offering in Japan, had "significantly increased their revenues through their aggressive sales activities on a large scale. "

Gross figures were not provided, but Rakuten's "Internet Services" division, which hosts Viber and Rakuten Mobile, saw its annual turnover increase by 15.9 percent to 788.4 billion yen. That's about $ 7.1 billion, and that sounds awesome, but the bulk of that revenue comes from Rakuten Mobile, which has partnered with the traditional operator KDDI to try to break into the mobile phone market in Japan.

What we know about Viber is that it has increased the monetization of its content (advertising, sponsored stickers, etc.) and that it now accounts for the bulk of its turnover, exceeding the revenue generated through Viber VoIP call plans.

But again, there is no raw data on earnings. In addition, Rakuten no longer provides information about active users of Viber, which has reportedly registered more than one billion users since its inception in 2011. This is not an informative statistic.

Things seem so bad that Viber does not even provide an active user number to advertisers, according to a pitch deck seen by TechCrunch. The data presented includes a selection of actions that Viber claims by the minute, including 1.2 million connections, but there are no monthly statistics on active users. Barcelona, ​​which counts Rakuten as a sponsor, and Coca-Cola are among the brands that use Viber.

Now, the monetization of the content of the service has spread to online discussions, but the obvious risk is that companies and brands simply go elsewhere, where, frankly, they already have a larger and more captive audience.

Rakuten bought Viber for $ 900 million in January 2014, just a month before Facebook paid $ 19 billion to acquire WhatsApp. The Viber case seemed prescient. Admittedly, it was not as big as WhatsApp, but it was comparable – 300 million registered against 450 million active assets – and its association with a large Internet company would bring a budget and greater opportunities.

The sad reality of today, however, is that WhatsApp has become one of the most important social services in the world, but Viber has failed. Policies as improvident as the monetization of chatbots will allow Viber to continue playing the same role. It certainly was not the way Rakuten was considering buying.