Viber, a leading messaging and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) application, has reached 900 million users since it was founded in 2010. Since Myanmar opened its telecommunications market, Viber has become the country’s market leader.
The Irrawaddy’s Burmese editor, Yeni, sat down with Anubhav Nayyar, Viber’s head of business development for Southeast and South Asia, last week in Yangon to talk about the company’s strategies and plans locally and globally.
How has Viber become one of the leading messaging and VoIP applications globally?
Viber has reached some 900 million users in seven years. What makes us special is that we have strong markets across the world including Southeast and South Asia along with Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe. People love using Viber across markets.
Myanmar is an important market. They appreciate the service and we are happy to invest time and resources in the country.
Can you explain your advantage globally and regionally in reference to competitors like LINE, Facebook and WeChat?
A number of things differentiate us. We offer features that are relevant and appealing at the local level, and they differ regionally.
We ensure that not only are we constantly innovating but innovating in a relevant manner — that is number one.
The second point is that localization is very important, so we have the term “glocalization,” ensuring that while you are global you are also locally relevant. We offer a lot of local content and local partnerships, varying from country to country.
To give you a Myanmar example, we have partnered with various organizations and various business groups inside Myanmar, ranging from partnerships with telcos, media, brands, etc.
We also work with some of the local influencers such as Sai Sai and Phway Phway.
Localized, relatable and relevant content [such a localized stickers] helps, while also taking user feedback to heart.
We know that in 2014 Viber controlled 79 percent of the market in Myanmar. What percent of the market do you hold today?
Unfortunately there are no official reports on the market, not only here but globally. Messaging is also very personal, so it’s sometimes very difficult for anybody to track because there are people who are using multiple apps.
The challenge for us as the market leader is to get more and more people to use Viber, which basically means that we look at it from two perspectives.
There are existing users; we need to keep offering new and more relevant features to them.
And then there are smartphones, which are really growing in Myanmar right now. What that means is that every day there are thousands of people across the country who are using a smartphone for the first time, who are probably using the internet for the first time. So it’s important that we offer services that are very, very relevant to them. Our ambition is that practically anyone and everyone here in Myanmar uses our services.
Is Myanmar still small compared to other regional markets? Can you explain how Viber can monetize its services here?
Myanmar is not a small market. From a regional perspective, Myanmar is very important to us. I try to make a trip at least every month, which is not a lot. But at least, I ensure that I am meeting our consumers.
Smartphone market penetration is exploding. Internet is now starting to be available in every corner of the country. This is a good area for us to focus on going forward.
There are currently three areas that we monetize. First is Viber Out. You can use your Viber application and call any number in the world that does not have Internet or does not have Viber.
The second is stickers. We have paid stickers and stickers that are completely free. In Europe, the United States and other parts of Asia people pay for stickers, but here not so much.
The third is partnering with businesses looking for native advertisements within the app.
How does Viber ensure safety and security for its customers?
Viber has end-to-end encryption, which means that conversations between two individuals or in a group setting are completely private and everything that is spoken or shared between those people stays that way. The conversation cannot be accessed by anybody, including Viber.
There is concern that Viber and other social media platforms can be used for hate speech, illegal activity and exploitation by banned organizations. How can you stop that?
It is very difficult for us to state an opinion about conversations between two individuals that are encrypted end-to-end — what is right and what is wrong — as we are a communication platform.
We also have public accounts, where companies can talk brands, promote content, etc. In some countries such as Sri Lanka or the Philippines, we even have governments partnering with us and having their own public accounts.
If it’s a conversation happening between two people, we do not have access to that data, so it’s very difficult to have any opinion on that. But in a public chat or public account, there is already a way for people to flag content as offensive. We have a content moderation team for our public accounts that is always accessible, and such content is flagged off.
There is a new generation of IT innovators growing here in Myanmar. How do you view them, and does Viber have any plans to work with them?
The growth that Myanmar has shown over the last two to four years is deeper and steeper that before. I think it is because of this particularly young force. It is a fairly young market.
When I say young market I mean a lot of working-class, young people out there who have their entire careers ahead of them. We have been working with a lot of companies and we have a lot of partners over here, and it’s just been a great experience working with people over here. We are very open to working with different companies, different brands, different organizations, and in some cases freelancers.
I have also got some idea of the talent over here, and the talent is very good. In the case of some specific projects or assignments we connect with locals over here purely because only from Myanmar would you understand Myanmar and the smaller things very well.