BBM Channels to be the new Social Engagement Tool

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Jeff Deline, vice president of global partnerships at Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., says he is banking on BBM becoming the latest social engagement tool for the company, as it seeks to connect fans with its various properties, namely the Toronto I’m Maple Leafs, Toronto Raptors and Toronto FC.

“People love to know the personalities of the players more closely, and if they can share some of their insights, as I’m sure they will, and their visits and what they’ve done during the week, I think some of that will really resonate,” Mr. Deline said. “Because sometimes that’s tough for us to get out.”

Which doesn’t mean that Mr. Deline is about to start handing out Dion Phaneuf’s BlackBerry PIN to fans outside the Air Canada Centre. Rather, MLSE is one of dozens of brands and organization that have spent the past several months beta testing a new service known as BBM Channels, a big step in the ongoing evolution of BlackBerry’s BBM messaging service.

At the outset, MLSE plans to create BBM Channels for its three major professional teams, while other opportunities for new Channels — perhaps even those associated with individual players — remain possible in the future.

BBM Channels is designed to enable people, brands or companies to set up pages, or channels, within BlackBerry Messenger. Individual BBM users are then able to subscribe to those channels — in a manner similar to following someone on Twitter or subscribing to a page on Facebook — in order to receive updates from and interact with the brands and celebrities they are following through the BBM application.

Where once BBM was a feature exclusive to BlackBerry handsets, designed to help encourage customers to buy a BlackBerry Bold instead of an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy, BlackBerry now sees BBM as a mobile social network, and perhaps almost as important, a potential new source of revenue.

“Mobile engagement for a business or a brand is challenging right now because there’s a lot of different options, be it developing your own native application or one or more platforms, be it mobile or display advertising, be it the social variance in the online social networks, it’s a lot for them to navigate,” David Proulx, senior director of BBM platform business development for BlackBerry, said in an interview.

“BBM Channels is essentially a gateway for those brands or those companies to engage with this very connected, very switched on audience that is entirely mobile and now in excess of 80 million people.”

BlackBerry says dozens of brands have been experimenting with the service throughout the course of the beta program — including MLSE, Tim Hortons and Mercedes — and that more than 30,000 channels, reaching 100,000 BBM users have been set up already.

While brands are able to establish BBM Channels at no cost, BlackBerry believes it can generate revenue by delivering users relevant and targeted sponsored content within the BBM application. BlackBerry officials say the company has no plans to begin placing ads within regular BBM chat streams or Channels, but will look at offering “featured channels” on the BBM landing screen. The company is also exploring other ways to generate revenue within BBM that could include virtual goods or premiums services for enterprise users.

“It needed to grow into more than what it was,” said Andrew Bocking, executive vice president for BBM at BlackBerry. “We’re in the first lap of that new path with the multi-platform launch and we’ve got a number of laps left to go to continue to drive it into the vision that we see for being that truly real time mobile social network.”

For BlackBerry, Channels is one way in which the Waterloo, Ont.-based company hopes it can stand out from some of the other cross-platform instant messaging services which are available on iPhone and Android, including WhatsApp and WeChat, which boast user bases four or five times larger than BBM’s current 80 million users.

“BBM as it is classically known, couldn’t stand on its own,” said Ramon Llamas, mobile phones research manager for International Data Corp.

“People’s tastes and behaviours change, and BBM naturally has to evolve, and that’s why we see things like Voice and BBM Channels and things like that … you have your foundation in there for messaging, but how soon can you ramp that up to be more robust? How are you going to ramp it up and guide it in the direction of a social network?”

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