While Rakuten Viber may be a small player in Japan, its popularity has soared in the Philippines where it has become one of the country's most popular messaging apps, making the southeast Asian nation a prime launching pad for new features along the company's path to becoming a "super app."

The Japanese-owned cross-platform app's strong presence in the Philippines -- where it has a user penetration of 71 percent -- can be attributed to the country's cultural dynamics that see a significant number of Filipinos seeking job opportunities abroad, according to Viber CEO Ofir Eyal.

Promotional image of business tools available on Rakuten Viber. (Photo courtesy of Viber Media S.a r.l)(Kyodo)

"The Philippines, often dubbed the 'text capital of the world,' boasts a deep-rooted culture of text communication that smoothly transitioned to Viber. This shift solidified Viber as a primary means of connecting with friends and family, even those residing overseas," said Eyal.

Viber was launched in 2010 by a group of Israeli friends who wanted to find a solution to expensive international phone calls. Originally registered in Cyprus, the application which functions across mobile and PC operating systems allows users to call and send messages for free, as well as make cheap calls to non-Viber users.

Japanese tech conglomerate Rakuten Group Inc. purchased it for $900 million in 2014 to expand its e-commerce business. It has since rolled out a range of features on the app including end-to-end encryption, group calls and an API for chatbots.

In Japan, Viber trails far behind Line which dominates the messaging app market with an 83.7 percent smartphone user penetration, according to a January survey by Japanese telecommunications firm NTT Docomo Inc.'s Mobile Society Research Institute.

Despite lagging in Japan, as of 2023 Viber has surpassed 1.4 billion downloads worldwide, with more than 250 million monthly active users. The app is a popular choice in some Middle Eastern and Eastern European countries, including Ukraine, where it is said to be installed on 98 percent of smartphones.

During a visit to Ukraine on Sept. 9, Rakuten Group Chairman and CEO Hiroshi Mikitani said his company is committed to blocking fake news and Russian propaganda on Viber, adding that he is "cooperating with the Ukrainian government and telecommunication companies in reconstruction."

While Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, both owned by U.S. tech giant Meta Platforms Inc., command high user penetration around the world, Viber has eclipsed the latter in the Philippines, a September 2021 survey by local public opinion polling body Pulse Asia Research Inc. showed.

Users in the Philippines say they prefer Viber to other rival apps for its ease of use, security, and versatile range of features, including stickers, games and public chats.

Users also have the ability to set a self-destruct timer for each message in a chat, as well as make purchases within the app, while businesses can create a public profile to interact directly with customers.

Thea Balinas, a 25-year-old law student in Manila, said she uses Viber for career-related communications and to purchase products, while Jessica Galang, 31, said she uses it a few times a week to order food and drinks.

Online business owner Rhona Bigalan, 29, who started using the app in 2019 to communicate with her colleagues and clients, said she prefers it because "it has advanced features (such as) secure and customized messages, and can make calls locally or internationally."

In addition to being vital to the Philippines' large diaspora, Viber's growth in the country can also be attributed to the prominence of micro-businesses -- those with between one to nine staff -- which, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority, comprised 90.5 percent of all registered enterprises in 2021.

With the emergence of e-commerce platforms, mobile app services, and online marketplaces that simplify the process of establishing budding Filipino businesses, the country was an easy choice for Rakuten Viber to debut its new suite of tools for small and micro businesses earlier this month.

Rakuten Viber CEO Ofir Eyal. (Photo courtesy of Viber Media S.a r.l)(Kyodo)

"The pandemic led to a surge in Viber's use as a versatile conversational-commerce tool for businesses. Micro-businesses found Viber's features like Communities and Channels invaluable for engaging with customers," said Eyal.

Conversational commerce, which refers to the use of a messaging app or other tools to directly market products and services to a consumer, surged by 83 percent in the Philippines in 2022, compared to 17 percent globally, according to the firm.

After rolling out Viber business products for large enterprises, the company said it recorded 16 percent growth in business message accounts created, and a 603 percent increase in transactional messages in 2022.

Nene Tamayo, who opened Nene Prime Foods in 2014 to sell gourmet "bangus" milkfish in jars and other Filipino specialties, was an early tester of Viber's new tools now available for small businesses.

"Now, customers can find my business when they search for Filipino food and reach out directly over one-to-one chats," said Tamayo.

Rakuten Viber is also aiming to launch its payment service Viber Pay, currently only available in Germany and Greece, in the Philippines next year, the firm said, moving it one step closer to its goal of becoming a global "super app."

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