Kik Inc. plans to reboot and resurrect QR code technology for its booming chat platform, in the hopes that it can some day unleash its teenaged user base on new forms of physical and e-commerce.
Canada's latest billion-dollar tech company, based in Waterloo, Ont., is launching a variant of the square QR code it calls "Kik Codes", circular images that act as a sort of visual hyperlink. The initial use will be to quickly add a new chat contact or share the location of a chat group – Kik's version of old-time message boards.
"QR codes were really quite a failure in North America in particular," says Mike Roberts, Kik's head of messenger services. "In North America QR codes didn't really mean anything, they meant probably brand advertising, 'send me to a Web page for a cheap coupon.' They didn't have quality content and experiences on the other side, so why would I scan that?"
In China, Mr. Roberts says the story is quite different. The dominant chat platform there is WeChat, and it has successfully integrated QR codes into its app and into physical commerce. Users can scan a vending machine's QR code with WeChat to purchase a product.
WeChat is owned by Tencent, which announced a $50-million (U.S.) investment in Kik in August.
Kik has more than 240 million users, and says that 40 per cent of U.S. teens use the app. The company has said that the U.S. teenager segment is the most analogous market to China, where mobile phones are the first touchpoint to the Internet.
Kik is not launching its codes with any brand or commerce partners, but instead is focusing first on user growth. The codes are designed to take the multi-step process of signing up new friends into a two-step activity. This is designed to remove what app designers call "friction" to the user experience – any clumsy moments that give a user a chance to reconsider using the service.
"The biggest impediment to someone using your app or finding their friends is that initial experience, that initiation of the experience," Mr. Roberts says. "Once you're in and once you're chatting we try to make the most engaging experience by giving you really delightful content and really fast experience. But if we can't get you over that initial hurdle, sending that first message, everything else that we do is entirely moot."
The other advantage in the early going is that Twitter or Instagram celebrities – and other media/brand personalities – can share their Kik codes on other platforms which users can scan to join them on Kik.
Kik is in a race to lock in the most valuable chunk of the online chatting public, competing with WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and a half-dozen other chat apps that have hundreds of millions of users. Kik has long stated it hopes to be the WeChat of the West. WeChat has 600 million users.