BlackBerry looks to get money from its BBM chat service with new offerings

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TORONTO – BlackBerry is about to launch an update to its popular BlackBerry Messenger chat service that it hopes will rake in some extra coin.

The Waterloo, Ont.-based technology firm is looking to generate revenue with its BBM app through sponsorships with brand names and by launching a new BBM Shop that deals in virtual goods.

The plan delivers on a promise last year when it said BBM, which has grown to more than 85 million since the chat service became available to iPhones and Android devices, would become a money-making business.

The company has no intentions to start charging most users for the app, opting instead for various other hooks to drive revenues, from selling enhanced emoticons known as “stickers” to the eventual launch of a secure payment platform.

“At no point should monetization come at the expense of the user,” said David Proulx, senior director of BBM Business Development at a meeting with reporters Tuesday.

“Approaches we’re taking all — in their own way — add incremental value to the BBM experience.”

The technology community was skeptical when BlackBerry first talked about plans to make the BBM service a viable business, but over the past few months chat applications have grabbed the attention of investors after Facebook purchased the competing service WhatsApp for US$19 billion.

Now it’s up to BlackBerry to generate money from its own service without alienating users.

When an update to the BBM software is released “within the next week,” the company will open the doors to a new virtual shop which will heavily promote a line of virtual stickers designed by various artists.

While the “sticker” phenomenon has yet to truly catch on in North America, it’s wildly popular in Asia where it has become an important form of communication online, Proulx said.

Facebook’s messaging service has its own line of large and colourful pictures that users can use to convey their emotions.

BlackBerry hopes to expand stickers to include partners like World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. Companies will either share revenues from sales or pay BlackBerry to give out free stickers with its product on them, perhaps to help market a new movie or promote a soda.

Further sponsorship deals will be made through an updated version of its BBM Channels service, which will allow users to follow their favourite companies or download sponsored apps that are catered to their specific interests, whether its music, sports or business.

For corporate users, BlackBerry will launch BBM Protected this summer. Companies can purchase the enhanced level of encryption as part its enterprise services.

In the longer term, BlackBerry hopes to turn BBM into a mobile financial services tool that will allow users to link their bank account to their phone for easier payments.

While the company tested out a early version of the idea with BBM Money in Indonesia, Proulx said it will still be awhile before other parts of the world get to access similar technology.

BlackBerry is scheduled to report its fourth-quarter and year-end financial results early Friday.

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