Imoji prepares to open its sticker and emoji platform up to brands

At this point I think the world knows that stickers and emoji aren’t frivolous. There are certainly plenty of examples to suggest that this new kinda of media type is being taken more seriously than it was, say, a year or two ago.

Messaging app Line, which held a successful US-Japan IPO this year, is the best example: it grossed $280 million from selling stickers in 2015. Outside of Asia, Apple has revamped iMessage with a focus on media and integrated other apps, while Twitter is charging brands to offer promoted stickers to users, while Snapchat continues to use visual stickers.

“Two years ago, it is was fairly unacceptable for two guys to send each other emojis. Now it’s an accepted part of interactions, even on a professional level,” Tom Smith, CEO and co-founder of Imoji, told me in an interview.

Well, you’d hope that Smith and Imoji would know, given that they offer a platform that powers sticker sending on mobile devices. It’s been nearly 18 months since Smith’s startup launched an SDK to put potentially millions of custom emoji into any app.

Unlike Line and others who license specific content for stickers, Imoji takes an open stance in that it allows anyone to basically make any kind of sticker/emoji and then put it into their collection.

So, in essence, Imoji’s two-sided approach is to enable users to make stickers, and apps to let their users get access to them. Smith disclosed that Imoji currently has over 80 developer partners which reach 15 million active users each month. That collective, he added, sends “billions” of stickers per month — in addition, Imoji sees nearly two billion “content impressions” and over 200 million search requests per month.

Imoji’s global tracker is pretty neat

With promising engagement under its belt, it is now time for step two and a move to become a content platform.

The idea here is to offer a platform that lets brands and companies interact with users in a different kind of way to regular advertising and marketing. Initially, that is likely to mean branded content — Imoji has already worked with the NBA and hip hop act Rae Sremmurd among others — but there is scope to go far beyond that. Indeed, content could be tailored based on location, collections and campaign, with the potential to include video ads, app installs, and commerce features from “brands that people are talking about,” Imoji co-founder Jason Stein explained.

“It isn’t a flash in the pan, when you create good content, people still use it and the brand stays relevant,” Stein added.

Imoji launched in the summer of 2014 when emojis, stickers and keyboard ideas were hot. The potential to offer a content experience or develop a keyboard app that itself could be a different kind of vehicle for user interactions (potentially with brands) was just taking off and showing promise.

Fast forward back to today and the reality is that most of the companies piloting those ideas have undergone major changes. Most have been sold. SwiftKey probably fared best with a $250 million acquisition from Microsoft, but elsewhere Pinterest acquihired Fleksy and even Apple snapped up a keyboard maker.

Ideas are great, but a business needs legs in order to get to the point of execution.

Imoji hasn’t raised anything like as much as other content players. To date it has pulled in $2.4 million from investors, including a $2 million round that closed one month after its 2014 launch, but the founders maintain it is operating efficiently.

“We’re super lean [and] in a comfortable spot right now,” Smith said, adding that Imoji isn’t immediately looking to raise funding.

However, he said, it may look to investors before the end of the year after it ushers brands onto its platform this fall and begins to prove out its model. Beyond their own push, the Imoji founders also believe that other companies welcoming third party apps and visual content will move their industry forward in a major way.

“We’re still in the first few innings,” Stein added. “Apple opening its garden to developers is huge.”