Who needs Facebook Messenger when you have a home-grown, locally hosted platform providing you ‘Pakistan ka Apna Messenger’? Well, the answer is not exactly a simple one.

The Pakistan-based social media chat app called ‘TelloTalk’ is changing the way messengers have been seen and used on a daily basis. While it is similar to Zapbuddy, what sets this platform apart is its hyperlocal model that makes communication more culturally relevant and appropriate for its users.

Hyperlocal messaging apps focus on a particular geographical and cultural community. A hyperlocal messaging app in Pakistan, therefore, refers to a messaging app that is customized for Pakistanis with all its technology and the management infrastructure in the country as well. The apps that resemble it in the global market include WeChat in China and KakaoTalk in Korea.

While hyperlocal messaging apps offer an exciting networking opportunity for local people to interact, the process of creating and sustaining such platforms is not as straightforward as it requires a deep understanding of users’ unmet needs besides the competency to provide innovative solutions to address them.

TelloTalk versus the World

It is difficult to talk about a hyperlocal messaging app without taking its Western counterparts into consideration. Although Facebook Messenger was launched publically in 2006, it became popular in Pakistan around 2008 to 2009, and WhatsApp was released in the market around the same time as well. While these social media apps took some time to gain the trust of users in Pakistan, it has been more than a decade since they became dominant communication platforms.

Competing with these giant tech companies in the region is not a piece of cake. The CEO of TelloTalk, Shahbaz Jamote, opines that when a hyperlocal alternative to communication is offered, two things have to be taken care of: one is maintaining parity in terms of the standard of communication people have been accustomed to, and the second is identifying the point of distinction (what makes a platform different from those already ruling the market).

To do so, TelloTalk did not prioritize gaining technological superiority over its competitors, but was, instead, keen on identifying locals’ unmet needs and addressing them with localized solutions.

Giving the examples of some of the biggest local messaging apps around the world, including WeChat and Kakaotalk, Jamote acknowledged these companies are truly able to speak to the local people, and explained that

They understood the cultural sensitivities of their people. They understood the language nuances of their people. They also understood what is celebrated and not celebrated among the nation. Those reflections are only captured by people who go through them themselves.

TelloTalk aims to uniquely position itself to be ‘that locally customized app’ for Pakistan by providing content in Urdu, English, Sindhi, Pashto, Punjabi, Balochi, and other regional languages, and by providing access to Pakistani news, media, and entertainment.

Why Timing Matters A Lot

What makes TelloTalk’s job more strenuous is the fact that it was launched when people were already strongly accustomed to global platforms such as Whatsapp and Facebook. Jamote strongly believes that timing is key in defining how slowly or quickly such apps are adopted, based on how high their standards have been set.

Using KakaoTalk as an example again, he reasoned that it was relatively easier for the company to match its pace of growth and popularity among the locals because the platform was introduced shortly after WhatsApp was launched.

On the other hand, TelloTalk highly relates to ShareChat — a local messaging app in India that was launched in 2015 — in terms of its journey to find the gap in the market. Even though ShareChat was launched after apps like WhatsApp had established themselves in India, Jamote said that “they came in and focused on areas where they thought WhatsApp was weaker even after all these years”.

“Our journey is very similar to theirs,” he added.

It’s All About What on ‘Top of the Funnel’

“Think of it as an inverted funnel,” Jamote said. “On top of the funnel is where your acquired users are. The middle part is retention, and the bottom part represents the product itself. We focus on the top of the tunnel,” he explained.

For any user-based app to be popular among people, it needs to meet user needs. The founders of global messaging apps suggest that it is important to understand behavioral patterns and user motivation for any hyperlocal initiative to be successful.

One of the key examples that Jamote shared regarding the use of behavioral insights was TelloTalk’s attempt to understand the language nuances of its users in Pakistan. He said,

We noticed that people in Pakistan largely use voice notes as a mode of communication. Upon inquiring, we were told that it’s because that’s the only way they can communicate in their own language.

Therefore, TelloTalk took the lack of apps providing regional languages as an option to communicate as an opportunity for innovation. It now provides multilingual keypads to text but its app’s interface language can also be chosen by the users.

Jamote noted that it was surprising to discover that 60 percent of TelloTalk’s user base has set Urdu as its preferred language. Therefore, the key to making hyperlocal apps even more important is understanding the core users’ needs that remain unaddressed by existing platforms and also those that are unlikely to be addressed by their western counterparts.

Why Must Users Call it ‘Their Own’?

An interesting phenomenon of companies in Pakistan is that when they aim to expand, they gravitate more towards more urbanized cities such as Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad to acquire their user-base. However, TelloTalk’s experience was different. Jamote highlighted that the geographical breakdown of the app suggested that Karachi was not even in the top five of its user bases as it was mainly people from the lesser urbanized cities.

He explained that this was mainly because of the lack of attention given to the users from these areas, and emphasized the need to let go of the assumption that they have little knowledge or interest in using such platforms. He also suggested that if the apps are customized to such users’ needs, they become more interactive and loyal than expected, and clarified that

The reason why they do this is because they don’t have such access to global social media apps, nor do they have the social capital to do so. They cannot reach out to the admins of Facebook as they can to us with their views and complaints.

“With TelloTalk, they feel heard, seen and when we reciprocate by providing them services they demand, they truly feel like it’s theirs,” he stated.

Localized Apps Mean Localized Regulation

Another aspect that is not frequently discussed in hyperlocal apps is their process of regulation. TelloTalk is confident about being responsive to both the needs of its users and the needs of the state at large. Jamote picked the example of social media platforms being banned in Pakistan for ‘inappropriate’ content’ and reckoned that such actions may be less harsh and damaging to the tech ecosystem while dealing with local apps.

Instead of completely blocking access to the apps, local apps can be directly advised about such changes in the content. However, it would require a selective approach to the extent that the state views should be heeded, otherwise, it could lead to loss of coherence and increased complexity.

Onwards and Upwards

In addition to providing people with a culturally customized communication platform that they have never used before, hyperlocal apps are also designed to welcome local talent and local businesses to collaborate. While the concept of hyperlocal apps is still fairly new in the region, and competition remains tough with global messaging apps, TelloTalk’s experience suggests that there is scope for creating innovative alternatives to communication. The need is to develop effective strategies for market research and be ready to experiment.