Snapchat Inc. has proved wildly popular with people in their teens and 20s, but it has yet to lay out a clear path toward generating significant revenue from its vast user base.
But paperwork it filed last month with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office indicating it might move into the online payments arena could have shed light on its revenue plans. Indeed, those plans might be at the heart of the interest Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group was reported to have in investing in the Venice ephemeral-messaging app maker. Reports emerged last week that Alibaba was negotiating an investment in Snapchat that would value the company at $10 billion.
Mobile payment technology is very popular in Asia and Alibaba dominates the industry in China.
The Hong Kong company, which filed for what might be a $20 billion initial public offering – one of the largest ever for a U.S. exchange – launched its own version of PayPal, called Alipay, in 2004. The service, which lets users vet the quality of their purchases before payment is released, now processes more than half of all online transactions in China.
Ben Katz, chief executive of Santa Monica’s Card.com, a maker of customized prepaid Visa debit cards, said the global reach of social networks like Snapchat had opened the potential for monetizing user interaction and would catch the interest of a foreign tech titan as it moves into American markets.
“When you see more foreign activity on Snapchat, you start to believe that there’s some cross-border communication going on,” Katz said. “That’s where the interest in money transfers or peer-to-peer transactions comes from.”
Representatives from both companies declined to comment on the potential investment.
But American consumers may be less inclined to embrace cash transfers than people in other countries. Americans on average have three credit cards, not counting their checking accounts and easily accessible cash from ATMs, so the value in mobile payments is not so clear.
Then there’s the issue of consumer confidence in social networks’ abilities to protect users’ information.
“I think a lot of social networks have hurt themselves because they’ve had issues of privacy and security,” said James Wester, research director of global payments at IDC Financial Insights in Framingham, Mass.
Still, Wester said he expected social networks will scramble to become the de facto mobile payment option.
“Once one of these networks gets to that point where enough people are signed up, and that it’s easy and secure to send money, one of them will be the winner,” he said.
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