With the advent of social networks and messaging apps, more and more of us are choosing to conduct friendships, family conversations and even business without speaking to, let alone meeting, the people we value.

For millennials, texting someone is considerably more popular than phoning them – 68 percent say they text ‘a lot’, and on average monthly voice minutes for this age group have plummeted from 1,200 to 900 over the space of just two years, according to a Gallup survey in the U.S.

Mobile apps specifically designed for messaging have become the communication method of choice for users in the Asia Pacific (APAC) territories – as an example, WeChat has over 1 billion accounts, with subscribers spending around 40 minutes a day using the app.

However, while virtual ways of holding conversations become increasingly popular, there’s no doubt that there’s still an appetite for some form of physical connection with the platforms we invest so much time in.

Keeping it Real

Canny social networks looking to raise awareness and monetise their activities have developed ‘real world’ ways of capitalising on the sense of community engendered by their services.

A prime example of this is Japanese messaging platform Line, which has built a solid base of fans by giving its service a distinct personality based on emoji-style characters which users can attach to their text messages, videos and images.

Line has brought these virtual characters into the physical world by opening a store in Harajuku, renowned for its edgy fashion outlets and quirky boutiques.

At Line Friends, fans can buy anything from soft toys to kitchenware in the shape of their favourite characters – and they’re queuing round the block for the opportunity.

To increase penetration in Hong Kong where it is already more popular than WeChat, Line has teamed up with Ocean Park theme park to develop Asia’s first-ever Line–themed water party, Summer Splash.

Its international strategy is exploiting its spreading popularity, with strategic product placements on TV shows including America’s Next Top Model and a clothing range available globally through Uniqlo.

Line has been hugely successful in selling both its services and its merchandise because it has taken pains to identify and acknowledge key aspects of its audience profile.

It’s a strategy more familiar to mobile/casual games companies – the incredible success of Angry Birds merchandise, for example, came about because owner Rovio knew its market very well, and at its peak revenue reached around $650 million.

Others are continually trying to follow in its footsteps, from Farmville ice cream to Fruit Ninja soft toys.

Social networks around the world have been slower off the mark, perhaps because their personalities are less readily defined.

Hootsuite has possibly the most fully-realised merchandising strategy, with a range of products featuring its popular owl motif.

And at one time Twitter had a deal with Threadless to allow users to have any tweet reproduced on a t-shirt.

But, as is often the case where demand is not met by supply, the market has provided its own versions of ‘official’ products.

It’s possible to buy a WeChat t-shirt, for example, Facebook gum and a teddy bear which will read tweets to you.

Overall, however, the social networks which currently dominate the West seem to lack a cohesive approach to merchandising – they’re missing a trick, because, as Line has proved, the message from users is that they have a desire for something tangible to represent the way they communicate, and for their chosen platforms to have a personality.

Seller Beware

While allowing users to buy merchandise which they so clearly want to own will undoubtedly boost awareness and increase penetration in the relevant audiences, even the most established social networks go through phases where their popularity waxes and wanes.

Apps such as Snapchat which recognise the temporary, ephemeral nature of most virtual conversations (its logo is a stylised ghost), are overtaking major players including Facebook among young people, and the casual gaming industry has seen many crazes come and go – for example, Candy Crush has surpassed Farmville as the world’s favourite timewaster, and the ‘next big thing’ can’t be far off as game giants Zynga and King fight it out for market share.

Even Angry Birds has seen a dip in active players. While users are prepared to invest a significant amount of time and effort to their preferred networks in the short term, it’s not likely to be a lifelong commitment – a smart strategy for merchandise will follow Line’s lead and focus on goods with a swift turnaround both in manufacture and sales.