Its official: stickers are the new emoji. If you think it’s only a casual way for people to chat, you’d better get your facts straight. Basically a GIF, stickers are more interactive than a picture, but smaller in size than a video. By including them in iMessage, Apple made global a phenomenon that East Asians have been using since at least 2011.

In China, there are over 570 million people using social media services like Weibo and QQ; WeChat alone has over 800 million monthly active users where stickers became mainstream in 2015.  It is now common to see doutu (斗图, sticker wars) on WeChat, where friends post stickers in a seemingly endless stream. Shanghai-based startup, 51GIF sees this and believes that is a huge opportunity for a sticker platform to take off. In Chinese, 51GIF sounds like “我要GIF” or “I want GIF.”

“Unlike South Korea, where Kakao and LINE’s emoticons are a lucrative business, in China, users moved directly to stickers, skipping emoticons,” Mingu Kang, CEO of 51GIF says.  “We aim to become the Giphy of China.”

New York-based Giphy, a platform for searching and sharing GIFs, has 100 million users with 1 billion GIFs in the search engine. It recently has reported a valuation of 600 million USD.

51GIF is a GIF platform that provides both a search engine and a creating tool. The company reportedly has 4 million stickers on its search engine; other competitors in China like Beijing-based Kuaishou and Shanghai-based SOOGIF only have about has about 100,000.

“We crawled GIFs from Baidu and Tieba. Our stickers includes Chinese and English versions, but we mainly focus on Chinese stickers,” Mr. Kang says.

Since neither Google nor Baidu provide cache for GIF in their image search, finding the right one to use as a sticker can be quite difficult.

The company came up with a solution: hashtags. For example, when you search ‘bear’ on sticker search engine, there can be a lot of images of bear, from angry ones to the happy ones. With precise hashtags, users can find the exact sticker they want with words like “win” or “satisfied.”

51GIF’s search engine can also do a reverse sticker search so that users will be able to find out where a movie GIF clip comes from, including the name of the actor and the title of the movie. The company also provides a toolset that enables users to make a sticker that is compatible with mobile applications and PCs.

51GIF plans to monetize much like other search engines: displaying sponsored stickers first.

“For example, if a user search ‘underwear’ on 51GIF, the partnered brand’s sticker will come up first. If a user searches ‘movie’, the latest movie sticker from that partnered company will be on top of the search results,” Mr. Kang says.

The next goal for the company is to make stickers searchable on the mobile keyboard, just like how Facebook lets this messenger’s users add GIFs when chatting. Finally, the company aims to provide an SDK and API that connects to social networks like Weibo and QQ to add stickers. It will also create an extension on browsers, so that users will be able to drag stickers from the desktop into their email.

The Secret To Getting Users Involved

Mingu Kang, CEO of 51GIF, and Dongdong Wang, co-founder (in red shirt)

Launched this past June, 51GIF claims to have 100,000 users. In order to provide better search results and attract more users, however, the company needs more hashtags.

“We are currently focusing on putting the hashtags on all stickers. We have about 100,000 hashtagged stickers now,” Mr. Kang says.

To speed up this process, the company is now rewarding users for adding hashtags, using a similar model as its parent, Money Locker. Money Locker is a screen lock app that rewards users for watching advertisements on their lock screen. It currently has a user pool of 10 million along with a database of their likes and dislikes based on how they react to the advertisements. If users want to know more about the ad, they will swipe left and if not, they will swipe right to unlock the screen.

Using a similar reward system, 51GIF will reward users every time they assign a hashtag with point that can be used to buy physical good or converted into mobile money on WeChat or Alipay.

Money Locker has raised 20 million USD in their series B and claim to have made 150 million yuan (21.7 million USD) in revenue this year. 51GIF said it will soon close its first round of funding.

Image Credit: 51GIF

Eva Yoo

Eva Yoo is Shanghai-based tech writer. Reach her at evayoo@technode.com