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Dal students help develop app gaining traction in sports world

A Halifax-made social media app called ililli, which launched in June, has gained traction within Canadian sports social media. The app was developed and marketed with the help of Dalhousie University graduates and students.  

Ililli is a social media platform that emphasizes the use of audio, whether voice or sound, in its posts, called tiny audio posts (or TAPs). With a 15-second limit on TAPs, ililli’s goal is to foster content that’s intriguing but digestible. 

Evan Johnson and Adam Johnston are part of the team developing ililli (pronounced eye-lilly) for Halifax tech company Watzan. The company’s founder, Charles Benaiah, introduced the platform to TSN reporter Dave Naylor through an “acquaintance of an acquaintance,” according to Evan.  

Naylor was a fan of it. He convinced some of his colleagues like fellow network reporters Farhan Lalji and Marshall Ferguson to check out the app.  

Soon enough, Naylor, who covers the Canadian Football League (CFL) for TSN, his colleagues and other people involved in Canadian football launched a campaign on the app called “#TalkMore,” which aims to increase the conversation around the Canadian version of the sport through talks and original content on ililli. 

The campaign’s timing is of extra significance as the CFL returns this year. The league didn’t play in 2020 due to financial complications resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.  

“We initially weren’t aiming for sports,” Evan, the app’s product manager said. Watzan has a reputation in the conferencing and pharmaceutical world, previously launching an app called Mapt., a conference navigation app, among other services. Much of ililli’s plan was for use in medical conferences. 

“Folks in the company have a background dealing with the pharmaceutical industry,” Evan said. “It just happened that Dave [Naylor] stepped in. And we kind of felt stupid. Sports are for the hot take, right?” 

What is ililli? 

What makes this app in particular attractive for the “hot takes,” or opinion-driven commentary on a topic created to attract attention?  

Ililli’s TAPs are designed to help users get to-the-point ideas across in a limited timeframe. With the uniqueness of the TAP, developers came to the realization of its versatility. News and lifestyle topics fit well with ililli’s bite-sized emphasis. But sports, with sound bytes, athletes and personalities potentially reaching audiences and, of course, “the hot take,” presented a world of opportunity. 

With that in mind, it wasn’t long before developers changed the goals for the app. 

“It’s like Twitter, but speaking,” Adam, who’s been with ililli as a developer and marketer since the summer, said, comparing the 15-second TAP time to Twitter’s 280-character limit in tweets. “Podcasts really took off during the [COVID-19 pandemic], which is when the app started development. The idea came from those, and TikTok too.” 

Dal’s involvement in app and future growth 

Adam, a third-year commerce co-op student, said the app is essentially “Dal-made.” Much of the app’s business and technical development teams are either graduates of or students at Dal. Ililli and Watzan founder Benaiah earned a Dal master of business administration in 1993.   

Although the ililli team works from different parts of Canada and the United States, the app’s Dal ties and student involvement make Halifax a hub for much of the group’s work.  

“As we’re looking to grow into the college and university sports universe, Halifax is a good start because it’s Dal-made,” Adam said. “[Benaiah] graduated from Dal and I go to Dal. He [pointing in Evan’s direction] went to [the University of King’s College]. We have a bunch of graduates.” 

  Adam said much of ililli’s focus on the sports side of things involves U SPORTS. As the app is on the rise with personalities from TSN aboard among others, its less than 1,000 users means not as much new content will get crowded out by other TAPs. 

This combination, Adam said, is ideal to help bring attention to “grossly undercovered” university sports in Canada.  

“American [NCAA] Division I sports are as big, if not bigger than pro sports. No one cares as they should about Canadian [university] sports yet, which we are passionate about,” he said. “We want to make sure that these student-athletes that have so much talent can get someone speaking for them and showing how they’re the future of sports in Canada. It’s about getting some more talk around U SPORTS in general.” 

Evan said the opportunity window for people to use ililli to make use of and gain a following on the app, whether as a student-athlete promoting their own brand, a fan taking part in the hot-takes fun or someone else, is an under-appreciated aspect of the platform. 

“It’s a good opportunity for student-athletes and people like that since if you go on [the app], it’s you and all these guys from TSN and other athletes and media outlets,” Evan said. “Someone into sports betting posted something that caught the eye of a bunch of users, including TSN’s Darrin Bauming. 

“Think of the Dal football team. They’re not in [Atlantic University Sport, or AUS] but if you have a coach or player talking in there, they have their name in with pro football. That way, smaller college teams get more exposure. Right now, there’s a dearth of representation in what university sports have to offer.”   


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