Marco Polo app promotes more than ‘surface-level connection’

The BYU Marketing Association held an opening social on BYU campus where students met with top companies and their representatives, one of which was Marco Polo. (Rachel Hubert)

A new video messaging app from Joya Communications is becoming more popular on BYU campus thanks to its focus on family and simplicity, according to Joya cofounder Vlada Bortnik.

Marco Polo is a “video walkie-talkie” where users can send short video messages to close friends and family on their phone contact list. The app is most successful in Utah, according to Bortnik, and every Utah user who downloads the app has an average of 20 contacts before signing up.

Bortnik and her team members recently visited BYU campus to see how college students used the communication tool.

Founder of Marco Polo, Vlada Bortnik, visited BYU campus and said she enjoyed learning how helpful the app has been for students. (Marco Polo)

Bortnik said she and her husband began developing the app three years ago with the intent to help people feel closer together.

“It was important we work on something meaningful because we were just starting our family while trying to figure out how to stay in touch with extended family at the same time,” Bortnik said. “Our research showed that a key to happiness was having more than a surface-level connection, and that became our purpose.”

The focus on family and genuine interaction is what Bortnik said has appealed to users in Utah.

“The people in Utah really care about family and community more than I’ve seen anywhere else, and Marco Polo makes it easier to do that,” Bortnik said.  “It’s not about showing off what you’re eating, the places you’ve been or how you look. It’s about being authentic and connecting.”

Marco Polo team members live in different parts of the country but communicate through the app, according to Vlada Bortnik. (Marco Polo)

Meagan Allers, the head of Marco Polo Customer Support and People Operations, said the app allows users to watch video messages live or save them for later viewing. Group conversations or one-on-one chats are also available.

“The app really encourages you to listen,” Allers said. “When someone’s going through a difficult time, you can leave a nice ‘polo’ that can be listened to more than once, where people can then take the time to understand and respond.”

The app’s features have so far been helpful for BYU college students in life-changing ways, according to Bortnik and members of the Marco Polo team.

Alex Bybee, a pre-management major at BYU, said he keeps in touch with 20 family members using Marco Polo, including a cousin whose baby has undergone four open heart surgeries.

Marco Polo representatives talk to BYU students about Marco Polo and its benefits. (Rachel Hubert)

“We can’t go in the hospital, so it’s nice to be able to see how things are going and know if everything is OK,” Bybee said. “A text can be misconstrued, and you have to be on a phone call at the same time, so this is the perfect medium to stay in touch.”

Editing and publishing major Caleb Hintze said the app has allowed him to learn about family history work.

“My sister shows me her computer screen, how to standardize names and how to get names ready for the temple,” Hintze said. “She sends me the Marco Polo, then I send one back showing her what I’m trying to do.”

Biostatistics major Gabriel Smith uses Marco Polo to maintain contact with mission companions.

A BYU student demonstrates the created groups made through the Marco Polo app. (Rachel Hubert)

“We use it often to make plans to meet up and share fun stories we remember from our mission,” Smith said. “Who I have on Marco Polo are people I trust, who bring me comfort when I am struggling in school. It’s awesome to receive that help from people who can’t be here with me.”

Hollis Hunt, a pre-marketing major, has used Marco Polo to connect with members of Humanitarian Experience for Youth, a nonprofit group he worked with this past summer.

“It can be used for study groups, clubs or to bond teams together,” Hunt said.

Marco Polo currently has a 4.7 rating in the app store and is considered safe for children ages 4 and up, which Bortnik said demonstrates the app’s aim to be family friendly and ensure the safety of private contact information.

Bortnik explained her desire to see Marco Polo play a significant role in improving the quality of relationships in the future and would like to see the app end the challenge of maintaining communication with close family and friends.

“In a few years, I hope people are not saying ‘I wish we could stay in touch,’ Bortnik said. “They just are.”

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