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What marketers make of WhatsApp’s plans for businesses
The Facebook-owned messaging app's global user base creates an opportunity for it to serve as an email marketing alternative abroad.
WhatsApp has an opportunity to be the business-friendly messaging utility that Facebook’s other messaging service, Messenger, has struggled to become, according to agency executives.
Two and a half years after Facebook’s Messenger began to open itself up to businesses, WhatsApp is preparing to do the same — nearly three years after its acquisition by Facebook closed. According to a company blog post, WhatsApp will roll out verified profiles that can include a company’s address, business description and hours, as well as a free app for small businesses to manage their WhatsApp accounts and an enterprise platform that will eventually charge larger brands to do the same. WhatsApp did not respond to an email asking for more details about its plans.
WhatsApp is far from the first messaging platform to extend itself as a channel for brands to communicate with customers. In addition to Messenger, messaging apps Kik and Line offer accounts and tools tailored to marketers. And Twitter has adapted its direct-messaging feature for business-operated chatbots. Then there’s WeChat. The Chinese messaging service serves as the most successful example of a business-friendly messaging platform. Its 963 million monthly users use WeChat to not only message their friends but also to buy plane tickets, order food and check the news.
Facebook’s Messenger has followed a similar strategy, opening itself up to chatbots in April 2016 and adding an in-app payments system. However, chatbots on Messenger and other messaging services have struggled to catch on in the US, dampening domestic marketers’ interest in the space. WhatsApp’s user base is considered to be much more global — and that may make all the difference.
“WhatsApp is interesting because it’s the global alternative to Facebook Messenger,” said Leigh Christie, director for North and South America of Isobar’s NowLab, a research-and-development division of the Dentsu Aegis Network agency.
“WhatsApp is much more popular overseas than it is here [in the US], even though the Facebook Messenger overlap is quite strong, something like 70 percent of users who use both WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger,” said Rachel Mercer, senior VP and head of digital strategy and invention at Interpublic Group’s Deutsch New York.
To date, WhatsApp has not been high on major marketers’ priority lists because of its lack of business-related tools, according to the agency execs interviewed for this article. But the extent to which it has been on brands’ radars owes largely to its global footprint. “The international scale is the number-one benefit for it. For clients with a large international presence, that definitely puts it higher on the list,” said Matt Tepper, chief strategy officer for North America at WPP’s Wunderman.
WhatsApp’s potential extends beyond the fact that a lot of people around the world use it. It’s how they use it.
In Western countries, messaging services like Messenger arose as free alternatives to carriers’ text-messaging platforms, allowing people to text friends and family members without running up their phone bills. But “in APAC [the Asia-Pacific region] or other emerging markets, I feel like WhatsApp is becoming the first and primary point of interaction, the new email,” said Mercer.
WhatsApp can serve as a utility for brands abroad, filling the role that email has played for brands in more established markets. And that appears to be how WhatsApp is positioning itself to businesses.
“These businesses will be able to use our solutions to provide customers with useful notifications like flight times, delivery confirmations, and other updates,” WhatsApp wrote in a company blog post published earlier this month announcing its business plans.
Of course, Messenger similarly situated itself as a conduit for customer service-related communications. But in practice, Messenger has been used more as a channel for brands to promote one-off campaigns than to support ongoing relationships with customers, said Tepper. WhatsApp is “closer to WeChat,” he said, referencing the omnibus Chinese service that has been able to balance people’s communications among themselves, as well as with businesses.
“What WhatsApp does for Facebook but also for brands is it opens up a direct channel between a business and a person from a utility point of view than advertising,” said Ken Kraemer, CEO of Engine Group’s Deep Focus.
Setting the foundation
Obvious as WhatsApp’s path may be — especially since it’s treading on established ground — its success is not assured. For starters, it will need to parlay any trust it has established with users in securing their private messages into similarly securing their business interactions. To that end, WhatsApp will verify businesses’ profiles. It’s a seemingly minor, table-stakes move, but a foundational one. “It’s very important. For brands in emerging spaces, having a validated account is key,” said Mercer.
“It would make less sense to do it in the reverse order, where you build the business services like e-commerce and things where you’re going to be communicating and providing personal data without having the verification first,” said Tepper.