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Don’t shoot the messenger: our world relies on it

It’s only five years ago that many people scoffed at the thought of Facebook paying $US19 billion for WhatsApp.

That amount of money for a messaging app, which didn’t contain ads and for which many users only paid $1 per year to use?

Fast forward to 2019 and WhatsApp has gone from 450 million users to 1.6 billion. Throw in the potential for data-sharing with Facebook and growing momentum for WhatsApp commerce and the investment no longer seems nearly so rash.

The rise and rise of WhatsApp is representative of a global move towards private messaging become the communications platform of choice.

WhatsApp now has a user-base bigger than the population of China and leads the market in India, Russia, South America and much of Africa.

Facebook Messenger isn’t far behind at an estimated 1.3 billion users and is dominant here in Australia and New Zealand, in North America and roughly half of Europe. In China, WeChat is close to being ubiquitous. Viber, meanwhile, is the preferred messaging app of choice for Serbia, Croatia and Ethiopia, among others, and then you have the likes of LINE (Thailand and Japan), Telegram (Iran), imo (Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) and KakaoTalk (South Korea).

Statistic: Most popular global mobile messenger apps as of October 2019, based on number of monthly active users (in millions) | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

The platforms-of-choice may vary from country to country but the trend doesn’t: six years ago chat app messaging overtook the use of SMS internationally and there’s no sign of it slowing down. In the time it’s taken you to read this story so far, something like 45 million WhatsApp messages have been sent worldwide.

We use private messaging apps to share news stories with friends, to organise family gatherings and to debate sports results with our mates. Many of us have will have multiple conversations going on multiple chat applications at any one time. There is now a whole sub-category of website traffic known as “dark social”- traffic that is essentially invisible to many analytics programs because it comes from content being shared through private channels, such as messaging apps.

And you know what? We’re barely touching the surface with a lot of this stuff – especially in Australia.

Many of you will have experience interacting with brands on Facebook Messenger, whether it’s news outlet bots, customer service or sales. Personally, I’ve very much enjoyed my interactions with Vinomofo, which sends me daily offers using language I like, on a platform I like and for a product I very much like (wine!).

But that’s barely scraping the surface of the commercial capabilities of messenger apps.

In Brazil, where the cost of SMS has been prohibitive for many users, WhatsApp is used by more than 95 per cent of people who own smartphones. It is also used by government agencies to communicate progress on projects, by small businesses such as gyms to engage with customers and by realtors to connect with potential homebuyers. Close to 90 per cent of Brazilian doctors report they had contacted patients via WhatsApp.

WhatsApp was also blamed for helping facilitate the spread of fake news around the 2018 Brazilian election, so it’s not all positives.

As a counterpoint, in the lead-up to this year’s elections in India – where there are estimated to be some 300 million users – WhatsApp introduced a fact-checking facility for people to verify the accuracy of information. Indian consumers are already being offered services around ticketing, travel, luxury goods and Netflix recommendations via WhatsApp and are likely to be the first presented with the opportunity to use the platform as a payment processor.

Facebook’s recent announcement of Facebook Pay, which will operate across Messenger, Instagram and Whatsapp, was telling on a couple of fronts.

To start with it’s a significant additional feature to platforms that so many of us are using. Secondly, it sounds very reminiscent of the payment system incorporated into WeChat.

With its 1 billion monthly users, WeChat Pay has massive market penetration in China and has been pivotal in the country’s economy evolving into a largely cardless one (one step further than cashless!).

Could Australian and other WhatsApp and Messenger-orientated nations follow suit in the next five (or fewer) years?

Right now that seems some way off but don’t forget, people laughed when Facebook splashed out all that money for WhatsApp in 2014.

Not so many of them are laughing now.

Glenn Langridge is an expert in digital campaigning and data analysis, including the use of analytics to inform and guide digital strategies. Contact Glenn.

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Main image by Rachit Tank on Unsplash