Facebook Will ‘Figure Out’ Ads on WhatsApp but Is Focusing on Business Tools for Now

Won't rule out advertising on the messaging platform

Facebook’s focus in the immediate future is on building tools for businesses. Getty Images

Facebook is hopeful about its plans to build out WhatsApp’s offerings for business accounts, but it’s staying mum on whether ads might be coming to the encrypted messaging service.

David Fischer, Facebook’s vice president of business and marketing partnerships, wouldn’t rule out the possibility in a recent interview with Adweek.

“In time, we’ll figure it out,” he said when asked whether there would be ads on the platform.

That sentiment is a far cry from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s reported assurance to WhatsApp co-founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton that advertising would not appear on the platform after Facebook acquired WhatsApp for more than $19 billion in 2014. Koum had reportedly clashed with Facebook management over whether ads should run on the platform, and he left Facebook in April, several months after job listings at Facebook indicated the company was looking to build out WhatsApp’s monetization possibilities. Koum’s departure prompted speculation that ads were likely arriving on the platform.

Fischer declined to elaborate further on that possibility, but he expressed optimism about the products WhatsApp has recently rolled out to make the platform easier for businesses to use. Those products include the free WhatsApp Business app for Android devices that came out in January and gives businesses more tools and functionality than personal accounts. WhatsApp Business users can make profiles for their companies, set up automatic replies to frequently asked questions and access some metrics about their communications with consumers.

As of July 9, the WhatsApp Business app had more than 3 million users, a WhatsApp spokesperson said.

“As [WhatsApp] continues to scale globally, we’re really starting to invest—pretty much for the first time—in making it an important platform for businesses,” Fischer said.

In the immediate future, Facebook’s focus is on building tools that will make WhatsApp a friendlier and easier platform for businesses. And with that investment comes monetization opportunities. For one thing, WhatsApp has said it’s testing enterprise business tools for big companies like airlines and banks that want to communicate with consumers on the messaging service. Neither the WhatsApp Business tools nor the enterprise tools include the ability for businesses to target WhatsApp users, a WhatsApp spokesperson said.

“We’re really starting to create an environment where businesses can be equal first-class citizens to people on WhatsApp,” Fischer said.

WhatsApp, which hit 1.5 billion users in more than 180 countries in January, has repeatedly made news. It was implicated in the spread of hoaxes and political disinformation in markets like Mexico, Brazil and India. Most recently, rumors that spread on WhatsApp in India reportedly contributed to the murder of more than a dozen people there. This week, Facebook began running ads in Indian newspapers warning about the spread of disinformation on WhatsApp and encouraging users to think twice about what they see on the platform.

Facebook has also started offering researchers grants for proposals on how to best address the problem. At a recent Poynter news panel, Carl Woog, WhatsApp’s policy communications lead, said that “fact-checking is going to be essential” as the platform grapples with it.

@kelseymsutton kelsey.sutton@adweek.com Kelsey Sutton is the streaming editor at Adweek, where she covers the business of streaming television.