On Feb. 24, 2009, Jan Koum incorporated WhatsApp Inc. in California and began developing what would become the biggest messaging application in the world within just a few years.
WhatsApp started as a basic way to send status updates to all of the friends in your phone address book, but as people started to use it as a way to send messages to their friends, Koum realized that he’d inadvertently created a messaging service. As Koum said, “Being able to reach somebody halfway across the world instantly, on a device that is always with you, was powerful.”
Today, WhatsApp is one of the biggest messaging platforms in the world, with more than 1.5 billion users. The number of messages sent every day is over three times peak global SMS volume. In the U.K., Europe, Latin America and India, it completely dominates the way that everyone communicates, even seeping into the way that people communicate inside businesses (a client based in Latin America once asked me, “Why pay for Slack when we all have WhatsApp?”).
For years, businesses have used WhatsApp unofficially—either just on a single phone, for small businesses; or through hacked-together unofficial integrations for some larger businesses. There were always rumors that, one day, WhatsApp would finally open its gates with a full set of application-programming interfaces enabling large businesses to manage conversations with customers at scale. It was a recurring topic of conversation every time I spoke with any large brand in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
So, it was truly exciting when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg finally announced that WhatsApp APIs were coming at this year’s F8 annual developer conference (I was in the audience), and when the API was officially unveiled last month.
The new API is still in beta, which means that every brand has to be approved on a case-by-case basis by Facebook, with full release expected in early 2019 (my company, Conversocial, is one of the Facebook partners that can put brands forward for approval).
There are two main use cases for brands to start thinking about with WhatsApp: notifications and customer care.
Almost every brand uses SMS to send out notifications to customers today—delivery updates, check-in reminders, stock notifications, etc. While SMS has been a ubiquitous channel for quite a while, it’s based on old technology. It has a lot of limitations, and it isn’t great for interactive or two-way messaging—especially as every single message a brand sends incurs a cost.
With WhatsApp replacing SMS for most users in the EMEA and Latin American regions, it makes sense that notifications are a major use case that Facebook is promoting. It’s much easier to send richer interactive notifications than with SMS and incredibly easy for customers to respond and start a conversation.
WhatsApp will monetize notifications by charging for messages that a brand sends. However, if the customer messages the brand, there will be a 24-hour window when any messages sent in return (which could include unrelated notifications) are free. This means that if a notification triggers a conversation, that conversation will be free—unlike SMS, where a brand would pay for every subsequent message.
This really opens the door on the kind of notifications that can be sent out, with a whole new opportunity-space for brands to think about how notifications can be used to trigger a conversation (e.g., the check-in reminder could start a conversation about an upgrade; a delivery notification could have an automated flow to handle a request for a different date).
The other huge use case is customer care. Over the past year, it’s become clear to brands that using social messaging channels for customer care brings a lot of benefits. Their ease and convenience for customers mean that they get higher CSAT (Customer Satisfaction Score) and NPS (Net Promoter Score) scores than traditional customer-service channels; and the asynchronous workflow means that the same number of customer-service agents can handle many more customers.
Over the past year, there’s been a huge increase in the use of messaging for customer care, mainly driven by Facebook Messenger. At F8 this year, Facebook announced that there are now 8 billion messages sent every month between businesses and consumers on Messenger, up from 2 billion last year.
While I expect Messenger to keep growing rapidly, WhatsApp is an even bigger platform, and its end-to-end encryption is a massive draw to brands (Facebook will have no way of accessing any messages sent between the brand and consumers).
There’s been huge pent-up demand from businesses to start offering WhatsApp as a customer-service channel, and once the floodgates are fully open next year, I expect it to really explode.
Every couple of years, a new platform opens up and drives massive new engagement opportunities for businesses, and there’s no doubt that WhatsApp will be one of those platforms. Over the next couple of years, SMS notifications will quickly start to feel antiquated, and consumers will gravitate toward brands that engage with them meaningfully and naturally the same way they are messaging each other. If you have a business in the EMEA or LATAM regions, the time to start getting ready is now.