WhatsApp: From chat app to customer messaging platform and beyond

Omar Javaid, Chief Product Officer, Vonage

In recent years, messaging channels and applications have experienced a radical shake-up. The once dominant SMS has been toppled by richer chat platforms offering real-time messaging and improved faculty for sharing multimedia. In fact, in 2012 global SMS usage peaked at around 20 billion messages per day and within just two years, WhatsApp had superseded the platform.

With so many consumers moving to these real-time messaging platforms, mobile marketing and customer relations have to change – but until recently, there hasn’t been an official way for companies to communicate with the 1.5 billion potential customers that are using WhatsApp. Now, with the launch of WhatsApp Business – a platform that offers verified accounts to businesses – marketers have the opportunity to improve direct customer relations via the messaging app in both a direct and personalised way.

WeChat – the Chinese model

In order to fully appreciate the potential of WhatsApp as a customer messaging platform; look to China. When TenCent launched WeChat as a straightforward real-time messaging app in 2011, it took just 12 months until companies were able to register brand accounts. Today, around 10 million such accounts use the platform as a means to communicate with their customer base.

The result? WeChat has gone from strength-to-strength, integrating mobile payments, rideshare bookings, business chat, QR code-based replacements for business cards and so much more. What began as a chat app has become the lens through which more than a billion Chinese people experience the internet.

The shortcomings of SMS

It’s all very well singing the praises of real-time messaging platforms, but what exactly do they offer that SMS can’t do already? SMS is ubiquitous, this is true – but that doesn’t hide the fact that it is yesterday’s technology: all messages are limited to 160 characters and are text-only. Although operators have bundled SMS messages into more affordable packages offering thousands of “free” or unlimited texts, consumers have never really shaken the sentiment that each text is a scarce resource – a residual effect of the days when each message had an individual cost attached.

Platforms like WhatsApp don’t suffer this issue – and they offer so much more. Authoritative and reliable read receipts enable businesses to measure ROI with improved accuracy, while end-to-end encryption could allow WhatsApp users to communicate more sensitive information than is possible through SMS. It surely won’t be long until we see WhatsApp following the WeChat model and integrating mobile payments into the platform.

Graceful degradation in customer communications

But where real-time messaging really has the upper hand is in “graceful degradation” – a concept that allows web developers to produce content on modern web browsers without impeding the experience for users who are running devices that don’t support such features. For example, an online experience on high-end devices might include JavaScript, video, animations and more; whereas on a low-end device, a humble HTML display would be loaded instead.

When applying graceful degradation to customer communication, it’s possible for marketers to leverage all the features possible with richer platforms like WhatsApp, while continuing to serve customers who prefer to use SMS.

In practice, this would simply require a list of customer contact information that included each customer’s preferred messaging platform, as well as three separate versions of an alert. For example:

Low fidelity (e.g. SMS-only): plain text message of up to 160 characters with a link to a landing page.

Medium fidelity (e.g MMS): an image with additional sales copy and a link to a landing page.

High fidelity (e.g. chat app like WhatsApp): a video with sales copy and the ability to make a purchase without leaving the chat interface. If the customer reads the message but does not make a purchase within a set time period, the company can automatically arrange for a follow-up message to be sent, perhaps with a discount voucher attached.

The future of customer interaction

Today, WhatsApp may just be a messaging app but there is incredible potential for the platform to become an enormous, multifaceted ecosystem where businesses are able to conduct all kinds of interactions with their customer base.

It’s not time to wave goodbye to SMS, email and voice calls just yet, but a significant portion of the world has adopted real-time messaging – and for these people, richer, instant brand communication is just around the corner.