For as long as short message service (SMS) has been available, marketers have used it to hunt for prospective customers. It makes complete sense. After all, 98% of all sent text messages are opened, and 83% are opened within three minutes.
This means that in an era in which more and more people are skipping television commercials, choosing advertisement-free satellite radio, and downloading browser extensions to block online advertisements, SMS remains one of the few avenues that marketers can take to ensure that they’ll be able to reach their audience.
Additionally, whereas most other forms of electronic communication require a certain amount of action on the part of the recipient (to view an email, you have to be connected to the Internet, open your email inbox, and then select the new message to be read), text messages simply pop up on the mobile device, ready to be viewed.
Of course, in order for a marketer to be able to take advantage of these promising factors, certain important and jealously guarded bits of personal data need to first be acquired—namely, the customers’ mobile telephone numbers.
Unfortunately for marketers, many mobile device users are hesitant to give that information out and may even become angry and unwilling to do business if they feel that their personal, spam-free text space is being invaded by advertisements. With all of that in mind, let’s take a moment to consider any marketing implications of the staggeringly popular (and ever growing) WhatsApp.
If you haven’t already become acquainted with it, WhatsApp is an instant messaging service in the form of a free downloadable app. It allows users to send and receive not only text messages, but also images, video, and even audio media messages, and can also utilize integrated map features to display a user’s current location.
Using the app requires a subscription, which can be purchased for $1 per year (with the first year being free). Why would anyone bother? Well, while we here in the United States may be a bit spoiled in that we generally have unlimited SMS included in our mobile phone contracts, those outside of the Land of the Free-texting aren’t usually quite as lucky.
This is perhaps the main reason that WhatsApp has gained such a following outside of the States— the service has over 450 million active users, with a million new users being added daily. This may also have something to do with why Facebook was willing to drop $19 billion in order to acquire it.
But enough background, the real question for all of you pragmatists out there is this: how can I use WhatsApp in my marketing strategy?
When we talk about whether WhatsApp will ever be used for marketing purposes, it comes down to two things: the customer and the company.
Unless the customer decides to allow it, you aren't allowed to market to them, at least not in any conventional sense. However, will WhatsApp want to monetize via marketing? When WhatsApp was founded by Jan Koum, he made a pledge that his company’s product would remain focused on a pure messaging experience. He even keeps a note on his desk that serves as a constant reminder. It reads: "No ads! No games! No Gimmicks!"
Did you catch that part about no ads? That's all great, unless Facebook decides to make certain sweeping changes to WhatsApp's policy (which it has stated that it won’t be doing, for what it’s worth), the service will remain almost completely advertisement free. Why “almost?” Well, that’s because there is an opt-in feature that will allow users to receive direct-marketing messages from companies of their choice.
At first, this may seem like a problem. After all, how are you supposed to be able to prospect new clients if you can’t even send them a text without their permission? But ask yourself: just how effective is it to blindly send out commercial texts? At best, most recipients will simply text back STOP, effectively making it a punishable offence to continue contacting them via SMS.
At worst, personal crusades have developed over less-crucial issues than text spam. The opt-in feature ensures that you’ll only be contacting the people who are willing to consider your offer, thus saving you the time and effort that you would otherwise be spending trying to weed those people out from the crowd.
The true marketing advantage that presents itself with WhatsApp comes from the potential for businesses to expand their consumer base into areas that may not previously have been accessible. As we mentioned, WhatsApp is incredibly popular outside of the United States. Those marketers who adopt WhatsApp as a potential marketing tool will gain a major advantage.
Users in nations that don’t offer free SMS, such as India and Brazil, depend on WhatsApp’s easily-affordable service plan for their SMS communication needs. Thus, you’ll be able to expand your business to new frontiers, touching millions of lives in the process. Not only that, but given the personal nature of SMS, you’ll also be able to hone your approach to a razor’s edge, so that even among those millions of new leads, you can reach the specific audience that is most likely to respond to your efforts.
However, despite the new doors that WhatsApp could potentially open for marketers, the fact remains that any SMS marketing strategy should only be a part of larger plan. When combined with other inbound and outbound marketing plans, SMS has the opportunity to help you promote your products or services to those who might otherwise have fallen through the cracks, but SMS should never be your only focus.
So, what will WhatsApp change about the way your company does marketing? Not really all that much. However, for those who give it a chance, it could go a long way towards increasing the effectiveness of your current SMS campaign. That is, of course, unless Facebook reneges on its promise and turns WhatsApp into an easy source of valuable personal data (as some have suggested it has done with other programs in the past), in which case much of what makes WhatsApp attractive to users will be lost. Until that time, WhatsApp remains a great way to cheaply communicate and is a useful new tool in SMS marketing.