The shift from public social media to messaging apps could be the biggest change in internet culture and marketing since social media themselves. Trying to stand out in the Facebook and LinkedIn newsfeed as a main goal of your social media strategy will quickly be overtaken once people are no longer hooked to those feeds when looking for discovery and interaction. If your aim is to be where your customers are, it is hardly surprising that messaging apps are more and more used for marketing purposes.
How China leads the way
While I chat through Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, use Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook for social purposes, order an Uber, use my bank app for payments, network on LinkedIn, and avoid traffic jams thanks to Waze and Google Maps, the average Chinese only needs one app to get him through his day: ‘WeChat’. Launched in 2011 as a messaging app, it is currently known as China's ‘app for everything’.
Besides being multi-functional, WeChat achieves excellent integration between online app activity and offline behavior. ‘WeChat shake’ for example allows users to chat with other random users close to their location. The social gifting feature enables users to send a Starbucks coffee or gift card for instance. And while shopping, they can apply discounts and quick-pay for products in physical stores. Furthermore, WeChat manages to integrate e-commerce with social media successfully. It enables users to find and follow local retailers, discuss products with friends, compare reviews, and even offers loyalty and membership cards from big chains to small shops and restaurants. From browsing items for inspiration to the actual purchase, there’s no need to leave the app.
With 889 million active users, spending on average more than one hour a day in WeChat, WeChat is without doubt an interesting place for brands to connect with their audience. The app offers businesses several ways to interact with their users. Creating an official WeChat account (something in-between a mini-site and a Facebook page), is usually the first step. It enables you to control your own brand messaging, and offers a lot of flexibility to customize your account. Currently there are more than 10 million official accounts on WeChat, including brands, celebrities, and even hospitals. Official accounts enable businesses to use various features, such as sending push notifications to their followers or receiving mobile payments. This allows brands to turn more interactions into transactions - a useful tool when striving towards brand commerce.
Are Western messenger apps catching up?
The messaging’s momentum seems set to soar, with most people saying their messaging has increased over the past two years, while 67% expect to use messaging apps more to communicate with businesses in the next two years. Besides being an increasingly popular communication method among consumers, messaging apps offer a lot of advantages for businesses. One of the main benefits is the broad audience that uses messenger apps. Unlike certain social media, people from all age groups use messaging apps. Moreover, messaging apps show incredible engagement rates. Personalized contact, the ability to share information directly and the automation of communication are just a few of the other advantages. In my view, however, WhatsApp & Facebook Messenger are not likely to rubber stamp the WeChat features and become a WeChat 2.0. These apps will soon incorporate new features, enabling marketers to connect with their audience even better.
The people at WhatsApp publicly admit that they are exploring ways for users and businesses to communicate with each other, such as order, transaction, and appointment information, delivery and shipping notifications, product and service updates, and marketing. Marketing could include sending messages to users with personalized offers. Meanwhile, Facebook is actively developing new features in Messenger, as the traditional newsfeed cannot handle more ads.
Some brands have already succeeded in using messaging apps for marketing purposes, by being creative and circumventing restrictions. Unilever Brazil for example offered one-to-one help through WhatsApp to inspire new uses for Hellmann’s mayonnaise. Absolut Vodka Argentina created a WhatsApp persona. Consumers had to contact and please the “fictional” doorman Sven to attend an exclusive launch party. Compared to WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger already has more marketing-friendly features, allowing businesses to build chatbots on the platform, run ads in the home tab, or send sponsored messages.
There are exiting times ahead for marketers, as I believe messaging apps have the potential to become one of the most powerful marketing channels. At the same time, it’s a difficult channel to leverage effectively. Being able to have a personal relationship with (potential) customers involves as least as many pitfalls as advantages. There’s a thin line between being intrusive and convenient, and one wrong push notification could mean a lost customer. In addition, despite the increased attention of WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, there’s still a long way to go to catch up with WeChat in terms of multi-functionality, on-offline integration and shopping experience. For the moment it remains useful to look at China for a glimpse of what to expect.