WhatsApp for brands, later or now?


According to WE Asia’s 2014 annual report, Content Matters, there was no mobile applications in the list of top 3 platforms that Indian consumers use to share information. In 2015, WhatsApp was the second most preferred platform for content sharing, followed only by Facebook. Thus it was no surprise when WhatsApp turned out to be the most preferred platform for Indian consumers for sharing content online in 2016. When we compare across markets, India recently overtook the United States of America to become the second largest market in smartphone penetration in the world.


To understand the above, you'll have to look at the history of smartphone penetration in India which can be largely divided across two groups: urban areas and rural areas. Indians living in urban areas followed a linear path of adopting smartphones in their lives i.e. from desktops to laptops to netbooks to tablets to smartphones. In most of the semi-urban or rural India, thanks to the availability of affordable smartphones (there are over 150 smartphone brands in India fighting for the Indian consumer), a lot of rural consumers chucked their mobile phones and readily upgraded. The camera function was an instant hit and Facebook was accessible for about a mere dollar thanks to the ‘sachetized’ prepaid data plans so the rural consumers could chat and share multimedia without having to worry about the short messaging services (SMS) or multimedia messaging services (MMS) costs. As a result, the adoption in rural areas haven’t been linear as it happened in the urban regions. Many never used a desktop, laptop or tablet, but a lot of them just jumped straight onto the smartphone bandwagon and connected to the digital world.


What does this mean for brands? Firstly, it's not surprise that smartphones are here to stay, unlike the short lived phenomenon which tablets faced when it flooded the market at once and evaporated after a short while. Secondly, mobile based apps are more likely to continue to dominate being the preferred platform for sharing content with friends, family and colleagues. Case in point here: WhatsApp, which is currently not optimized for advertising may eventually surprise us with an advertisement or brands section. Regardless, no one is certain about what Facebook plans to do with its gold mine of more than a billion of WhatsApp users which it achieved overnight unlike other platforms that have been in the billion users club (read Gmail id or Facebook).


Meanwhile, there are a few brands worldwide who are using WhatsApp to reach out to their audiences. The most successful in India has been BBC’s use of WhatsApp during the 2014 elections. BBC had set up a WhatsApp account and users who added the BBC number as a contact were in turn added to the broadcast list. BBC would then send a maximum of 3 notifications a day on the election development in the format of text, videos or voice messages of speeches made by contesting ministers. An interviewed BBC executive shared that through the WhatsApp platform, they reached a very broad demographic of varying economic statuses. Going by the download numbers, there’s no guessing that a substantially higher percentage of smartphone users have a WhatsApp app installed compared to a BBC or any other news app for that matter. BBC, also tapped onto the affordances of WhatsApp platform and asked users to react to news with an emoticon… Brilliant eh?


Even with the current platform limitations, a brand with a sizeable WhatsApp taskforce and maybe advanced technology can potentially use it as a crowd sourcing platform. Imagine BBC running a segment called ‘WhatsApp News’ that is generated from users-sourced news, pictures, videos etc who are living in the remotest parts of the world. Similarly, other brands can also tap on the existing WhatsApp platform to engage the audience in creative ways and get real-time feedback in some cases too.


For brands, to get the most out of communicating through IM apps, they must be cognizant of the content consumption intricacies of their audience. What content do they prefer, where do they prefer to consume a certain type of content piece and when is the ideal time to share content with them? If you think of it, it’s a lot of homework to do but perhaps, not so much with the plethora of content based insights available around us.


So, WhatsApp with you?

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