For the last 6 or 7 years, the growth of social media has been a phenomenon that’s affected everything from the way we communicate with one another to the way we consume media and entertainment. But as Social Networks make the move to being de-facto media distribution channels, users have overwhelmingly started migrating to messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, LINE etc. to engage in more meaningful communication with friends and family.
It may come as a surprise, but in 2015, the Big Four mobile messaging apps (WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat and Viber) overtook the Big Four Social Networks (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn) in monthly active user numbers. So it’s official; mobile messaging is where it’s at.
From a publisher’s point of view, some media outlets are already using messaging apps to connect with their audience in interesting ways. The Huffington Post are using Viber’s Public Chats to publicly share real-time conversations between their journalists. BBC News are using WhatsApp for user-generated content, gathering reader photos, videos, and first-hand accounts that it later repurposes on its live news blog, and The Washington Post are using Kik’s Promoted Chats to attract readers through quizzes and game-like experiences.
Either way, it’s clear that where users go, ultimately, brands want to go too, thus providing the incentive to technology platforms to facilitate this connection.
Much has been made of Facebook’s desire to turn it’s Messenger app into a much broader platform, enabling users to do more than just communicate with each other. Plans include everything from facilitating customer service, to ordering an Uber directly within a conversation, and even allowing P2P micro payments, all within the context of messaging. This is much like the most popular Asian apps such as WeChat and LINE already offer. In a way, the messaging aspect is a commodity service used to build a broad user base to offer a wider range of add-ons to.
WhatsApp is looking to get in on the action too. At last month’s DLD conference in Munich, founder Jan Koum spoke about the plan to remove the annual subscription fee to use the service and eventually cater to businesses (he gave American Airlines and Bank of America as examples), offering them ways to deal with customer servicing directly through the messaging app.
How might brands utilise messaging apps?
But all of this just poses the question of how exactly brands might use messaging apps to connect with consumers. Perhaps it’s not too crazy to think of WhatsApp customer call centres springing up in the developing world in the not-too-distant future, but surely there are possibilities far more interesting than this. AI responses to customer queries have been touted, but aside from a responding to customer complaints, how else might brands utilize messaging platforms to enhance customer relationships?
Perhaps ‘conversations’ with brands can be used to maintain customer loyalty and rewards programs, a friction free way of opting-in and continuing to use them. Mobile loyalty apps have been sold as the answer to the problem of having to constantly carry around rewards cards and the like, but in reality, downloading a standalone app and registering your details to keep track of this seems to be as much of a turn-off as carrying around a physical card in the first place. Brands could also use messaging channels to offer personalised deals or suggest new products that their users might like. Something akin to the “If you like this, you’ll love these” style prompts that work so well on Amazon etc. Either way, it sounds like a smoother way to interact with customers and prompt them into action.
But at what point might this become a nuisance, and are most consumers really open to engaging with brands on channels that they also communicate with their friends and family on? Well it would appear that they are. Recent consumer research in the area is encouraging. According to a 2015 MEC survey, 79% are not opposed to engaging with brands on chat apps. That sounds like enough of a mandate to me. Even if actual user behaviour turns out to be a little less enthusiastic about this once it becomes the norm.
I’m sure we’ll slowly start seeing some examples of these concepts over the next 6 months or so as Facebook and friends turn on the tap and unleash some of the functionality that third-party developers have been working away on since F8 last March. In the meantime, we’ll just have to put our thinking caps on and come up with some interesting ways to utilise messaging channels to connect with customers.