The medium is the message: What the rise of WhatsApp, Messenger and SnapChat means for brands

As users lean towards messaging apps, so the mobile landscape becomes increasingly fragmented, but lucrative, for brands. Catherine Turner explores how marketers can best harness off-platform strategies.

Could Messenger soon become bigger than Facebook, the social network that spawned it?

The rapid rise of messaging apps such as Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat and Snapchat has profound implications for brands.

Publishers, too, face strategic changes in this new ‘off-platform’ world, with products such as Facebook’s Instant Articles and Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages offering consumers a way to access news without leaving the universe they are in.

“Going native on social media, mobile apps and mobile frameworks like Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages is undeniably a new trend, both for brands and publishers,” says Richard Jones, co-founder and chief executive of EngageSciences.

The mobile internet now accounts globally for more time spent online than the desktop and continues to grow. When online, mobile internet users in the UK are highly likely to be in an app environment, yet even when offline, apps account for a large proportion of time spent with mobile media, according to eMarketer.

It estimates that UK adults spent an average of two hours and 24 minutes a day with non-voice mobile activities in 2015, a tally topped only by time spent with traditional TV.

Little wonder that Facebook is investing so much in messaging. Just two years ago Messenger had 200 million monthly users. Today it has 800 million, and promises a raft of new initiatives in 2016.

Bigger still is WhatsApp, which Facebook bought in 2014. As of 1 February the app has one billion users, and in January it axed its subscription fee as it looks to implement a more business-centric model.

Facebook pledges to keep WhatsApp free from third party ads, revenue coming instead from “tools that allow you to use WhatsApp to communicate with businesses and organisations that you want to hear from”.

Dan Hauck, Redscout London’s head of strategy, says this is a smart move. “As a user you don’t want to see advertising. Part of the lure of such apps is they are free from spam and advertising.”

Brands, he says, must beware how they approach users in such informal, conversational spaces or risk alienating instead of engaging.

Expect instead users communicating with their bank about whether a recent transaction was fraudulent, or with an airline about a delayed flight.

Last year Dutch airline KLM approached a select group of Flying Blue customers to take part in a customer services trial via WhatsApp. It marked the brand’s first foray into instant messaging, supplementing its social media channels.

Meanwhile, Messenger is trialling a partnership with Uber that allows users in the US to order taxis through the app. The new integration wraps all of Uber’s features up in Messenger – such as payment, maps, and alerts – when the driver is nearby. It’s part of a move towards ‘conversational commerce’, a term coined by Uber’s Chris Messina.

It is in this space where companies can deliver for customers, believes Isobar UK’s chief strategy officer Patricia McDonald.

“Clients are asking what it means for brands if more and more consumer time is spent on private messaging apps,” she says. “One of the big trends in the whole area of messaging is in it being an interface for conversational commerce. Complicated actions and transactions can now be done via a messaging app – and that functionality is going to grow.”

She points to Tencent’s WeChat, which boasts 600 million users worldwide, though its geographical bias has traditionally been in Asia.

WeChat has established itself as China’s go-to app by allowing users to do anything from chatting and posting, to paying bills and managing their bank accounts and even making doctor’s appointments.

Though the service makes most of its revenue from user payments to brands, it also offers WeChat Moments – news feed-style ads that run between pieces of content.

Measurement on these so-called dark social platforms is mostly unquantifiable at the moment but McDonald says that brands promoting actions and interactions will be able to track what potential consumers are doing and when.

From being useful to being ephemeral, brands are using Snapchat in a markedly different way. The app allows users to send videos and pictures that self-destruct after a few seconds of a person viewing them.

It has upwards of 100 million monthly users and an estimated six billion video views a day, if recent reports are to be believed.

Luxury brand Burberry has been lauded for its Snapchat strategy, using it to offer fans exclusive glimpses of the fashion house. In October it launched the first ever 24-hour fashion campaign, shot by Mario Testino. The temporary nature of the campaign, buoyed by beautiful production values and stellar names, gave Burberry a brand buzz and considerable column inches in the mainstream media beyond Snapchat.

Domino’s Pizza has also debuted its own Snapchat channel, which launched in January with a short film ‘Dough to Door’, which viewers watch to get a unique access code. Last year it announced that it would accept orders via Twitter, whereby users were invited to tweet an emoji of a pizza to the brand. The brand’s head of digital, Nick Dutch, says it is still in a very early learning phase with its initial foray into Snapchat.

“This is our first piece of content on this channel and we’ve been buoyed by the quality of interaction/participation it’s driven alongside others such as Instagram, which we’ve nurtured over the last 12 months.”

“Exploring emergent channels as early as possible enables us to understand both the channel’s capabilities and the role and relevance our brand can have there.”

American retailer Everlane has made much of Snapchat Stories, which collects clips uploaded by users. Everlane has made Snapchat the heart of its social marketing strategy, using the Stories feature to make announcements and launch behind-the-scenes exclusives.

It even launched a treasure-hunt style creative campaign that centred on a ‘secret shop’, which contained limited edition items only open to customers at specific times as posted on Snapchat.

Another Snapchat feature is Discover, a media hub where partners including BuzzFeed and CNN post and share their video clips.

Growing audiences

The trend for publishers to distribute their content beyond their own walls is growing as they aim to reach new audiences – or keep their existing ones – even as they cede some control of the audience data and revenues as they do so.

Both Facebook’s Instant Articles and Google’s Accelerated pages are becoming destinations for publishing brands as a way to reach readers who are increasingly interacting off platform.

Facebook rolled out Instant Articles in May, promising faster loading for publishers on mobile devices and giving them control of the ad sales, branding, content and access to data. In the UK, the BBC and the Guardian were amongst the launch partners, followed by a further 13 six months later, including The Sun, which had by then taken down its digital paywall.

Yet publishers are aware of the need to balance increased distribution with true brand control and many are ploughing resources into apps.

As Hauck says: “If readers don’t notice or care that they’re reading from BuzzFeed or the Guardian then the news can be interchangeable – how do you get people back to your brand? As a reader my loyalty may stay with the aggregator rather than, as publishers would want, with the publishing brand.”

The Guardian believes that increased investment into its apps will help tranche the flow to off-platform. At the Leaders Innovation conference last month group project manager for mobile and devices Tom Grinsted said: “If we really care about owning the relationship with the reader and providing the best experience the place to do that at the moment is in the app.”

Its current app is supported by advertising and branded content, though users can pay £2.49 a month to upgrade to premium, an ad-free service which also includes extra content such as crosswords.

News UK’s The Times, meanwhile, has announced the launch of an international weekly edition app in order to court more overseas readers. Unlike its tabloid stablemate or many of its broadsheet rivals, The Times remains behind a paywall. The entry-level version (only available internationally) intends to bring in those readers who might otherwise baulk at the £6 a week its digital subscribers pay for.

As giants such WhatsApp and Messenger duke it out with the likes of WeChat to become the dominant one-stop for consumers’ lives and Facebook and Google look to dominate the distribution of news, off-platform strategies will govern marketers’ minds this year.

Whether it is publishers becoming frenemies with the aggregators or looking to support their own applications, or brands seeking to ‘chat’ to consumers, the ones who win will be those making actions and transactions as effortless and frictionless to the consumer as possible.

This feature was first published in The Drum's 10 February issue.

The Drum’s Mobile breakfast event will tackle some of these topics on 7 March. Contact for more details.


Catherine Turner

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