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What's up with WhatsApp?

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As messaging app WhatsApp gears up to introduce advertising, what should brands know before attempting to conquer the private messaging realm?

Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp will soon introduce advertising. The adverts will appear in the Status feature which – similar to Snapchat and Instagram’s Stories – allows users to share images and videos that disappear after 24 hours with friends and followers. Adverts from brands will appear mixed in with posts from friends. A launch date for the Whatsapp update has not been revealed.

WhatsApp currently has 1.5 billion users worldwide. Since it launched Status in February 2017, the function has hit 450 million daily active users – surpassing Snapchat’s 186 million. The potential reach of advertising on the service is clear. However, the fashion industry must tread cautiously to embrace advertising on an app that has traditionally been a private space for consumers.

Cat Turner, founder of creative agency Cult, has worked on WhatsApp activations such as Agent Provocateur’s “ménage à trois” personal shopping service for couples. She says she would consider advertising for the right clients: “I think introducing an ad platform will instantly demonstrate the commercial viability, so we’ll see a surge of brands using this channel in different ways. The fashion sector is certainly usually at the forefront of digital developments, so I imagine it will lead the way. WhatsApp has a really diverse consumer base, so it does make for a good platform to target consumers with the right campaigns.”

Sarah Owen, senior editor at trend forecaster WGSN Insight, told Drapers that WhatsApp advertising is better suited to brands that already have a friendship-like dialogue with their audience: “I think, for now, it makes sense for direct-to-consumer brands who have already established an intimate relationship with their customers. There needs to be a trade off for consumers. They need to be getting something of value in return, such as secret product releases or discount and Sales news. WhatsApp is a ‘dark’ social channel [that analytics tools cannot trace traffic back to] – invading that intimate space needs to be respected.”

We’ll see a surge of brands using this channel in different ways

Cat Turner, Cult

In a Facebook post earlier this month, founder Mark Zuckerberg said he would be steering the entire company, including Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, towards privacy,  to address user concerns. Changes will include end-to-end encryption that prevents third parties from accessing messages, and “ephemeral” messaging that disappears after a set time period.

Gemma Carver, director of digital and innovation at Pentland Brands,  believes privacy concerns need to be considered carefully by marketing teams: “It remains to be seen whether Zuckerberg’s ‘pivot to privacy’ is believed by consumers, and whether they will welcome advertising in what has historically been a private and encrypted service. That’s what will dictate its success as a driver of retail sales, because responsible retailers will be very sensitive to consumers’ growing privacy concerns, and will be mindful of brand reputation.”

Be in the know with Drapers on WhatsApp

The Drapers WhatsApp broadcast list sends you the day’s top news direct to your phone, every morning, along with breaking news, features and analysis.

To join the list simply add +44 7467 339624 to your contacts and send us a WhatsApp message with your full name, company and job title.

WhatsApp is clearly interested in expanding its business use. In January 2018, WhatsApp Business launched on Android. The standalone app allows small businesses to communicate with customers, and is now being used by more than 5 million people. Last month, a beta test version of the app for Apple’s iOS launched. Business owners can create their own professional profiles, including their website, opening hours and contact information, directly message contacts, set up automated responses and analyse statistics for their messages.

A few fashion brands have already been experimenting with using WhatsApp to communicate with shoppers, even before it launched a specific tool or hinted at allowing advertising. In 2015, Clarks became one of the first to launch a marketing campaign on WhatsApp – customers received messages telling the story of its desert boot through a character-driven narrative.

High-end etailer Net-a-Porter has been using WhatsApp to communicate with personal shopping customers since 2016, and in 2017 announced a partnership with WhatsApp to develop a way to sell directly through the app. 

What is exciting with WhatsApp is the launch of WhatsApp newsletter

Sophie Hill, Threads Styling

Luxury sales platform Threads Styling conducts all of its business through messaging apps, such as WhatsApp. It offers inspiration and personal style suggestions directly to customers before sourcing selected items and delivering them to them.

CEO Sophie Hill says that although advertising is not of interest at the moment, the introduction of organic marketing features on WhatsApp is an opportunity it is exploring: “What is exciting with WhatsApp is the launch of WhatsApp newsletter [its service for sending alerts and updates to a contact list] which is in beta [testing] at the moment. This will be quite a big change and a lot of businesses will follow suit with sending [their newsletters] out on messaging platforms, instead of via email.”

These new features aimed at businesses have been likened to Chinese social media platform WeChat, on which users can chat, make payments, book appointments and read news alongside many other functions. Brands can also sell directly on WeChat by creating “mini-programs” – sub-apps hosted within the app.

WeChat is China’s most popular social media channel. It has 1bn daily active users, many of whom are looking to shop on it. A survey by Jisu App, a tool for creating mini-programs, found that 35% of users spend between 501 and 1000 RMB (between £57 and £113) per month on them, and fashion accounts for 29% of all sub-apps.

Advertising is also a major revenue driver for WeChat. Advertisers spent 10.69bn RMB (£1.2bn) on the platform in the first quarter of 2018.

“I personally think WeChat is incredible,” said Hill. “It’s really convenient – it’s almost like the people’s choice of how they want to interact. I think for WhatsApp to be going more towards the WeChat ecosystem is probably a reflection of facilitating what people actually want to do and how they behave.”

Consumers may initially be hostile to the commercialisation of a platform on which they are most used to having personal conversations. But if brands tread respectfully, and reward customers for allowing them in with discounts and exclusives, then therre is a huge audience to reach. With a bigger active userbase than Messenger and Instagram, and retailers such as Threads and Net-a-Porter already making regular sales through interactions on WhatsApp, the customers and the shopping intent are already there, just waiting for the brands.

Be in the know with Drapers on WhatsApp

The Drapers WhatsApp broadcast list sends you the day’s top news direct to your phone, every morning, along with breaking news, features and analysis.

To join the list simply add +44 7467 339624 to your contacts and send us a WhatsApp message with your full name, company and job title.

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