There are a couple things that are notable in WhatsApp’s announcement it would dropping the $.99 annual subscription fee:
First, that they saw just this small charge as an impediment to adoption not because it was outrageously high but because too many people lacked the infrastructure to make the payment. That says a lot about what sort of market the app is already in as well as what markets it wants to be part of. A 2014 report showed WhatsApp is a big hit in emerging markets and those are just the kind of populations who may not have traditional payment methods.
Second, in the blog post the company specifically calls out that they’re looking at ways for people “to communicate with businesses and organizations that you want to hear from.” Sentence structure aside, based on the examples given it’s easy to see they have customer service applications in mind here. And it doesn’t take too much of an intuitive leap to figure it will start charging the businesses that want to offer those kinds of services through WhatsApp for the tools to do so as opposed to charging people to use it to communicate with friends.
For content marketers that means they could have a whole new channel to staff, but in a much different way than they’re doing now. It’s possible to envision a scenario where more than Twitter or Facebook, WhatsApp becomes not so much an outbound channel but one that’s primarily around reaction, engagement and other inbound comment and question management. It could become a customer service channel not in the way all social media platforms are but more in the “traditional” way that email, web forms and the phone have been, but one that resonates more with a generation raised on apps.
There’s sure to still be outbound marketing taking place on WhatsApp. Publishing brands and others are already using it, particularly in the Latin American markets where the app is most popular. But there are so many platforms devoted to push marketing eventually there will almost *need* to be some that are devoted either solely or primarily to inbound comment management.
For those companies who embrace this channel and the potential it has it will mean adding staff to manage that. A successful customer service program can’t be managed solely by the two Millennials you already brought in to take care of Snapchat. It will take dedicated resources that are versed in not just how to respond on this platform but also in the best practices of customer service as a whole.
At a larger level, brand use of messaging apps is still very much in the experimental era. For every company declaring they’ve seen success (however that’s measured) there are others that say it’s still a tiny, unproven bit of their marketing efforts, largely because it’s hard to answer the question “What do we do there?” That’s why paid programs get more attention and interest since “advertise” is the easy answer there. Organic reach is harder to achieve when content is ephemeral and profile discovery is difficult at best.
Details on WhatsApp’s new focus will surely be coming over the next few months as Facebook solidifies its plans and focus. Until then this is yet another developing story in the mobile age that the industry will need to be planning for.