WhatsApp is the only messaging app among those with over a billion monthly active users, which hasn’t started actual monetisation yet. In November 2016, WABetaInfo, a third-party website that reports on new features found in WhatsApp’s beta releases, reported that WhatsApp was going to launch a Snapchat Stories like feature. I found it very intriguing and predicted then that this feature would lead to advertising coming on WhatsApp.
My prediction came true in August 2018.
— Himanshu Gupta (@HalfRebel) November 4, 2016
My prediction(link to a slightly detailed one here on Facebook
My thinking then went like this. Despite WhatsApp’s consistent public stance then that it was opposed to any form of advertising, which I’ll talk more about in the article below, I argued that Stories is a public feed where a user’s privacy isn’t violated and introducing advertising won’t feel like spam. In case of a normal P2P messaging experience, adding ads in between a chat conversation is likely to feel very spam-ish and might cause significant user discomfort if one is using WhatsApp during emergency situations, such as when a user requires urgent help from a close friend or a relative in case of a medical situation. WhatsApp, being a highly user-focused company, seemed an unlikely candidate to hurt the P2P messaging experience by introducing ads there. However, considering that WhatsApp had not done anything significant to launch monetisation despite a purchase tag of $23 billion, it seemed likely to me that it would experiment with advertising on a public feed where a user’s personal privacy doesn’t seem to be hindered much.
To be sure, I wasn’t the only one who got this right. Parmy Olson, a reporter at Forbes who’s interviewed both the founders of WhatsApp, independently made the same guess in February 2017 about ads coming on WhatsApp via a Stories like feature (my prediction was the previous November). WhatsApp announced in August 2018 that it would be launching advertising on its platform via WhatsApp Status, a bite-sized content feed on the app where content posted by users disappears after 24 hours of posting it, similar to Instagram or Facebook or Snapchat Stories. In the same announcement, WhatsApp also said that it would be launching business API accounts to help businesses reach out to their customers on WhatsApp, and allow businesses to run ads on Facebook to start a conversation with their customers on WhatsApp. These three initiatives are expected to kickstart WhatsApp’s monetisation.
Disclosure: Between 2012 and 2015, I worked at WeChat which is a competitor to WhatsApp globally.
However, the story of WhatsApp’s monetisation isn’t as straightforward as launching ads on a platform with over 1.5 billion users. The app was conceived as an anti-advertising app, to be used by every single smartphone user globally to communicate with others, and in process replace SMS. When Facebook bought WhatsApp in the year 2014, it promised WhatsApp complete independence, and the early signs suggested that WhatsApp would continue on its original mission as it launched end-to-end encryption on its platform that made any form of advertising on WhatsApp almost impossible, since the app didn’t and couldn’t capture almost any meaningful data to serve targeted ads then. But in a turn of events that is more common to hostile takeovers than friendly ones, Facebook then went on to force data sharing between WhatsApp and Facebook’s other products, which as I explain below in detail, has largely diluted the anti-advertising stance of WhatsApp, leaving the founders of the company disillusioned and bitter, and exiting their own company and product. As it has grown, WhatsApp has also become a hotbed of fake news, threatening democracies by enabling propaganda sharing and claiming lives due to unchecked misinformation creating lynch mobs.
Irrespective of these tussles and negative developments, WhatsApp continues to be a much-loved app used by billions. But the friction between respecting user privacy versus implementing profitable advertising, and enabling businesses to communicate with users versus controlling spread of misinformation and spam, still remain open questions to the company, and that’s likely the reason monetisation has still not been rolled out openly on the platform. In this article, I take a look at how each of the announced monetisation initiatives by WhatsApp is likely to pan out, the chances of their success, and their potential impact on the app’s users. To begin with, it’s worth going through a quick recap of the history of Whatsapp’s tumultuous relationship with the “idea” of advertising.
WhatsApp was originally built with an anti-advertising ethos
WhatsApp famously used to have an anti-advertising public stance right since its inception days. Brian Acton, one of the two co-founders of WhatsApp, hated advertising almost viscerally and had posted a “No ads, No games, No gimmicks” note as an almost sort of guiding principle for WhatsApp on the desk of Jan Koum, the other co-founder of WhatsApp and its original CEO. Prior to WhatsApp, both the co-founders of WhatsApp had worked at Yahoo, a leading tech company of its time which used to earn pretty much all its money from advertising. In an interview to The Wired post the Facebook-acquisition, explaining his antipathy for advertising, Acton had said, “I worked on Yahoo! Shopping, where there was always a debate about putting more ads and logos on pages. It left a bad taste.”
In terms of monetisation, WhatsApp originally used to be free on all platforms except iOS, where it used to cost $1 for the lifetime (later changed to an annual subscription fee of $1). Post the Facebook acquisition, WhatsApp became free on all platforms.
Even in their post-Facebook-acquisition interviews in February 2014, the founders proudly showcased the “No Ads, No Games, No Gimmicks” note and talked about their contempt for advertising-based business models and their respect for user privacy. As for monetisation, Koum wrote a post on the WhatsApp blog where he mentioned about exploring non-advertising based revenue models, writing:
“Naturally, people might wonder how we plan to keep WhatsApp running without subscription fees and if today’s announcement means we’re introducing third-party ads. The answer is no. Starting this year, we will test tools that allow you to use WhatsApp to communicate with businesses and organizations that you want to hear from. That could mean communicating with your bank about whether a recent transaction was fraudulent, or with an airline about a delayed flight. We all get these messages elsewhere today – through text messages and phone calls – so we want to test new tools to make this easier to do on WhatsApp, while still giving you an experience without third-party ads and spam.”
In line with its focus on privacy, WhatsApp even launched end-to-end encryption on the platform in April 2016.
The other model of monetisation in case of messaging and social apps has primarily been built by Tencent, which owns WeChat, a hugely popular messaging app in China, which has built a super-app ecosystem of taxi, payments, e-commerce etc. on top of the messaging experience. Tencent is one of the biggest gaming companies globally and uses messaging as a social layer to help users discover and play games with their friends and communities. But to date, WhatsApp has never shown any inclination of building such a super-app ecosystem or a gaming platform, sticking to its roots as a tech-focused company.
How WhatsApp gradually opened up to advertising
When WhatsApp was sold to Facebook, both the companies had initially claimed that no data would be shared between the two entities and they’d continue to run completely separately. Even Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, had then said that “I don’t personally think ads are the right way to monetize messaging.” However, in April 2017, which was sometime after the end-to-end encryption was implemented on WhatsApp, Facebook changed its stance and instead forced WhatsApp users to share some of their personal data points with Facebook or stop using WhatsApp altogether, causing a rift with Koum and Acton eventually causing the co-founders of WhatsApp to leave. This data sharing included a key data point of mobile number and certain other characteristics such as last seen, device identifier, operating system, and likely the mobile numbers of people one is chatting with etc.
Facebook claimed it was doing so for reducing spam on WhatsApp and improving the experience of users by providing better friend suggestions on Facebook, and delivering better Facebook ads. While WhatsApp or Facebook didn’t explain how this would exactly work, one possible scenario could be that if one chats with a person regularly on WhatsApp, but isn’t friends with that person on Facebook, that other person could potentially now start showing as a friend suggestion on Facebook. Similarly, the information could also be used for improving Facebook’s news feed by prioritising content from one’s close friends on WhatsApp (with whom one chats regularly on WhatsApp), since most P2P conversations in emerging markets such as India actually happen on WhatsApp and not Facebook Messenger. Hence, Facebook can potentially use signals from WhatsApp conversation graph to improve its friend suggestions and news feed experience.
Since Facebook and WhatsApp had not disclosed a possibility of such a data sharing being possible at the time of Whatsapp acquisition, the EU fined Facebook $122 million. But in a way, this overall episode foreshadowed things to come, since, from this moment onwards, both Facebook and WhatsApp became complicit in improving advertising, even if on Facebook.
With regards to launching advertising on WhatsApp Status, I’d personally say that this wasn’t something fundamentally against WhatsApp’s core ethos. At the time of acquisition, Koum had written on the company’s blog, “…you (the WhatsApp users) can still count on absolutely no ads interrupting your communication.” Since putting ads on WhatsApp Status doesn’t interrupt the P2P communication between two users, it can be argued that it isn’t truly breaking WhatsApp’s core philosophy. This position of Koum being personally okay with advertising on WhatsApp Status, and that it was not something Facebook forced on WhatsApp, is confirmed by a Wall Street Journal story about his last day at Facebook. The story describes an all-hands meeting by Koum with WhatsApp and Facebook employees from April 2018:
“An employee asked him (Mr. Koum) about WhatsApp’s plans for advertising. Mr. Koum responded by first alluding to his well-documented antipathy for ads, according to people familiar with his remarks. But Mr. Koum added that if ads were to happen, placing them in Status would be the least intrusive way of doing so, according to the people.”
What fundamentally broke Facebook’s promise of independence at the time of WhatsApp acquisition isn’t introducing advertising on WhatsApp Status, but instead when Facebook compromised WhatsApp’s core value of user privacy by forcing data sharing on it. While forcing data sharing is vital to Facebook’s plans to make more money from WhatsApp, the step also had deeper ramifications. Despite being an end-to-end encrypted network, Facebook today knows pretty much everything about most of its WhatsApp users to show them perfectly targeted ads on WhatsApp Status and thereby violating their user privacy.
How would ad targeting work on WhatsApp without meaningful user data?
The tricky situation with WhatsApp launching ads is that it’s an end-to-end encrypted platform. So it doesn’t know anything about the content of the message conversations, including voice and video calls, live location, or WhatsApp Status. Hence, beyond the basic details such as a user’s mobile number, name (which is optional), last seen time, and mobile number of the person whom one is chatting with, it doesn’t know much. Even though it can, it chooses not to collect GPS location.
While WhatsApp has over 1.5 billion monthly active users, launching advertising on its platform requires it to solve some fundamental issues related to how advertising works. WhatsApp doesn’t have any targeting information such as age, gender, interests, behavioural data, etc. Running ads without any targeting would hurt the experience of WhatsApp users, and also waste advertiser’s marketing dollars. For example, showing ads for diapers to parents with newborn infants or toddlers would likely lead to some profitable conversions for a diaper maker, but the same ad would be likely wasted on bachelors or senior citizens.
In absence of any meaningful targeting data, WhatsApp has no option but to rely on Facebook or Instagram to extract targeting data on users for running advertising. Since a user is likely to use the same mobile number on WhatsApp as well as on Facebook and Instagram, WhatsApp can pull in the targeting data from the latter two, both of which have ample data on users to run quality marketing campaigns, which is evident in the increasing market share of Facebook Inc. when it comes to digital advertising.
However, since this strategy relies on phone number as matching identity, it stands to reason that users who want to avoid advertising on WhatsApp can choose to remove their phone number from Facebook and Instagram, or just add a different mobile number to their Facebook and Instagram profiles (which is easy to do in countries such as India where people often use dual-SIM phones). The other option can be using the advertising-id, an identifier that’s unique to each mobile device and is provided by mobile operating systems to internet advertising players, as the common identifier between the Facebook family of apps. Since WhatsApp is a mobile messaging app (accessing the web version requires the WhatsApp mobile app to be active and connected to the internet) and a major proportion of Facebook and Instagram users access these services on the mobile phone, a common advertising-id makes it easier to identify the same user across Facebook’s family of apps.
Recently, on October 17, WABetaInfo has noticed a feature in a WhatsApp beta release in which users would be asked to link their WhatsApp accounts to Instagram or Facebook accounts. WABetaInfo expected the utility of this feature to be able to recover one’s Facebook account via WhatsApp or share one’s WhatsApp Status updates automatically to Instagram and Facebook. The latter seems like a genuine consumer value as it takes away the pain of creating a piece of content and posting it manually to multiple Facebook family of apps. It also helps in seeding content to Facebook’s core product, which is seeing usage gradually wither away as younger users avoid Facebook. But as an added advantage, this linking between WhatsApp and Facebook/Instagram accounts also helps solve the advertising targeting problem. An advertising model based on an assumption of common mobile number or tracking advertising-id across Facebook’s universe can be questioned by regulators, in absence of explicit user consent, or cases where a user has unlinked their mobile number from Facebook and Instagram, but where a user has explicitly linked accounts, there can’t be any regulatory scrutiny.
Advertising on WhatsApp has positive signs but with some concerns
The good news for monetisation on WhatsApp is that the number of WhatsApp Status users has been going consistently up. Among all the Facebook apps, WhatsApp’s version of Stories feature has the highest daily users number at 450 million users. Since Facebook expects Stories to surpass Feed sharing soon, this bodes well for WhatsApp monetisation.
This is proven by a Google trends analysis too.
Source: Google trends
Clearly, WhatsApp’s version of the Stories feature seems to have very good usage and engagement. However, Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook, has mentioned in a recent investor conference call that the Stories may have concerns with regards to monetisation, by saying, “The question is, will this (Stories) monetize at the same rate as News Feed? And we honestly don’t know.” Since Stories ads are currently skippable, users are able to skip past them very easily. Since Facebook expects Stories to overtake newsfeed in terms of sharing, it’s causing worries in the minds of investors if Stories would monetise well for Facebook, or not. Josh Constine at TechCrunch, however, expects Facebook’s universe of apps to implement unskippable ads in Stories, and monetise them at premium rates. Ben Thompson, a well-regarded writer on technology and strategy, has suggested that since Stories leads to higher video content consumption, it is, in fact, ideal for brand advertising and, hence, is a better-suited format for monetisation for Facebook, which has long been trying to change its positioning from a performance-driven marketing platform to a place where brand advertising does well.
Even though the usage of WhatsApp Status seems healthy, a major base of WhatsApp users is in emerging markets such as India, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia, Russia, Spain etc. The advertising revenues in these markets are likely to be lower on a per-user basis compared to developed markets such as the US, Germany, Japan etc. where WhatsApp has fewer users. So while it seems likely that advertising on WhatsApp Status would be a winner in the long term for Facebook, the absolute revenue numbers may be lower in the short term until the emerging markets catch up.
What about the other areas of monetisation
WhatsApp’s other approach to monetisation is business API accounts where businesses would be charged a certain amount of money for sending messages to users on WhatsApp. These messages, too, are end-to-end encrypted. The pricing of these messages is at a premium compared to SMS costs. Taking the example of India which is the largest market for WhatsApp with 200 million monthly active users, the typical costs for a business to send a message on WhatsApp would be almost 7x compared to routine SMS costs (10 paise versus 70 paise), though businesses may still use WhatsApp because of high delivery rates for WhatsApp compared to SMS. In India, SMS usually have 50% failure rate due to incorrect numbers, or users changing numbers often due to India largely being a pre-paid market, or the number being on the do-not-disturb registry mandated by the government. To make the deal sweeter, WhatsApp has announced plans to provide an incentive of lower messaging costs to businesses who respond to their customers faster.
As compared to other messaging platforms like Messenger, WeChat and LINE, the business API account experience on WhatsApp is different in the sense that a user doesn’t have to go and follow the business account explicitly on WhatsApp by himself/herself. Instead, whenever a user does a transaction at an external service like a ticket booked on MakeMyTrip or a movie on BookMyShow etc., after the purchase, the user get a “default opt-in” option to receive alerts and messages related to the booking on WhatsApp. (One can choose to opt out but most users usually always go ahead with the default option.) Hence, instead of receiving transactional alerts on SMS after booking a transaction, one would start receiving such messages and alerts on WhatsApp. From a consumer’s point of view, the benefit is that one usually gets the ticket or booking details in a richer media format such as image rather than a plain SMS text.
However, the risk with such an approach is that in the long term, it could devolve into a very spam-like experience for the end-users. Currently, WhatsApp has opened up its business account APIs to only a limited set of businesses and from my private conversations with a couple of Facebook account managers, it seems it is still open to only around 90 to 100 businesses in India such as MakeMyTrip, BookMyShow etc. However, as this scales to a self-serve model similar to how Facebook Pages or Twitter accounts with a self-serve advertising model are currently run, there is a big risk of WhatsApp users suffering from spam. Since WhatsApp isn’t really validating at its end whenever a user is actually giving consent for receiving messages from a business, spammers and unscrupulous businesses can keep creating new WhatsApp business API accounts, send spam on WhatsApp, get blocked after reporting, and again create new accounts. Spam on WhatsApp is even more problematic than Facebook or Instagram since each WhatsApp message arrives as a notification and, hence, breaks a user’s attention. To avoid this, WhatsApp would have to ensure that WhatsApp business API accounts are manually approved only to high-quality businesses. While this last step may ensure quality, it also means monetisation may remain limited.
In any case, businesses may choose to create gamification-based scenarios which aren’t really about useful informational alerts. Here, I am sharing a personal experience of an alert message from online travel agent MakeMyTrip, where it is spamming me about its in-app currency and loyalty program that I have no interest in. Since MakeMyTrip is an important app which I often use for booking hotels and flights, I don’t really wish to block or unfollow its WhatsApp account but there is no way for me to unsubscribe from, say, “promotional” alerts or specific alerts related to “MMT Wallet+ Cash”.
How do other messaging apps manage this? In the case of Messenger, Facebook’s other messaging app, businesses can only send messages to those users who are following them on Messenger. Hence, there is technically no “spam” there. If a business account sends too many notifications and messages to a user, it is likely to get unfollowed.
In the case of WeChat, It creates two categories of business accounts: Subscription accounts and Service accounts. Subscription accounts can send one message per day to the user, and all the messages from a Subscription account go inside a specific sub-section which never sends any notifications or alerts to users. If a user is explicitly interested in a business, s/he can go inside the sub-section and then consume the content and messages sent by the businesses. The second category of business account on WeChat – a Service account – can only send one message per week and those messages appear in the main messages section. Usually, a very limited number of accounts are allowed to become a service account and the content has to be purely transactional in nature. In both subscription as well as service accounts, if a user replies to a business’s message, the business can then reply to the user any number of times for the next 48 hours. If users complain about the account’s content or unfollow it, the account is quickly blocked. In either case, WeChat doesn’t charge the businesses for sending messages to users and, hence, isn’t critical to the app’s monetisation.
Going ahead, to control the problem of too many business messages cluttering up the inbox of users, one may expect that WhatsApp would probably follow a similar model with regards to its business accounts where it would push the messages from businesses into the background. But this also means that businesses may question why should they pay a premium pricing over SMS to WhatsApp for delivering a message. If WhatsApp is able to build capabilities to organise messages like some apps in India have done with SMS inboxes (e.g.: Microsoft SMS Organizer, TrueCaller, PayTm, Walnut etc.), it may be able to provide a better experience. (Disclosure: I work at Walnut, an SMS-based personal expense manager.) Even Apple, with its new iOS 12 update, seems to be moving towards a similar SMS spam reporting solution, that’s open to third-party developers. So, it’s not clear yet if businesses moving their alerts from SMS to WhatsApp is a better experience for the end-users.
Lastly, WhatsApp’s third initiative for monetisation is around allowing businesses to run ads on Facebook or Instagram to start a conversation with their customers on WhatsApp. As Shannon Liao of The Verge notes that a similar initiative on Facebook Messenger hasn’t seen much traction, “The message function on WhatsApp is nearly identical to the one on Facebook, where you can go to a business’s page and send a message. Business communications on Messenger haven’t been super successful to begin with, and Facebook has had to roll out additional chat extensions to compensate.“ While theoretically this ability to start a conversation with a business from an ad or a company’s website might be genuinely useful from a consumer point of view, the revenue from this initiative ideally should really go into Facebook’s bucket, as the actual ad is being run on Facebook or Instagram newsfeeds. The problem with this kind of advertising is that it also risks undermining Facebook’s advertising model itself. After all, once a consumer clicks on a Facebook ad to start a conversation with a business on WhatsApp, that business may not need to advertise on Facebook in future. It can just keep messaging the customer directly on WhatsApp by providing personalized deals, offers and content, thereby, risking the core business model of Facebook which is that brands and businesses have to use Facebook to reach to their consumers consistently and repeatedly.
What about WhatsApp payments?
WhatsApp Payments is a feature that’s presently live only in India, the messaging platform’s biggest market. WhatsApp Payments works on top of UPI, a payments infrastructure layer, that allows instant money transfer from any Indian bank account to any Indian bank account. Google has already launched its standalone UPI payments app in India, Google Pay (earlier known as Tez), and claims to have 22 million monthly active users for the app. Other prominent players in UPI payments are PayTm (backed by China’s Alibaba) and Flipkart-backed PhonePe (Flipkart is now owned by Walmart), followed by a few banking apps. While WhatsApp too has launched UPI payments on its app around six months back, it’s the only payments player that’s still not been given the necessary approvals to scale payments beyond one million users unless it complies with all the local laws and regulations, such as storing the payments data locally in India only and appropriate multi-factor authentication. At the same time, WhatsApp’s local competitors, PayTm and PhonePe, have been lobbying for stronger regulations against WhatsApp to put it at a disadvantage. However, despite all the hiccups, WhatsApp eventually should be able to launch UPI payments on its app, and since pretty much every Indian with a smartphone and an active internet connection is on it, it is widely expected that WhatsApp should be able to get a meaningful share of P2P payments.
With the evolving regulatory and intense lobbying scenario in India, it is highly likely that players such as Google or WhatsApp (and thereby Facebook) wouldn’t be able to use UPI payments data for any non-payment related purposes, such as building advertising profiles of users. While in the short term, this limits the monetisation potential of payments for WhatsApp, in the long term, users making payments via WhatsApp are likely to be more engaged with the app and will probably spend more time on the app. Additionally, many banks in India plan to provide micro-loans to users by providing them with overdraft UPI handles, a credit product built on top of UPI, a feature that Google Pay is already in the process of launching. The same would be available on WhatsApp too eventually, and should WhatsApp get a meaningful share of payments, would also allow it to get a small share of the lending revenues when consumers choose to pay merchants and businesses via overdraft UPI handles.
What should we expect from WhatsApp’s monetisation plans
In many ways, WhatsApp has recently become a problem child within Facebook’s universe of apps. While it has a phenomenal user base of over 1.5 billion monthly active users who love using the app, unchecked fake news and misinformation on the platform have caused violence, lynchings and riots in many parts of the world. Since the platform is end-to-end encrypted, WhatsApp claims it can’t do anything beyond implementing some purely technical solutions such as limiting “forwarding of chats to 5 people at a time”, showing a message tag as “forwarded”, and empowering group admins to restrict who all can message in a group and who can’t, etc. Harsh Taneja and I wrote in Columbia Journalism Review earlier this year that WhatsApp can curb the spread of fake news on its platform without breaking the end-to-end encryption, using only metadata and by adding a feature to “report” messages to allow content moderation. In Brazil, researchers have argued for WhatsApp to add severe restrictions to forwarding, even as news reports have come out around how political parties are already successfully getting around WhatsApp’s forwarding restrictions by figuring out new hacks.
However, with its Business API accounts, there exists a big risk that political parties or bad actors who wish to spread propaganda can misuse WhatsApp to share misinformation to millions. All one needs is to get a business API account approved on WhatsApp, a process that already seems likely to be vulnerable to being abused considering the recent experiences of Facebook, upload a list of phone numbers by claiming that everyone has given permission to be contacted, and send propaganda messages to millions. Even as WhatsApp is trying to fight the fake news battle on its platform, going ahead with monetisation with its business API account route remains fraught with potential abuse that, in a worst-case scenario, may endanger lives. Both WhatsApp and Facebook need to tread very carefully here.
Considering that WhatsApp is still not earning any revenues, one can expect that Facebook is under increasing pressure to make some monetisation happen from WhatsApp. Based on the published media evidence that includes quotes from WhatsApp co-founders and Facebook executives, this tussle between monetisation versus respecting user privacy seems to be the fundamental reason for WhatsApp’s founders leaving the company. When WhatsApp forced the data sharing for a few basic details such as the mobile number with Facebook, initially it looked innocuous to many observers as WhatsApp still remained end-to-end encrypted and chats remained out of bounds from Facebook. However, as I’ve explained above, this simple looking act now means that the user privacy of all of WhatsApp users has been permanently compromised, and it’s an act that would forever haunt WhatsApp’s founders and other privacy activists globally.
As I have argued in this piece, the upcoming advertising on WhatsApp Status is likely a winner in the long term as far as advertising revenues are concerned, assuming WhatsApp is able to solve issues around advertising targeting and regulatory scrutiny. As for WhatsApp’s other monetisation initiatives such as business API accounts, while being potentially useful, there is also a risk that they may inflame the misinformation problem that’s plaguing the platform, lead to potential spam problems, or may not justify a shift from SMS to WhatsApp message for a business or the consumers. Despite its 1.5 billion monthly active users, WhatsApp still has some work to do to justify its $23 billion acquisition price tag. But since it continues to face no problems whatsoever as far as user growth or engagement is concerned, it continues to have the luxury of time on its hands, a rarity in today’s world.