Twenty-seven years ago, a 16-year-old boy and his mother left the small town of Fastiv in Ukraine for a better life. Food stamps kept the duo from hunger as they worked around the clock as cleaners. Growing up in a Soviet state, Jan Koum knew what it meant to live in fear of tapped phones and intercepted messages. Which is why data privacy was a founding tenet of the company he started in 2009: WhatsApp.
It's a tenet he was assured he wouldn’t have to compromise on when he sold his company for $19bn ($14.8bn) to Facebook in 2014.
Fast forward to Facebook’s messaging merger. Chief executive Mark Zuckerberg announced his plans to re-engineer the foundations of three of the world’s most-used digital messaging services, all of which he owns: Instagram, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp.
In short, if I’m using Instagram and WhatsApp, but not Facebook or Facebook Messenger, I’ll soon be able to converse with someone on Messenger from my Instagram or WhatsApp account. It breaks down barriers, allowing for more fluid cross-channel conversation. This could be great news for brands that care to plan the digital customer journey diligently.
The biggest technological feat ahead for the teams at Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp boils down to encryption and how to design a seamless user experience that’s easy for the user to navigate. WhatsApp employs end-to-end encryption as standard, meaning that data (messages, photos, voice notes etc) exchanged between me and you can only be read by us. However, Messenger only offers E2EE in "secret chat" mode, while Instagram doesn’t have it at all.
There’s still so much we don’t know about what this roll-out will look like, but the data privacy and security issues are plentiful and important. Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, went as far as to say the merger would be "a terrible outcome for internet users".
Our job is to consider what this brave new messaging world looks like for advertising. So let’s get on with that.
Zuckerberg has announced the changes will be in effect by "early 2020", giving us precisely one year to anticipate and design for the four new advertising scenarios that could emerge.
Brands can talk across platforms without owned channels
Clients are increasingly looking for efficiency, so creating content for a growing array of ad formats in an always-on world is far from ideal; with the ability to talk to users in multiple channels without having to be "on" each one, our brands’ conversational power could as much as triple.
If a brand currently has a Messenger chatbot in place and that bot could converse with users in WhatsApp without the need to set up a new channel, the potential to not only reach but also touch and converse with millions more users around the world becomes a (cheaper) reality.
Similarly, a community executive managing Instagram comments and direct messages could soon send these into users’ Messenger inboxes, bringing the brand front of mind more quickly and increasing the chances of re-engagement.
The result would be greater reach for no (or only incremental) increase in resource spend, smoothing the way for more emotional connection in the relevant moments and places that matter to consumers.
We could know even more about our users
One enormous discussion point around the merging of Messenger and Instagram with WhatsApp is the fundamental differences in how users sign up to these services. The former two require a user’s "true name" to be used, whereas a simple telephone number will suffice for the latter. If the merger requires an individual to link both their number to their name and other data held by Facebook and Instagram, we could start building even more complete pictures of the audiences we want to target and the people we converse with.
The birth of new ad formats
It's so blindingly obvious you may be cursing me for not getting to it sooner. It has been suggested that one potential for ad revenue growth is Facebook Marketplace (a free service connecting local buyers and sellers) and how it might integrate into these messaging services. I’m anticipating new continuous messaging formats that follow a user across the various platforms to deliver brand narrative that never repeats itself. And new advertising space inside the WhatsApp conversational user interface in the same way it came to Messenger two years ago.
We’ll need to remember that connected brands, first and foremost, build emotional equity before it achieves commercial equity. For the billions who use WhatsApp globally, ads are not likely to come as a welcome addition to their conversations, so it’s our job to remember that their needs come first and leverage new opportunities in an additive manner.
All these might shine too harsh a light on a company already under so much scrutiny, since it has been plagued in the past two years by recounts of fake news facilitation, data scandals, political murkiness and a news feed that seems to increasingly fill with the rants of people we’ve only met once. The idea of a unified identifier (linking one’s name to one’s telephone number) might prove to be the final straw for many. In a scenario where millions of users call time on their love affair with Facebook, we may find ourselves needing to rethink the ease of reaching millions at the click of a button.
Right now, there’s no way of knowing what the year ahead looks like in detail. I am sure, however, that as marketers we’re in for some very exciting changes and challenges ahead.
Koum left his father behind in Ukraine when he left for that better life. And when he insisted on signing the Facebook deal right by where he used to queue outside for his food stamps, he entered the Forbes richest Americans list at number 62. Pretty good job on the American dream. But he still wishes he’d had instant messaging back then, so he could talk to his dad.
Communication is and always has been fundamental to human life. Here’s to the next iteration.
Gracie Page is innovation lead at VMLY&R London