The elephant’s in the room…

I asked a simple question yesteday, and no-one could answer it. I was speaking on a panel at the Gitex digital strategies conference in Dubai – in front of a room full of people involved in startups, marketing and digital communications.

I asked the room how many people used Twitter or another social media tool. Almost everyone raised their hand. I then asked how many of their companies had a social media strategy. 90% of the hands stayed up. I followed up by asking how many people used WhatsApp. Again, almost everyone raised their hands. I asked how many had a messaging app strategy for their companies. Not one hand stayed up. It’s not surprising. And yet, when you think about it, it should be.

Messaging apps are eating the world. WeChat, a Chinese messaging and mobile social networking app has over half a billion users worldwide. They even have Lionel Messi advertising their product. Yesterday, WhatsApp announced they have over 350m monthly active users. Twitter, with all the hype and hoopla about its impending IPO, has just 230m. WhatsApp, with far less money and one sixtieth the headcount, is far bigger. It processes over 31bn – that’s 31 billion –  messages every single day. By comparison, there are around half a billion tweets sent on Twitter every day.

That’s just WeChat and WhatsApp. You also have Line, Kakao, Voxer, Viber, MessageMe and dozens of other similar apps – all with 25m+ users. Line is already looking to list in Japan or on the NASDAQ.

These are the tools that people are using to communicate every day. They hit a whole range of demographics – my Mum was signed up to WhatsApp and Viber long before she had a Facebook account. They’re simple. They allow you to send messages and connect with friends, family and random punters all over the world.

They’re huge. They’re so big, they dwarf even all but one of the biggest, household name social media platforms. Yet in a room full of communications professionals, no-one was thinking about how to connect with their audience on these apps. I wrote about WhatsApp’s rise on this blog before. I wrote a piece for Mashable last week about how these apps view advertising (they hate it) and brand presences on their platforms (they’re open to being used as CRM platforms).

These platorms are not going away. They are only getting bigger and bigger. They are capturing more and more of people’s time and attention and they are generating revenue without being reliant on brands and their ad money. They don’t need them. If all of WhatsApp’s monthly active users paid the annual $0.99 subscription fee, they’d be generating almost a quarter of a billion dollars a year in revenue.

All of the platform owners that I’ve spoken to have echoed WhatsApp’s statement on ads. They’re not going to be beholden to advertisers and agencies. They don’t need brands or organizations on their platforms. There hasn’t been a great outcry from their users who want to see condescending updates or  pushy messages. Therefore, the onus is on us as people working in communications to make the case for our clients being there.

We need to show that there’s value in having some sort of opt-in channel where users of WeChat, WhatsApp, Viber or another app can connect with a company, a brand or an organization. We need to show that we’re not going to just use this as another broadcast channel. We need to show that this will add value to users and customers. They don’t need us. If we’re not adding value, then why bother letting us use their platform to potentially annoy their users.

The perception shift that’s going to have to happen in brands, organizations and agencies is huge. The content that’s shared on these platforms needs to be far more compelling and thought through than most tweets in most content calendars. The way that we engage with people on these platforms is going to be far more two-way. There will be a limited amount of tolerance for companies who don’t reply, engage or respond to queries, complaints, issues and (yes, it will happen) praise.

This is a whole new era of CRM. It’s a whole new challenge from a communications perspective. It’s more personal. It’s more immediate. It’s all of these things and much more, which is why I suspect I’ll be seeing a lot more raised hands when I talk about WhatsApp or messaging app strategies in the future. The messaging app shaped elephant is not only in the room. It’s in people’s pockets. I’ll close by saying that, if this is an area that you’re not thinking about, you should listen to Alec Baldwin. This is important.