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Instant messaging apps as marketing tools

Instant messaging apps – they are on every smartphone and they’re a great way to send and receive information. Used correctly, they are also great marketing tools.

02 Sep. 2015 Christian Erxleben

Messenger Marketing

Instant Messenger 1
Messaging apps open up new marketing opportunities for advertisers. (Photo: ymgerman /

Ten years ago, the only way to send text messages was via the short message service (SMS) of one’s phone company. The age of smartphones changed all that and pretty much spelled the end of the traditional SMS. In today’s highly mobile and interconnected world, the vast majority of users send their texts via over-the-top messaging apps, such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.

Modern messaging apps also allow users to send images, audio and video files. And some messaging services are even open to advertisers and retailers. These services usually also offer web browser and microsite extensions that provide banner space for ads or serve as online shops.

Clearly, today’s multi-functional instant messaging systems have come a long way from their modest beginnings as chat-only tools. "The phenomenon could be described as Post Social Media," says Johannes Lenz, Corporate Blogger at multichannel marketing services company Akom360. "It’s fascinating to see how the original functionality of these apps is being continually enhanced and added to." Messaging apps are fast becoming entire app ecosystems.

It pays to read the fine print

Some messaging platforms don’t allow classic advertising. For instance, WhatsApp, which has over 800 million users worldwide, has a strict "no ads" policy. That’s why companies which use WhatsApp commercially as a communication tool need to tread very carefully. Even so, a growing number of publishing companies are using WhatsApp to exchange notifications and alerts with users.

"Companies that communicate via messaging platforms have to take care to comply with the relevant terms of use or risk having their accounts frozen and being locked out permanently," explains Björn Sjut, who is responsible for market analysis and B2B performance marketing at Hamburg-based consulting firm Finc3.

To be on the safe side, companies wishing to disseminate content via WhatsApp should first obtain the recipients’ permission. "Marketing via WhatsApp is very similar to newsletter marketing. Such push communications require the express consent of the user," explains blogger Johannes Lenz. Companies that have learned to navigate these issues can leverage messaging platforms to full effect and without undue risk.

Different approaches to acceptance of advertising

The Asian messaging services LINE and WeChat, which are not yet widely known in Europe, are particularly well suited for marketing purposes. In fact, both systems are based on business models that welcome and actively encourage commercial use. For instance, WeChat offers two types of accounts to online shop owners and advertisers.

Companies with a WeChat service account can send out four group messages per month that appear very prominently in users’ news streams. Companies with a WeChat subscription account can post one message or piece of content per day to their followers, although the messages are not displayed as prominently and do not generate push notifications.

The Facebook equivalent of a WeChat service account message would be a private message, whereas a WeChat subscription account message would be comparable to a normal notification (globe icon).

At the same time, Facebook is taking heed of its Asian competitors – for instance, when it comes to their open source software development models. At this year’s Facebook Developer Conference (F8) in San Francisco, Facebook announced that it was opening its Messenger Platform to all developers.

Instant Messenger 2
Facebook Messenger has its own app shop plus various add-ons. (Photo: Facebook)

Facebook has also added new apps to its Messenger service that enable users to edit images and send animated GIF sequences.

In addition, with its "Business for Messenger" service, which is currently being tested with selected companies in the U.S., Facebook is introducing online-shop functionality to its messenger service. If Facebook has its way, tomorrow’s consumers will purchase Versace clothing via Facebook Messenger, not Amazon.

The worldwide digitization megatrend is rapidly transforming messaging apps into consumer guidance and sales platforms. Skeptics of this phenomenon are well advised to remind themselves of Facebook’s early beginnings, when the social network was a plain newsfeed devoid of advertising.