Not too long ago, social media apps dominated the mobile space. The likes of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat have been in and amongst the top of the free app charts for years. The tide is changing, though, and messaging apps are soaring at the expense of the more public social media services. For example, comparing Q1 2015 to Q1 2016, all of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Snapchat saw a decline in the time spent in app.
By contrast, user growth on messaging apps has been astounding. Social media is now less social and more of a content aggregator, with Facebook too full of branded video content, advertisements, and parents for many younger users. The privacy and directness offered by the likes of WhatsApp has evidently resonated, as has the ephemerality and playfulness of Snapchat. Today, only Facebook’s primary app is more popular on the social network app charts than the messaging giants of WhatsApp, Messenger, QQ, and WeChat. 72% of respondents in a recent Gartner report said that they use messaging apps at least once per day.
Perhaps the clearest indicator of the potential of messaging apps is Facebook’s painstaking efforts to push users onto its own service. In 2014, the company announced the quite heavy-handed decision to make messages only accessible through the standalone Messenger app, rather than being a feature of the primary app. Though it infuriated some users at first, the move has proven to be a shrewd one. Migrating Messenger may have knocked in app time for the core Facebook service, but it has been a boon for the messaging app, which now has over 1 billion monthly active users.
Between Messenger and WhatsApp, Facebook dominates the messaging app landscape. Outside of China - where neither can operate - it holds by far the two most-used messaging services, and its potential for monetization is immense. With video chat available on Messenger since 2015, it’s clear that Facebook is trying to create an all-purpose communication app that renders other apps redundant. In this sense, Facebook is becoming the WeChat of the West, a hub-like app that will soon offer useful third-party services to give users even less reason to leave.
It’s the third-party involvement that will pique the interest of brands. Messenger’s functionality will go further than simply being able to order a taxi through the app, or order a pizza. Apps will be welcomed into Facebook’s walled garden, and it will be up to them to create value through chatbot interactions with users. WhatsApp, too, is potentially opening its doors to brands with its new Stories-like feature that becomes available on iOS, Android, and Windows platforms this month. Much like Instagram’s stories feature, expect to see branded videos spliced in between the updates from other users. There is also talk of brands being able to message users directly on WhatsApp, though no formal plans have been made public. Facebook will be careful to introduce these features gently so as to not put users off, but the opportunities for brands will be huge if the technique becomes normalized.
For brands, it’s time to start developing messaging app strategies as part of their wider digital marketing efforts. How exactly brand involvement in messaging apps will look is yet to become clear, but the most tech-savvy brands will move quickly as the platforms are opened up. As opportunities for effective marketing on the more traditional social media sites and apps shrink, messaging apps look set to become the next key medium.