What a Marketer must Understand from the Acquisition of WhatsApp

What a Marketer must Understand from the Acquisition of WhatsApp

28th February 2014

Sometimes I think that people like me, the Generation X, is getting older and it is starting not understanding what is really happening around.

I love SEO, I love Search, I still communicate via email a lot and, and even if I do an excessive use of few Social Networks, I do it mostly for professional reason. The same Facebook, which I use, I use it more for chatting with professional peers than with my real life friends. But people younger than me, the Generation Y, approaches digital media in quite different way.

A week as passed from when the acquisition of Whatsapp by Facebook has been announced, and I have to sadly admit that almost everything I’ve read about it was disappointing.

I think the reasons are:

  1. Whatsapp is not so used in the USA (and in almost every English speaking country), where the biggest part of the thoughtful analysis where published, and many of them were unsuccessfully trying to understand why Facebook decided to spend such a bandwagon of dollars for a messaging app;
  2. Many journalists talk about Internet and Mobile marketing seated on a desk in a ivory tower, with no real knowledge of the daily life of the people, who really use mobile apps;
  3. Many of the analysts are older than 35 y/o… they belong to Generation X, and the gap between generations is huge in terms of everyday use of technology. Trying to explain what Generation Y/Millennials do with technology and how they think is not so easy for them.

So, for one day forgive me if I do not talk about SEO, Entities, Content Marketing and Link Earning, and let me try to explain the true lesson we, the Internet Marketers, should learn from the Whatsapp bought.

Background and few numbers

Whatsapp traffic signal in Spain
Whatsapp traffic signal in Spain

I live in the country – Spain – where Whatsapp has the highest percentage of users in the world (97%) and I live on my skin how it is massively used (did I say wife and friends and friends of friends?).

Whatsapp in Spain is the fastest growing private “social network” messaging system, and so popular that the RAE accepted “wasapear” (to send a whatsapp) as a verb. Last August, Jan Koum told that in Spain Whatsapp had 20 million users, the big part of them using the app on a daily base.

There are several reasons justifying this outstanding penetration:

  1. Paying less than 1 € for an app that let you send infinite messages, photos, videos and voice messages when SMS have a unitary cost of about 0,15 cents and one MMS can cost about 1 € was/is a great incentive to adopting it;
  2. Whatsapp could be considered very basic. You don’t have stickers like Line or buy things from the app as others messaging systems. But this simplicity, it’s being all centered in just one thing (messages), conquered the public. All the public, from the teenagers to their grandmothers;
  3. Spain is the country with the highest penetration of smartphones in Europe: 66%.

No wonder that when Whatsapp fall for four hours last Saturday, it was one of the opening news on TV… I don’t remember something similar for when Gmail falls.


Whatsapp outage message 22 02 2014
Whatsapp outage message 22 02 2014

But Spain is not the only country where Whatsapp is so dominant.

Just in Europe we can see these percentage of use (source Onavo via Techcrunch – in parenthesis the Facebook Messenger percentage):

  • Austria: 59% (26%)
  • Switzerland: 69% (17%)
  • Germany: 84% (13%)
  • Italy: 81% (32%)
  • Netherlands: 83% (12%)

There are exceptions as Great Britain (39% vs. 14% of FBM) and Ireland (31% vs. 15% of FBM), but even in those countries Whatsapp is the most used private messaging app.

[Tweet “WhatsApp’s penetration is biggest in Europe and emerging countries”]

Oh, and France (14%)… but we know that French people are quite peculiar as we may expect from the inventors of Minitel.

Whatsapp user growth chart

Even more interesting is seeing how an app like Whatsapp is widely used in the so-called emerging economies. Here some examples:

  • In Brazil it has a penetration of the 71%;
  • In India 20 million people is actively using it. You may think that it’s a small number of users in a 1+ billion inhabitants country, but if we consider that the mobile broadband penetration is just the 5% of the total population… well, you should start think differently (smartphones penetration data from amazing study by We Are Social);
  • In Mexico, where smartphones’ penetration is about 31% (source The Competitive Intelligence Unit), Whatsapp is the most used mobile app (84%);
  • In South Africa, according to ITWEBAfrica there are more Whatsapp users than Facebook ones (10 mio vs. 9.4 mio.).

What all this numbers are telling us?

  1. That Whatsapp – which is just one of the many private messaging applications existing – is the silent emerging “social” platform in almost every side of the world;
  2. That in Europe, for costs and privacy reasons, it is considered the best communication channel between friends;
  3. That in the emerging economies, where Internet penetration is closely linked to the expansion of Mobile, users has naturally welcome Whatsapp has their first communication channel;
  4. That American analysts/marketers fail to understand the phenomenon. Somehow – looking at it from the point of view of an European SEO – they don’t understand it as they mostly don’t understand the growing importance of International SEO in a globalized world.

Facebook understood all this. And it is not that weird that the same Mark Zuckerberg told in his keynote at the Mobile Congress in Barcelona that the Whatsapp acquisition and the Internet.org initiative respond to the same strategy.


Actually it is very smart of him trying to lead the expansion of Internet penetration in the emerging (Brazil, India, Indonesia…) and in the rising economies (Africa, Nigeria being the most prominent country, Vietnam…) via very low costs devices, which all will have installed Facebook and Whatsapp.

And don’t forget the Google’s Project Loon, which aims substantially the same thing.

Social Networks vs. Private Messaging Apps

Nothing lasts forever, especially in the digital space. Even when a medium is at its peak, it can suddenly fall. Myspace was the most striking example of this in the dawn of the era of Social Media.

[Tweet “Nothing lasts forever, especially in the digital space. – @gfiorelli1”]

What last are the basic human needs:

  1. to communicate;
  2. to discover and search;
  3. to share knowledge.

Social Networks (and Google) know this axiom very well and – asap they saw how people was starting spending more time in using messages platforms other than their own – they reacted, at first offering their own private messages products.

Facebook is pushing people to install its Facebook Messenger app in their smartphones in a way that it almost hurts, even if you can private message someone from the same Facebook app.

Twitter has put the DM option quite in a outstanding position both in its mobile and desktop layout, added the opportunity of sharing photos via DM, but still it is limiting to 1:1 private conversations.

Google has merged GChat, GTalk and Google Hangouts (and, substantially, also Gmail) in order to offer one tool to rule all kind of messages: “public” and private, written, voice and video messages. And it pushed the separate Google Hangout app very hard, so much that it should be considered something separate from Google Plus, even if this one is needed but only for registration.

Apple, which is obviously not a Social Network but see its economy based on iOS adoption, enhanced and über promoted the use of iMessage, but has the limitation of being a not cross-platform.

Then the acquisition frenzy began, a frenzy that affected especially Facebook.

Millennial Groups
Millennial Groups

Why Facebook tried to buy Snapchat before and now has bought Whatsapp? Some of the reasons have been exposed previously in this post, but there’s one that particularly impacted the Facebook bottom line: time spent on Facebook.

In fact, even if the 76% of Millennials spend their time on Facebook, it is also true that Facebook is loosing younger users (especially what MTV has defined Younger Millennials, between 13 and 17 years old), as reported by many sources and studies and even admitted by Facebook execs.

In a (quite surprisingly) interesting article on Mashable, it is advanced that one of the reasons of the rising of the private messaging use could be explained with the Dumbar’s Number Theory, according to which humans are only capable of having up to 150 meaningful social relationships at one time.

That means that if we Like also people that we barely know on Facebook (or follow or circle someone in Twitter and G+), actually we will need to find other ways to talk and share social moments with real friends.

That is something easy to understand with a little of common sense even without disturbing brainy sociologic theories: there are friends and acquaintances, and Social Networks are for both, while private (and, better, gated) messaging is just for the first.

A friend of mine, Gustavo Entrala (one of the minds behind the @Pontifex twitter account) once said: Twitter is like being at the bar, Facebook is like arguing with people in a square, Whatsapp is talking with friends at home

[Tweet “Twitter is like being at a bar, Facebook arguing on a square, Whatsapp talking with friends at home”]

Facebook strategically needed to be there where its former (and future) audience was going, apart setting the base for a further expansion in the emerging and rising economies, and for that reason it has bought Whatsapp.

The conspiranoiac theory

Definition of Conspiranoia

If you know me, you know also that sometimes I  tend on the conspiranoiac side of interpreting things.

I must admit that I have also a conspiranoiac theory about Whatsapp and Facebook: data mining gold.

Whatsapp has 450+ active users, who – for registering – must use their phone numbers and you can use Facebook to populate your profile.

That phone number is enough for Facebook to match profiles between Whatsapp and Facebook (you can add a phone number in FB, remember?).

So, that it could easily data mine information from both platform for better profiling single users and set of personas to use in the Facebook Ad Platform and in the personalization of the news feed.

In this sense, Whatsapp should be considered the same as Gmail for Google in term of data mining.

On the other hand, Facebook could try to create specific campaigns with the purpose to move people using only Whatsapp on Facebook, or to return there if they previously abandoned.

I know that Jan Koum has declared that he has no intention to break the privacy of the Whatsapp users, but I told it: I tend on the conspiranoiac side of interpreting things…

The Facebook Whatsapp equation
The Facebook Whatsapp equation

How to use private messaging as a marketing channel

Do you remember SMS marketing, when Brands were asking you “Send OFFER to 1212” in order to obtain information, participating to a contest et al, if not they were directly spamming your old Nokia?

Right now the volume of messages carried by Whatsapp has probably overtaken SMS, and we should add to that number the volumes of all the other private messaging systems (Tencent QQ in China, WeChat, Line, Kakao Talk, Telegram…).

Whatsapp messages volume growth
Whatsapp messages volume growth via @BenedictEvans

Could we use the same SMS tactics in these application? In some cases yes, but in Whatsapp not really, as well explained on Venture Beat.

But I don’t completely agree with the statement of John Haro in that article, who substantially says that marketers should not care about the Whatsapp acquisition.

[Tweet “Marketing is not just selling a product or a service. We don’t buy a car, we buy a BMW or an Audi.”]

Marketing is also – if not especially – “selling” a Brand, putting it in front of the users and – let me be romantic – conquer their heart, and private messaging can offer new opportunities for doing that:

  • Personalized Customer Care (which has also the advantage to pull off from more public social media delicate situations), with all the information we, as marketers, can obtain from all that information and knowing that in many cases we already have the cell number of our customers;
  • Reaching people “escaped from Social” creating private groups;
  • Using private messaging as a bridge to actions that take place in other channels (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, but also our own site)
  • Enlarging the conversations opportunities with our audience, as very intelligently are doing many radio-show (sports ones particularly) here in Spain.

No, I sincerely believe that private messaging matters to marketers, because there’s a world of people that we aren’t able to target right now via all the other channels, and this is valid in every country.

Well, all but one: North Korea. Because I think that only the Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un can use private messaging. I wonder how…

Kim Jong-un private messaging
Kim Jong-un private messaging


Written By
Gianluca Fiorelli is an SEO and Web Marketing Strategist, who operates in the Italian, Spanish and English speaking countries market. He also works regularly as independent consultant with bigger international SEO agencies.
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