Used by billions of people worldwide every day, messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat and Line have been cemented as an every day part of life. However, as consumers opt for the privacy and speed of chat apps, brands are still playing catch-up in their attempts to devise more sophisticated methods to connect with consumers.
More than 77% of content shared via mobile takes place on messaging apps, according to research by RadiumOne, but consumers need a compelling reason to interact with brands in an environment they do not consider to be public. This channel is sometimes referred to as ‘dark social’, as people share content out of general view.
An element of exclusivity can help create a messaging group consumers actively want to join. Adidas took this approach with the global launch of Tango Squads in July – communities of socially savvy 16- to 19-year-old football obsessives operating on Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Line.
Spanning 15 cities worldwide including London, Milan and Berlin, each ‘squad’ numbers between 100 and 250 people. Adidas hopes to reach a maximum of 500 members per squad by 2017.
Members receive exclusive content and get to see new products before they hit social media, as well as being invited to take part in one-off experiences, such as meeting footballers like FC Barcelona’s Lionel Messi.
“If it comes as a referral from your mate, you’re much more likely to pick it up than if it comes from a brand.”
Florian Alt, senior director of global brand communications, Adidas
Discussing the concept at the Festival of Marketing last month, Adidas senior director of global brand communications Florian Alt explained that the squads are not about achieving reach, but are focused on the authentic advocacy offered by these “hyper-connected kids”.
“These are the guys who will push out your stories and content. They give it longevity and authenticity, because they are talking in a private messaging environment. If it comes as a referral from your mate, you’re much more likely to pick it up than if it comes from a brand.”
Alt sees the clear advantages of inviting consumers to get closer, even if it means “giving up a little bit of autonomy and the keys to your brand”.
Adidas cannot, however, measure the effectiveness of its messaging app approach in the same way that it would on social media. The success of the strategy is therefore assessed by feedback from local teams managing the communities, which so far has been highly positive.
“It could be this is redefining influencer marketing. It could be this becomes an Adidas insider tool for face-to-face communications or it could become a bad-ass loyalty programme. Tango Squads could be a combination of all three. That’s the beauty of it.”
BBC News and BBC World Service began experimenting with chat apps in 2014 in a bid to assess the editorial potential of mobile-first platforms. So when the Ebola virus crisis hit West Africa in 2014, BBC World Service apps editor Trushar Barot was ideally positioned to react quickly, using WhatsApp to disseminate life-saving information.
“At the time, WhatsApp was the most downloaded app in West Africa, so rather than developing our own app we could use an app that was already on their phones to push out content and information about the Ebola crisis that was genuinely valuable,” explains Barot.
“We shared audio clips, images and text in English and French, rather than pushing links back to the BBC site as that would eat up their data.”
Aside from speed, messaging apps suited a region like West Africa where data is relatively expensive and audiences are connecting to the internet for the first time through chat apps.
The ability to generate audience feedback was the most valuable part of the experience, explains Barot. The WhatsApp group enabled the BBC team to find out what information people on the ground needed to know, such as whether Ebola could be contracted from a mosquito bite or a public swimming pool.
Working with a BBC health correspondent the team pushed out 45-second audio clips via WhatsApp, an important method as literacy levels were often low among the target group.
Over a nine-month period, the Ebola WhatsApp group attracted more than 25,000 direct subscribers, not taking into account the private WhatsApp groups where content was shared. The BBC was able to use country codes to work out where the 25,000 subscribers were based, ranging from 12,000 in Sierra Leone to 5,000 in Nigeria.
Service and inspiration
Worldwide consumers are becoming more comfortable interacting with brands on messaging apps. More than a billion messages are exchanged between consumers and businesses on Facebook Messenger each month, according to Facebook research, with 63% of people saying they do this more now than they did two years ago. Over half (53%) of those surveyed say that they are more likely to shop with a business they can contact via a chat app.
To make interactions slicker, in September Facebook enabled brands to roll out newsfeed ads that link people straight into a chat with a bot on Facebook Messenger.
To coincide with its brand relaunch in September, food delivery app Just Eat took a two-pronged attack introducing a Facebook Messenger chat bot and launching on Amazon’s Echo connected home device.
Although the basic function of a chat bot is to respond to customer queries, Just Eat UK marketing director Ben Carter sees the potential for discovery. Consumers could, for example, ask the bot for inspiration of what cuisine is good in their local area and the bot would respond with a list of ‘tried and tasted’ restaurants.
“Demand for WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger has completely changed how we interact and it is only natural that a brand should provide a service on this platform,” says Carter. He suggests companies that believe chat app interactions should be purely transactional are missing the point.
“Look at Echo, Siri or Google Home – they are all about asking everyday questions. It is really important not to see [chat apps] as just another sales channel; it is about education and engagement.”
Carter urges brands to put the platform into context and strike the right tone as chat is not a place where consumers naturally want to interact with brands. However, the opportunities are significant.
“Chat represents a small part of our time now, but is going to be very important going forward. You’ve got to balance the time spent versus the potential, and as a marketer be conscious of who you are as a brand and who is the target audience,” Carter adds.
Being where the consumer is
Online gift website Buyagift decided to tap into the shift to messaging apps in October when it began trialling a WhatsApp group to share exclusive offers in the run up to Christmas. Consumers were invited to sign up to the group through email and social media marketing.
It is crucial to be where the consumer is, says head of customer retention Lianne Harrison, who considers WhatsApp “the future of marketing”.
“We had seen other brands doing it and I was receiving and opening messages all the time. Emails might see a 25% open rate, but with WhatsApp it is pretty much 100%. Messaging is a very direct and quick way to communicate with the consumer,” she adds.
Harrison sees the chatty nature of WhatsApp as a good way to drive engagement, as well as offer exclusive deals and competitions, though it is important to limit the number of messages so as not to be intrusive.
Moving into messaging apps is a smart move for brands since social activity is increasingly being diverted to messaging apps, argues DigitasLBI strategist Tony Wright, who says brands need to be clever in their approach.
“Messaging apps provide a more intimate form of communication and can be more personalised than having to please 100,000 people. However, brands also shouldn’t drop their influencer relations [through social networks] as they still need to attract big audiences.”
With over one billion users each it can be tempting to think that WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger are the only apps worth consideration, but Barot at BBC World Service believes there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach.
Facebook Messenger, for example, is a better fit for Western markets where consumers are more likely to be on premium devices with better mobile data plans.
In comparison, WhatsApp is a simple chat app better suited to regions where data is relatively expensive or it is difficult to open web browsers. Therefore it is often better to post content directly into the chat rather than link to a website.
The choice of app might also be determined by privacy concerns. Telegram is popular in Iran where it is widely considered one of the most secure messaging apps, Barot explains.
As the BBC Persia website is blocked by the Iranian government, BBC World Service started sharing content on Telegram, attracting more than 500,000 subscribers in a year, with some pieces reaching one million people.
“Demand for WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger has completely changed how we interact.”
Since 2014, the BBC World Service has experimented with regionally popular chat apps such as Line, Viber, Telegram, Skype, WeChat, FireChat and Hike, as well as apps targeted specifically at millennials like YikYak and Kik, which are gaining popularity among millennials in the US and UK.
Recent pilots include the use of emojis on WhatsApp during the Indian elections, sharing short films on Line and using Viber for the ‘real time reconstruction’ of a Mexican kidnapping story by BBC Digital Current Affairs.
Brands are increasingly experimenting with chat bots and artificial intelligence (AI) to service customer need. To date more than 30,000 bots have been built for Facebook Messenger since the technology launched on the platform in April, while Google unveiled smart messaging app Allo in September, incorporating the AI-powered Google Assistant (see One to watch: Google Allo below).
Just Eat’s Carter is excited about the opportunities for AI to move beyond machine learning to natural language.
“When we expand into natural language, and you throw in AI and voice, everything goes to another level. Whether that is chat bots or home voice products, this technology is definitely going to become as common as a search on Google and any brand that wants a mass consumer base will need to be there.”
The BBC’s Barot believes the next stage in chat apps will be a combination of messaging bots and AI assistance. “Now that Microsoft, Google and Facebook are positioning themselves as AI-first organisations there are really exciting opportunities for the automation of bots with a deep level of AI to offer a much more satisfying experience.
“Over the next 18 months, I expect to see that combination of AI and natural language processing, which will be really fascinating.”
Fellow broadcaster Channel 4 was quick to recognise the opportunities of AI to promote the return of Humans, a TV series about humans interacting with artificially intelligent ‘synths’. Taking inspiration from the use of bots by retail and service brands, Channel 4 worked with Facebook’s Creative Shop on a chat that enabled fans to talk to bots via Faceboook Messenger.
The bot had to function on a technical level, but also incorporate a complex extra layer of storytelling. To reflect the show’s storyline about machines ‘waking up’, the synth bot began to malfunction during the chat. In total more than 3.8 million messages were exchanged during the campaign period.
For deputy head of marketing Laura Ward, it was crucial that the AI was advanced enough to incorporate the vital storytelling element.
“The AI had to function well enough to be both believable and entertaining. To achieve this, we worked with Facebook to ensure we had the right people involved from the start.
“Our bot developer Pullstring included Pixar’s former chief technical officer and we brought the writers of Humans into the scripting sessions to ensure the voice of the bot was authentically part of the series’ narrative.”
Ward believes brands have to earn the right to be in a consumer’s personal space alongside messages from their friends and family by creating innovative experiences.
“From an entertainment brand’s perspective it’s an opportunity to deepen engagement with your brand and extend your storytelling in a very personal way. If you get it right, it is likely to lead to much more engagement with your brand in future,” adds Ward.
Brands left in the dark
Despite presenting an exciting new platform for brands to interact with consumers, messenger apps can have their downsides with regard to metrics. BuzzFeed chief marketing and creative officer Frank Cooper acknowledges the difficulties of measuring the impact of communications in this channel compared to the clarity of social media metrics.
“It is super tough. The good thing for us is a large proportion of activity happens on our own platforms, so we can extrapolate from it. But the toughest part is imagining the full impact. Comscore doesn’t get close at all, so that’s one of the biggest challenges faced by any content producer or brand to give full account of the impact,” adds Cooper.
The BBC checks referrals by adding a specific code to the end of any URL posted in chat apps, which can then be tracked in a system like Google Analytics or Comscore. The code can be made specific to the campaign or messaging site, so the team can see how many people have travelled to the site from that link.
Telecoms company O2 is tracking interactions via messaging apps by integrating sharing widgets and URL shorteners that enable the team to track how content is shared. O2 can, for example, identify core consumers who share content regularly with friends.
While the term ‘dark social’ has been coined to reflect the difficulty of measuring the impact of campaigns on messaging apps, senior lecturer in digital communication and future media at Birmingham City University Mark Brill believes brands need to stop thinking in these terms.
“It’s only dark social if you’re a brand. To me it suggests a wedge being driven between consumers and brands. The term dark social sounds adversarial and is not about engagement,” explains Brill.
“Brands need to understand what the audience are doing there and in terms of engagement think pull not push.”
Although the opportunities to connect with consumers via messaging app are vast, brands need to develop a sophisticated and nuanced approach to their messaging app strategy if they are to earn the right to share that space with friends and family.
One to watch: Google Allo
What is it? A ‘smart’ messaging app with Google Assistant AI technology, launched in September 2016.
The AI element: The integrated Google Assistant function allows users to ask a bot a question within any chat. The user simply types @google into the chat to ask a question or can message the assistant one-to-one.
Other features: Users can insert stickers, doodles and oversized emojis as well as text and photographs. The smart reply function suggests text and emoji responses based on the user’s personality. There is also the facility to start an ‘incognito chat’ by sending messages with end-to-end encryption and users can control how long they want messages to exist.