Betting on business messaging
January 24, 2020

A conversational newsletter from Zendesk

2020 was supposed to be the year advertisers slid into the DMs of WhatsApp’s 1.6 billion users. But last week the Wall Street Journal reported Facebook is abandoning plans to sell ad space in the world’s leading chat app. 

What changed? It seems WhatsApp found a better way to make money.

It’s business time 🕺

The decision to scrap ads comes a year and a half after WhatsApp’s co-founders abruptly left the company, at least partly in protest over Facebook’s advertising plans, Business Insider notes. 

Facebook purchased WhatsApp for $22 billion in 2014 and has been looking for ways to monetize the app ever since. 

Last year the company announced its intention to roll out ads in the Status section of the app, even previewing what this would look like at the Facebook Marketing Summit in May. 

But in the meantime, WhatsApp’s Business API took off. Introduced in August 2018, the API allows enterprise brands to engage with customers on the app using their existing business software. 

While WhatsApp has strict rules against bulk messaging and marketing spam, it allows businesses to send outbound notifications like boarding passes and receipts to customers who have opted in. This all comes with a fee. 

To give you an idea of the pent-up demand from brands and the monetization opportunities for Facebook, last year we saw the number of WhatsApp messages flowing through the Sunshine Conversations platform (formerly Smooch) grow by more than 3000%. 

And the API is still in early access. 

Instagram DMs spin their web 🕸

Facebook’s other other chat app also took a small step toward becoming a legit business messaging channel. 

Starting last week, a percentage of Instagram users gained access to their direct messages on Instagram’s website. The DM feature was previously only available on mobile.

While not nearly as useful as an API, gaining the ability to send and receive messages via the web will make it easier for (small) businesses to engage customers on Instagram. Though it’s worth noting that Instagram DMs can already be managed through the Facebook Business Manager alongside Messenger conversations. 

The Verge’s Ashley Carman speculates this may play an important role in Facebook’s still-hazy plans to allow Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram users to message each other across platforms. 

But Josh Constine argues in TechCrunch that the move contradicts another Facebook promise: end-to-end encryption in all three messaging apps. While not impossible, security experts say hosting DMs on the web makes encryption much, much harder. 

Nevertheless, Constine sees this as a step in the right direction:

Almost 10 years after Instagram’s launch and six years since adding Direct, the app seems to finally be embracing its position as a utility, not just entertainment.


Meanwhile, in China 🇨🇳 

Facebook isn’t the only company stepping up its messaging monetization game. 

Reporting from the annual WeChat conference in China, TechCrunch’s Rita Liao outlines how the Tencent-owned messaging giant is entering a “new era of money-making.” 

Like WhatsApp, WeChat has historically shied away from ads. But to differentiate itself from TikTok, its surging competitor, Lao says it’s planning to “stimulate more business transactions” in a variety of ways, including gaming, credit scoring (read: loyalty programs), and doubling down on its famous “mini-programs.”

WeChat users last year spent more than 800 billion yuan ($115 billion) through mini-programs, which are chat-based apps for everything from food delivery to hotel booking to ride hailing to retail. Most of that money was transacted through WeChat Pay. 

The WeChat model famously inspired Mark Zuckerberg’s private messaging pivot and the introduction of Facebook Pay, the in-chat payments system Facebook is rolling out across its family of apps. 

So far in 2020, it looks like ads are out and conversational business is in. 

The Emoji Anthropologist 

Last year we discussed efforts by the Unicode Consortium — which is like the Vatican for emojis — to make the official emoji roster more culturally diverse. 

Now a 22-year-old graphic designer from Côte d'Ivoire is taking matters into his own hands. Since 2018, O'Plerou Grebet has been releasing free packs of stickers for iPhone and Android depicting life and culture in his country and the surrounding region, reports NPR.

These include African instruments, people clad in traditional fabrics, and household items like cubes of bouillon, a staple of regional cuisine.

Now he’s trying to get his designs into the official emoji set, where they’d be accessible to 2 billion smartphone users around the world. 

Beyond the winky face 😉

With emojis becoming the universal language of messaging, it’s a matter of both representation and communication. 

Grebet’s designs include common West African facial expressions that help convey meaning, like a dude with his index finger pulling down his bottom eyelid, which is a way to say, “I told you so.” 

But for Grebet, repping his own culture is only the beginning:


“I would like to travel to other countries and discover their cultures," he says, "and make emojis, and add them to the app.”


🙏 Have a great weekend!! Feel free to send me your feedback, questions and inclusive emoji ideas by responding to this email. 

Dan Levy

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