Last week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced that they planned to make a massive organisational shift in the form of integrating its suite of separate messaging apps, WhatsApp, Instagram direct messages and Facebook Messenger. The result of this will be the ability to message other users across all three platforms seamlessly, meaning that you can send a WhatsApp to somebody from Instagram, from Facebook Messenger to WhatsApp and so on. Presumably, this integration will also apply to the stories feature available on each platform given it is already possible to cross-post stories from Instagram to Facebook Messenger anyway. Each app and its respective tools and functions will remain the same.
With approximately 3.8 billion monthly active users, this process is going to be a huge undertaking with changes planned to come into effect in the latter end of this year or the start of next year (2020).
The motives for the integration are probably based on the growing behavioural trend to use private messaging services over public social feeds to communicate with others. What’s more, the nature of communication we make on these apps is no longer restricted to personal messaging (i.e. people we know like our friends and family), it is now very commonplace to have interactions with brands on WhatsApp, Instagram and Messenger thanks to the rise of chatbots. Therefore, having a singular platform that connects users to all of Facebook’s functions, allows promotion to occur simultaneously across platforms and facilitates the homogenisation of customer service are all likely to be the core reasons for this merger.
The announcement has been met with a variety of responses with one of the main criticisms surrounding the feasibility of cross-platform message encryption. Currently, WhatsApp is the only one of the three platforms that has default end-to-end encryption in operation. Instagram has no encryption feature whilst on Facebook Messenger; users must actively switch on the “secret conversation” feature to activate encryption. As a result, many are concerned that the various settings to switch on or switch off message encryption will prevent the integration becoming uniformly protected for users. It’s also unfavourable for Facebook given that if they begin implementing the default encryption used on WhatsApp onto Messenger and Instagram, they are going to lose access to a huge amount of valuable data. At the moment, it is unknown how Facebook plans to work around this issue and it is likely to be one of the major complications of the entire process, especially because one bug could undermine the whole system.
There are also some concerns about having the same user identity across the three platforms. Whilst on Facebook, users are required to provide their real name when making an account, and on WhatsApp, users are verified via their phone number, many people choose to have a different username on Instagram. It is not yet known whether users would be required to have a uniform identity across the three platforms and how this would be implemented if it became necessary. Others have pointed out that many users may currently only have profiles on one or two of the three apps and that homogenising them is just a way of pushing more people to sign up for extra platforms. The obvious benefit of this for Facebook would be huge volumes of additional user profiles from which to mine data, all linked to one central identity.
Zuckerberg also faces the risk of losing more trust from Facebook users, after a year he’ll likely want to forget. A recent study conducted on American users found that around 50% of people were unaware that WhatsApp and Instagram are both Facebook owned. The integration of these three major platforms is likely to make people – that already distrust Facebook as a result of recent events – realise that Facebook has more avenues from which to collect their personal data than they initially thought. This heightened awareness is unlikely to make people warm to the idea of having all of their main channels of communication seamlessly linked together, especially as users are becoming increasingly protective over their personal data.
It seems as though Zuckerberg’s plan to integrate Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram has also caused controversy internally. In September 2018, Instagram’s founders, Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom left Facebook abruptly, with many speculating that there were tensions about the direction in which Zuckerberg wanted the app to take. Their departure followed on from the exit of WhatsApp’s founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton earlier on in 2018, which had also been put down to disputes over Zuckerberg’s strategy for the messaging app, which included matters like mining user data and relaxing message encryption.
Potential benefits for Digital Marketers
Despite the general lack of enthusiasm surrounding the merging of these messaging platforms, there are a couple of ways in which it could benefit digital marketing strategy in the future.
As previously mentioned, one of the growing ways in which customers communicate with brands, whether to make complaints, discuss order information or any other queries is through social media, as opposed to email or telephone. Social media, as we are all aware, now plays a huge part in many brands marketing strategies but the focus is increasingly shifting from public to private channels, in other words, brands are now taking to direct messaging to replace customer service staff and as an alternative to email marketing.
As customer service chat bots become more commonplace, brands will have to make separate bots for each platform they are using in order to maintain brand consistency across platforms. An integration of Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger would allow businesses to have a singular bot function that in theory could work across all platforms.
What’s more, a unified messaging functionality across the three platforms could be an alternative to or even replacement of email marketing. Given that we all have different messaging service preferences, this would ensure that businesses are able to reach a much larger and diverse audience than through email alone. This is likely to be more preferable for users as well, given that Facebook currently requires users to opt into receiving messages off businesses (and presumably the merger would require the same for Instagram and WhatsApp) which means that the amount of unwanted marketing emails coming to inboxes would be significantly reduced.
From the perspective of Facebook and digital marketers, the integration could have huge benefits in terms of operational ease, data management and brand communication. How users will take to this major overhaul of their favourite messaging apps is harder to predict and as it is going to be such a huge undertaking, we are unlikely to know for at least a year.