Updated: Oct 31, 2019
At their Marketing Summit in the Netherlands, Facebook have confirmed that WhatsApp ads will be coming in 2020, but should we be using them?
By Freddie Constable
When WhatsApp launched many moons ago, one of its strengths to its users was the promise from founders that it would stay advertising free. In a blog post entitled ‘Why we don’t sell ads’* back in 2012, co- founder Jan Koum quoted Fight Club to emphasise his anti-advertising stance: “Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need.”
Fast forward to 2019, several years after Facebook’s purchase of the company, and things are changing. After years of speculation, Facebook have confirmed they are going to be bringing advertising to WhatsApp, and the change will come in 2020. Facebook clearly wants to fuel revenue growth by monetising WhatApp; a platform with massive usage not currently being exploited from an advertising perspective.
Whilst you might be planning how to best utilise the latest way to reach consumers for your brand, should we be hesitating before jumping in? WhatsApp does have undeniable reach (it “now boasts more than 1.5 billion users from around 180 countries”*), but just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.
The idea of advertising on Whatsapp has been met with a wave of negative articles in mainstream press:
‘WhatsApp ads: how will they work, can I avoid them and what other messaging apps are there?’* – The i.
‘From WhatsApp to Alexa : why the ad-free era is over’* – The Guardian
“ads encroaching on hitherto virgin territory could raise some hackles”
“Expect a chat group about joining rival ad-free service Signal.”
‘Whatsapp set to unleash controversial New Year update that’s already upsetting people’* – The Metro
“WhatsApp is preparing to roll out a new feature that’s so divisive people are already worried about the changes it’s going to bring to bear on their lives”
‘WhatsApp announces it will host ads by next year at parent firm Facebook’s marketing conference - breaking its founder's promise that this would NEVER happen’* – The Daily Mail
There is quite a difference in how consumers use the likes of WhatsApp as opposed to Instagram and Facebook. Whilst the latter two involve conversations with friends, you are ultimately aware that you are sharing things with generally a large group of people, and will therefore limit what you use it for. WhatsApp however is for individual conversations – it is perceived as a much more private method of communication.
Because of this, whilst many users might prefer not to have ads on the likes of Facebook, many more may find ads on WhatsApp much more extreme and a much more intrusive form of advertising. If we advertise here for our clients, will we do more harm for our brands than good?
Initially Facebook have said that WhatsApp advertising will just appear in the ‘Status’ section, which is the equivalent of the stories format across Facebook and Instagram. This does mean that it will be less invasive than appearing in text based conversations, but just because it is starting within the Status section doesn’t mean it will not expand across the rest of the app in the future. Moreover, appearing in the app at all does not help the public’s negative conceptions around digital advertising and privacy – a big issue across the Facebook family of apps already.
Perhaps WhatsApp advertising will be right for some clients and some audiences, but this should be carefully considered, as should the messaging and targeting – simply using the same approach on WhatsApp as for Facebook and Instagram is unlikely to be received in the same way. At M.i. Media we will not be simply jumping in with both feet to be one of the ‘market firsts’ in the name of ‘innovation’ - we will be stepping back, giving it some thought, and ultimately doing what is right for our clients and their consumers on a case by case basis.