S.A Brands must adopt an IM first approach – but not on WhatsApp, yet.

20 March 2017 – Using WhatsApp in its current form as a brand engagement channel is a neat technical solution to a problem, but it’s a mistake to think of it as a marketing solution.

We’ve engaged with many brands and organisations that use WhatsApp to solve essentially a communication problem – getting feedback from staff, consumers and the like. WhatsApp is a lot sexier than SMS (not hard), does not cost the participant R1 or R1.50 (in the case of competitions) and allows them to send messages over 160 characters as well as share multimedia such as pictures, voice and video clips.

The popularity of WhatsApp as an instant messenger (IM) and the launch of WhatsApp web has accentuated this – purchase a lost cost smartphone, grab a fee SIM card, advertise the number and Voila! You are up and running with your very own mobile messaging channel.

This vision of utopia has been dimmed somewhat by the emergence of scam competitions running on WhatsApp – the advantages listed above apply to literally anyone; the barriers to entry being zero. See the SAA , Spar and Samsung examples. (Many of these scams try to get your cell number so they can subscribe you to mobile network operator subscription services that drain your airtime – so we have new Over-The-Top channels using old network subscription billing scams!)

Not a Stopgap

But the biggest catch is that these services behave no differently (obviously) from using WhatsApp on your phone to chat to friends. Put yourself in the shoes of a company running a WhatsApp competition and receiving 67,000 unique messages from 25,000 unique cell numbers. How do you manage and analyse this data? How do you dissect this data and get to know your audience? How do you relate entrants to your current consumer profiles? How do you then offer further value and interaction? Simple answer is you can’t.

App within an App

To unlock the power of IMs you need to be able to integrate directly with them – such as you can with Facebook Messenger – which gives you platform scalability and insight (brand value) and customisation (consumer value). A true “App within an App” experience.

Looking ahead

The “Yet” in the title of this article refers to the announcement by WhatsApp that they are exploring ways to allow businesses (that are relevant to you personally – i.e.: you opt-in) to communicate directly with you. In other words, a way for business to integrate into the WhatsApp platform. In their words:

People use our app every day to keep in touch with the friends and loved ones who matter to them, and this isn’t changing. But as we announced earlier this year, we want to explore ways for you to communicate with businesses that matter to you too, while still giving you an experience without third-party banner ads and spam. Whether it’s hearing from your bank about a potentially fraudulent transaction, or getting notified by an airline about a delayed flight, many of us get this information elsewhere, including in text messages and phone calls. We want to test these features in the next several months, but need to update our terms and privacy policy to do so.
(Read the full press release here and some insight from Reuters here.)


The integration of business with Instant Messengers such as WeChat, Line, Viber, Skype, Telegram, Messenger and imminently WhatsApp ushers in a new era of business to consumer and business to business solutions.

The majority of South African mobile users have embraced USSD as a brand engagement channel due to familiarity through mass adoption of airtime recharging and “Please Call Me” messages. The same will be said of brand engagement migrating to IMs accelerated due to the consumer ubiquity of Messenger and WhatsApp.

I’ve always maintained that USSD is the “Killer App” of South Africa and IM platforms are the successor. I’ll add that brands looking to build an App should adopt an “IM first” approach.