WHAT’S APPROPRIATE? WhatsApp’s taking your number and giving it to Facebook, as in-app marketing moves closer

The Blogfather likes to keep certain things private (you ain’t seen anything — kapish?), but sees progression and opportunity in the WhatsApp privacy updates.

Picture a private garden party. You’ve had a lovely one-to-one chat with an old school friend, and a bants-filled group discussion about a trip to Italy for a Good Old Days reunion. And then suddenly, inexplicably, a man dressed as the Nandos Chicken scales the garden wall and scatters the peacocks preening on the lawn, before accosting you by the carp pond and asking if you want a half chicken with two regular sides for a tenner. You love Nandos as much as the next person, but this is entirely inappropriate; hardly the right time or place.

It is this perception of intrusion, prevalent amongst a lot of people regarding ads, that brands are going to have to work around if they are to make the most of the marketing opening that looks to have appeared as part of WhatsApp’s privacy policy update.

There are two main elements to this. Firstly, your phone number and other usage data within WhatsApp will be used over on Facebook to provide “more relevant” friend suggestions and advertisements. You can opt out of being targeted on Facebook via this data, but your number and data is getting shared with Facebook regardless. To be honest, I’m sure they are doing this already, as I’ve often noticed recent additions to my phone address book strangely appearing in the ‘People You May Know’ section of Facebook.

But anyway, as ever there is a bit of fear-mongering around the headlines, as the giving away of your phone number is one of people’s biggest privacy worries, but they won’t give your phone number directly to companies to contact you, it merely aids the targeting of the ads. There’s no real issue here, as it will most likely mean you will see more stuff of interest to you; that’s assuming their data security doesn’t have more holes in it than a Ryan Lochte testimony. We can but hope.

The other element, and arguably the more interesting, is what the privacy updates mean for WhatsApp itself. We pondered on the imminent arrival of the changes a few months ago but it now appears to have moved a significant step closer.

The problem for brands is that WhatsApp (or ‘WhatsUpp’ if you are talking to the Blogfather’s Mum. It’s a pun, Mum, you — oh, forget it) is seen as a personal platform where users aren’t expecting brand messages. People like to use it for the privacy and lack of advertising it has.

So no one will want to come across as spammy, and WhatsApp are acutely aware of this:

“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’re likely to see a significant increase in brands employing WhatsApp customer service. Interestingly, Dutch bank ABN AMRO receives an average of 3,000 messages via WhatsApp each week, despite promoting the channel very little. There is clearly a natural pull for people to ‘WhatsApp’ with brands and businesses they trust.

Yet intriguingly for marketers, the company’s updated privacy policy also states that “messages you may receive containing marketing could include an offer for something that might interest you”.

A useful service for existing customers could ultimately be the portal to more direct marketing and advertising and see the launching of ad campaigns and sharing good content. Yet WhatsApp’s strength is communication, and it remains to be seen if it is viable for it to become the WeChat of the West; a one-stop shop that’s heavy on content.

The end-to-end encryption remains, so brands won’t be able to target via key words mentioned in your chats, but that’s probably a good thing, as we’ll have to think more creatively about creating engagement, be it via some subtle form of native advertising or something with more impact. WhatsApp stating that banner ads are still a no-go is also a good thing for all parties, for the same reason.

The first brand that sends a message to WhatsApp users trying to sell something will probably be on for a hiding to nothing. So maybe something ridiculous and comedic could work to break the intrusion threshold. A parody of targeted ads, say. I came across these brilliantly shite click-bait, geo-targeted ads when in Brentwood the other week. They are so bad, that they are almost a parody of the form: “Brentwood left stunned by this new laser eye surgery”, and “Brilliant life insurance taking Brentwood by storm”. I love the vision of entering a town where everyone has better than 20/20 vision, is captivated by life insurance and wants to seduce you to its ways. It like advertising’s Village of the Damned.

The first piece of direct marketing via WhatsApp is probably still a few months away as brands establish a solid customer service experience first, but when it does come it will be intriguing to see what form it takes.

The Blogfather is the in-house, forthright opinion maker at Gasp; a full service, family-run marketing agency based in Wokingham. If you like his way with words, there is a good chance you will see something to your liking on Gasp’s website, so feel free to pop over for a peruse here.

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