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The Rise of Messenger Apps

The Rise of Messenger Apps


The following was presented at 3XE Digital on 11th May 2016.

Back in March 2015, Business Insider reported that the big four messaging apps – WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, and Viber – had caught up with their social networking counterparts. Combined, the messaging apps reached a total of 2.125 billion monthly active users globally (and these are mobile users only), matching the number of users on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram – which include desktop. Then, on the 4th January this year, it was confirmed that messaging apps had gone on to surpass the big four social networks in terms of users.

This is a seminal moment, as it signals a shift in the social network world as we know it. After all, so many social networks have come and gone. Consider Six Degrees, launched in 1997 and widely considered to be the first social network. It was sold to Youth Stream Media Networks in 1999 for $125 million – and it doesn’t even exist anymore, In 2002, Friendster was founded and had more than 100 million users at its peak. It closed its doors in 2015 following multiple attempts to re-invent itself.

And of course, there was MySpace; once the largest social networking site in the world. Tom Anderson’s brainchild famously passed out Google as the most visited website in the United States at one point. 

There are hundreds, if not thousands of reasons why social networks decline. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology studied the likes of Friendser and MySpace with the goal of figuring out what kills a social network. They concluded that: 

“when the time and effort (i.e. the costs) associated with being a member of a social network outweigh the benefits, then a decline in users becomes likely.” 

In other words, when one person leaves, their friends become more likely to follow suit, and as the diminishing numbers increase, well – it’s like rats from a sinking ship.

So, what’s happening here?

By 2020, five billion people on earth will have smartphones. This stat is from Benedict Even’s presentation ‘Mobile Ate the World’ – a great deck that details the fundamental shift that’s occurring in mobile technologies. What we’re seeing at the moment is a shift in scale from 300 million PCs to 1.5 billion smartphones and growing. Essentially this represents a pivotal moment for social as we say goodbye to desktop, and hello to mobile. Think about it – over 52% of Facebook’s 1.6 billion active monthly users only use Facebook on mobile. 

So, out of those 5 billion people who’ll have a smartphone by 2020, it’s expected that roughly half of them will be using messaging apps. There are three important factors at play here:


Falling data prices, cheaper devices and improved features. For younger generations, messaging apps became popular because they were a free alternative to texting. Most messaging apps allow you to use them over Wi-Fi without cost or impact on your mobile data limits.

Mobile Innovation

Mobile innovation – it’s driven in large part by the Asian market. Consider the likes of Weibo and WeChat. WeChat recently tipped 700 million active monthly users. It’s more than a messaging app – users can hail a taxi, order food, buy movie tickets, play games, check in for flights, send money to friends, access fitness tracker data, book a doctor’s appointment, get bank statements, pay water bills, recognise music, search for library books… the list goes on.

Shifting Consumer Behaviours

The younger generation is transitioning out of using ‘broadcast social media’ (like Facebook and Twitter) and switching instead to narrowcast tools, like Facebook Messenger or Snapchat. But why? As social media usage has spread beyond the youth category, it’s become less attractive to young people. It’s called ‘feed fatigue’. They have a public and a private self. They understand that posting their entire life online is not wise. In response, many seem to be using social media more strategically. They carefully curate the content they post on their public profiles, and save their real selves for other platforms like Snapchat, Whisper and Secret. It’s not just young people getting in on the action, though. Of smartphone owners in the US, messaging apps are used by 50% of 18 – 29 year-olds, 40% of those aged 30 – 49, and 25% of those over 50.

The future of Messenger


It’s little wonder that Mr. Zuckerberg is so interested in the Chinese market – their messaging apps have become so much more than basic messaging. While their primary function is to enable one-on-one interactions, the real opportunity is to remove barriers to other digital interactions and transactions, and they provide significant commercial opportunities too. This is reflected in the recent developments within Facebook Messenger. Like WeChat, it’s now possible to send and request money, get status updates from participating retailers, and even order an Uber. 

More recently, Messenger announced a partnership with KLM, which now allows users to get status updates and resolve customer service issues inside the app – including rebooking of flights. Clearly, Facebook are beefing up the commercial opportunities possible with this product.

All of this signals the advent of a new type of commerce, which responds to our desire for what Mo Mozafarian calls ‘seamless and fluid experiences’. Simply put, “I’d like to do everything from one interface”. It just so happens that the interface is a messenger app.

Do you know who this is?


– Chris Messina, Developer Experience Lead at Uber and inventor of the hashtag.

Messina asserts that 2016 will be the year of Conversational Commerce, and by this he means “utilizing chat, messaging, or other natural language interfaces to interact with people, brands, or services”.

The net result is that you and I will be talking to brands and companies over Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and other messaging services very soon – even potentially by the year’s end.

At the moment, there are essentially two ways of interacting with messenger services – human-centred services like Magic and GoButler are the rising stars of industry bots. Chat bots are computer programmes that mimic conversation with people using artificial intelligence. Back in 2001, Gartner predicted that by 2020, customers will manage 85% of their relationships with an enterprise without interacting with a human. That’s a lot of bot activity. This prediction got a boost with Facebook’s recent launch of a bot store for Messenger at this year’s F8. 

It’s early days yet. Bots are still very buggy, but Jonathan Libov from Union Square Ventures has observed that the “developer interest in messaging/bots has far, far outpaced consumer interest”. Will bots be the next gold rush? Watch this space! 

But what does this mean for brands and businesses? It’s important to start looking at messenger apps as part of the social media eco-system or as an additional component of your overall mobile marketing strategy.

Brands have started to use WhatsApp in creative ways. Clarks worked with BBH Labs on a campaign called ‘From Rats to Rudeboys’, creating three virtual characters to promote its classic desert boot. This allows users to connect with them on the app to receive messages, videos and music playlists.

Clarks From Rats to Rudeboys Case Study from BBH London on Vimeo.

Paul Adams, VP of Product at Intercom says that “to be a successful advertiser on the web in the future, you will need to build content based on many lightweight interactions, over time.” Messaging offers us the opportunity to engage with people in many such interactions at the right times, and in interesting ways. Let’s think about relationship marketing and the opportunities that messenger apps could provide. 

There are additional benefits of using chat and messenger apps in your advertising – consider simple SMS – where the open rate is 98% vs 22% with email. It’s no wonder that Coca-Cola says it spends 75% of its mobile budget on SMS marketing.

Three key takeaways… 

  • Think about trial, experimentation and prototyping

  • It’s less about promotion, more about storytelling, entertainment or utility

  • Consider contextual, real and relevant moments