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May 20, 2022

Meta looks to emulate WeChat with WhatsApp Business premium plan

Meta has unveiled a premium business version of WhatsApp, as it aims to monetise the service.

By Ryan Morrison

Meta has announced a new premium plan for WhatsApp Business that will include the ability to share a business account across up to ten devices, and to create custom business links that allow customers to more easily get in touch.

Meta has launched a premium business plan for WhatsApp. (Photo by stockcam/iStock)

The subscription plan, announced as part of Meta’s Conversations conference, was described by CEO Mark Zuckerberg as an “important step to help more businesses connect with people and help more people message the business that they want to support”.

WhatsApp has been under the control of the company formerly known as Facebook since 2014, and despite being the most-used messaging app globally, with an estimated two billion monthly active users, it has yet to generate revenue for Meta.

The company has been building out a business API platform that has helped deliver income, as it is used by the likes of Vodafone, BMW and Iberia Airlines who each pay per message. The subscription model is an attempt to capitalise on this.

Pricing and full feature details have yet to be released by Meta, but it will build on existing business-exclusive features such as automated quick replies, greeting messages, away messages, better statistics and FAQs.

Competition in the space is fierce, with WhatsApp going up against another service in the Meta stable, Facebook Messengers. It is also competing with popular apps such as Telegram, Signal and Chinese messaging service WeChat.

Gartner analyst Daniel O’Connell told Tech Monitor that many tech leaders are grappling with whether to adopt a service like WhatsApp as it allows businesses to communicate with customers through a platform they’re already using.

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He believes Facebook is looking to copy the model successfully pioneered by WeChat, through which users can access a wide range of services and make payments. “In China there is so much done in WeChat and where we may have 50 or 100 apps, in China they have far less because WeChat replaces so many apps,” O’Connell says. “You could do a lot more with WhatsApp, you could book airline tickets, take payments and integrate bots.”

Meta is hoping to “get revenue from enterprise solutions,” O’Connell adds, as Facebook becomes less popular with younger generations.

Alongside the premium announcement, Meta also announced a cloud-based WhatsApp business API that will allow developers and small firms to integrate WhatsApp functionality into their products and services.

Advanced messaging services engage customers

“The best business experiences meet people where they are. Already more than one billion users connect with a business account across our messaging services every week,” said Zuckerberg. as part of the announcement.

“They’re reaching out for help, to find products and services, and to buy anything from big-ticket items to everyday goods. And today, I am excited to announce that we’re opening WhatsApp to any business of any size around the world with WhatsApp Cloud API,” he said.

A Gartner research note published earlier this year advises clients there is a clear benefit to using advanced messaging when it comes to engaging customers. The report says this is particularly the case for younger users “who prefer consumer messaging apps like WhatsApp”.

It also warns against strict policies vetoing consumer messaging apps like WhatsApp within the corporate network as they are increasingly encroaching on the business IT landscape, adding that it is “increasingly difficult to have blanket rules against some form of adoption without alienating your customer base.”

The new version of the business API, announced on Thursday moves the infrastructure into the cloud and moves it away from self-hosted servers.

“The Cloud API allows you to implement WhatsApp Business APIs without the cost of hosting your own servers and also allows you to more easily scale your business messaging. The Cloud API supports up to 80 messages per second of combined sending and receiving,” the Meta for Developers page on the API explains.

The service will be free for the first 1,000 messages per month, and they can be initiated by the user or the business.

It is a different platform from the standard consumer offering, according to the Gartner report, which says: “WhatsApp Business API supports encryption, archiving, usage rules, data storage control and documentation consistent with an IT service for business.”

Zuckerberg said the benefit of using the WhatsApp Business app or creating a cloud solution comes from putting businesses closer to customers. He told the conference "they're reaching out for help to find products and services and to buy anything from big-ticket items to everyday goods."

Meeting customers where they want to engage

The Gartner report suggests that “by 2025, 75% of enterprises will use advanced messaging tools such as WhatsApp to engage with their end-user customers, estimated at less than 20% today.”

WhatsApp will have tough competition in the business API space, with others like Signal already providing an open source offering and Apple, Google and Viber, another service, taking aim at the enterprise market.

“Gartner views WhatsApp as just the tip of the iceberg toward wide-scale adoption of consumer messaging apps,” the report says, with O'Connell, one of its authors, adding: “this would be especially good for small to mid-size businesses, but larger businesses would want to have more channels."

“We foresee software engineering leaders facing similar decisions as messaging apps and social media tools like Instagram, TikTok, SnapChat, Apple Business Chat, Google Business Messaging and Viber, among others, encroach on the enterprise. WhatsApp is the first of many messaging apps and social media tools for which policies and standards will need to be set."

O'Connell adds “Companies realise they need to engage with customers in the channel they want to engage in and it is not possible now to use voice calling, voicemail and emails. WhatsApp and messaging apps are where they need to be."

Read more: WhatsApp privacy update a concern for employers

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