Messaging Apps, Chatbots, And The New Social Media

As social media users dwindle, messaging apps are having a moment

Amidst recent stories of data breaches, fake news and harmful content, public confidence in social media has taken a serious hit. Recent research shows that people are becoming increasingly selective about the kinds of sites they use, with more than 30 per cent of 16 to 24 year olds closing an account in the past year. However, although we might be more wary of traditional social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, a different kind of social platform is taking their place: the messaging app.

From its humble beginnings in facilitating basic text communications, the messaging app now provides businesses with an important new way of reaching consumers. With integrated chatbots offering app users everything from payment facilities to personal therapy, they are a crucial channel for B2C companies. That said, with security concerns starting to plague popular messaging apps, they may be at risk from the same issues faced by their social media forbears…

The new social media

With 1.5 billion monthly users in 2019, WhatsApp is the world’s most popular messaging app. One factor in its success is the growing trend towards large group chats amongst users who don’t know each other in real life. Groups form around common interests, and many people use the app to share and comment on content just as they would on traditional social media sites.

In Brazil, WhatsApp is a dominant presence in many people’s lives. The app has 120 million users – more than half the country’s population of 210 million. Crucial to its uptake and enduring popularity is the fact that many mobile phone networks offer free access – abolishing data charges for all activity within WhatsApp.

Apps, bots and business opps

The growing usage of messaging apps provides businesses with significant opportunities. One is advertising – a route that Facebook owned WhatsApp is reportedly set to go down this year. More impactful, however, is the addition of chatbots to messaging apps, which give businesses unique channels of communication with customers.

In 2016, Facebook integrated a bot platform into its Messenger app, enabling third party developers to create bots for products, services, customer engagement and information. By 2018, there were 300,000 active chatbots on the platform, up from 100,000 the previous year. Of these, one of the main success stories comes from the beauty brand Sephora. After first launching a service on the messaging app Kik, Sephora created two chatbots for Facebook Messenger. Its Reservation Assistant helps customers to book in store makeover appointments, whilst its Virtual Assistant matches makeup shades to an individual’s skin tone from uploaded photos. An effective way of reducing barriers to communication, the Sephora Assistant resulted in an 11 per cent increase in bookings when compared to other channels.

This kind of multi functional app is something that users of the Chinese stalwart WeChat have been familiar with for several years, with the launch of the payment facility WeChat Wallet in 2013, and brand based WeChat accounts in 2014. In a drastic shake up of the Chinese healthcare sector, WeChat users have also been able to access medical services since that time. WeChat Intelligent Healthcare enables patients to book medical appointments, access online consultations and make payments for drugs and treatment. This kind of comprehensive platform showcases the scope for integrating services into messaging apps, since they enable businesses to seamlessly deliver a wide range of offerings.

Breaking free

Currently, when users want to engage with third party chatbots on messaging apps, they can find them through a search function, or – if previous permissions exist between a company and a consumer – businesses can reach out to their customers on the platform. Such a contained interaction process may not, however, endure into the future.

The combination of chatbots with messaging apps provides the perfect opportunity for businesses to jump in on messaging content and nudge users with targeted products and services. If you are discussing dinner plans with a friend, for example, the app could suggest deals at local restaurants and offer to book the table for you. Much like the way in which Gmail now automatically adds events to a user’s Google Calendar, or the addition of Uber as a transportation option on Google Maps, sponsored partnerships between messaging apps and selected companies could streamline the user experience even further, and provide valuable consumer engagement options.

Overstepping the mark

This path must be navigated with caution. If messaging apps do open themselves up more explicitly to advertisements, user patience will be tested. The challenge, as Facebook has found to its detriment on its core site, is to curate sponsored content in a way that is non invasive, engages with the user, and – perhaps most importantly – protects their privacy.

This being said, the rise of the messaging app may also be checked in other ways. In Brazil, for example, the popularity of WhatsApp caused it to be implicated in malpractice in the country’s 2018 general election. Scraping software was used by campaigners to collect phone numbers from people’s Facebook accounts, and then automatically send them political WhatsApp messages or add them to groups. This is also a technique frequently used by marketers to promote consumer products to Brazilians.

Although WhatsApp has introduced measures to prevent the mass delivery of messages – including a 20 message limit on the number of messages that can be forwarded to different groups at the same time – there are ways of working round this. As a consequence, just like traditional social media sites, messaging apps like WhatsApp have been targets for fake news.

Unfortunately for the integrity of these apps, thanks to end to end encryption they cannot centrally censor content. In spite of their commitments to remove questionable content, the efforts of Facebook and co. have been severely lacking in this area, but action is at least possible. With no way of moderating content without compromising the security of communications, Western messaging apps may face a difficult future. This is not a problem found in the Chinese model, whose app providers have been censoring content since their inception.

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