At Facebook’s F8 conference earlier this year, Mark Zuckerberg said “(Instant messaging) is going to be the next big platform for helping you connect with all kinds of services in new ways".

When you bear in mind this is a man who spent the best part of $22bn buying WhatsApp, you can be pretty sure he’s going to be right.

But where is instant messaging heading and what does this mean for marketers?

For those of you that don’t know – I’ll assume you must have been trapped on a desert island for the past few years – instant messaging (IM) is a catch-all name for a range of different services that primarily provide users with the opportunity to engage in real-time communication.

Typically led by text conversation, messengers often also provide a range of additional functionality that varies wildly from provider to provider.

This additional functionality has, on some platforms, led to them being considered as full-blown social media networks, on a par with Facebook, Twitter and other platforms.

In 2015, mobile phone messaging apps were used by 1.4bn consumers and eMarketer predicts that, by 2018, the number of chat app users worldwide will reach 2bn, representing 80% of smartphone users worldwide.

In a nutshell, it’s only a matter of time before everyone and their granny, in practically every country on the planet, are using IM.

So who are the Big Players?

WhatsApp

Owned by Zuckerbeg & Co. and with over 1bn users, most of which are tech savvy millennials, WhatsApp is the clear front-runner in the IM community and the only truly global IM service with any significant uptake in all continents around the world.

Offering text chat, voice recording, media sharing, group broadcasts and a robust network, you would surely bet your house on this IM giant being the one to pave the way for the future of IM [insert smiley face emoticon].

whatsapp

Facebook Messenger

Formed from the online chat function of the social network, Facebook Messenger has made real inroads in the EMEA and US regions with over 800m users.

However it’s clear that with certain restrictions in places such as Asia, its move out of these two markets and into the APAC region will be a tough one to tackle. 

WeChat

With 650m users, primarily in the APAC region, WeChat is, significantly, dominant in the Chinese market offering users the chance to chat in a ‘walkie talkie’ style conversation, as well as other typical features such as group chats and video calls.

WeChat is also a social network and an extendable transactional platform. It gives its users the opportunity to shop, talk to brands, order taxis (its ‘Didi Dache’ service is essentially China’s Uber) and read the news.

WeChat is also the only social platform 80% of Chinese millennials use every day.

WePay

wepay

kik

With over 240m users, kik has its biggest presence in the US with an impressive 42% of US users being between 16-24 years old.

It’s a promising start, however kik has seen very little uptake out of the US and it’s still dwarfed by the progress of WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger for the moment at least.

Others?

Though there are some exceptions to this global picture – KakaoTalk is the most popular chat app in South Korea, for example, while Line dominates in Japan, Thailand and Taiwan – there’s no doubt that it’s Facebook that’s winning the race so far.

And before you say, “but what about Snapchat?!”, though this service is doing some serious business with teens in the UK and USA (over 40% use it), one a global level it’s still early days with only 7% market penetration.

The future of IM

With the landscape of IM changing and its scope reaching all aspects of the user's life, both personal and professional, it’s clear to see that IM offers real opportunities for businesses to get involved – but how will this play out? 

Firstly, IM is not a place to advertise, it’s a place for marketing. It gives us a powerful new space for brands to change the way consumers think about retail and customer service.

The promise of IM is that if offers a near perfect form of personal, intimate, direct link between brands and customers.

Facebook Messenger has already started to make real inroads in expanding the capabilities of its own IM platform, recently announcing the introduction of so-called chatbots.

sephora chatbot

Similar (but arguably less advanced AI) has been prevalent in WeChat and other channels previously, but inclusion in Facebook Messenger is likely to see increased quality of functionality.

Chatbots will offer the ability for businesses to create bespoke responses based on natural language input. 

As the use and complexity of chatbots expand, users will find themselves being able to order goods simply by messaging the brand – as users of WeChat are already doing – receive tailored news updates based around your interest and even control connected smart devices.

The future of commerce and customer service could well be a hybrid of IM as it steadily becomes our primary way to interact with companies, buy things, provide service and build loyalty.

As the big players (and the many smaller innovators) continue to expand and develop the platforms’ potential, it’s safe to say we’re only at the beginning of what looks to be a long and interesting road.

Blake Cahill

Published 19 September, 2016 by Blake Cahill

Blake Cahill is Global Head of Digital at Philips and a contributor to Econsultancy. 

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