With more than 1.5 billion monthly users, WhatsApp is the most popular consumer chat app on the planet. Once it opens its door to large enterprises, WhatsApp will instantly become the world's most powerful business messaging tool as well.
It's not difficult to understand why brands are clamoring to get on WhatsApp, which today officially launched an early access program for large businesses. Beyond its staggering numbers and global appeal, the Facebook-owned app is highly trusted by its users, who rely on the app to keep in touch with the people they care about. Unlike Facebook's other chat apps, Messenger and Instagram, WhatsApp is currently an ad-free environment. It's also encrypted end to end, meaning that messages can't be intercepted and read by any third parties, including Facebook.
This is a dream scenario for global brands eager to engage with customers over secure and private chat. But these great benefits come with a cost. As it turns out, the very same attributes that make the channel so valuable for users make it far more complex for businesses to adopt and maintain than any other messaging channel.
If you're an enterprise looking to jump on the WhatsApp bandwagon, here are some things you'll need to figure out before WhatsApp's API becomes available to your business.
Are you willing to host?
Earlier this year, WhatsApp introduced WhatsApp Business App, an Android application for small business owners. Now it's taking it a step further by rolling out an API for large businesses to access WhatsApp using the same tools they use to communicate with users on other channels -- their existing customer engagement software.
In order to maintain end-to-end encryption, however, WhatsApp is requiring businesses to host their own "headless" version of the Business App called the WhatsApp API client. Unlike the app that customers (and small businesses) have access to, there's no user interface. The API client lives in a sealed Docker container, complete with its own SQL databases and block storage that need to be managed and monitored 24/7, as well as an API that will require regular updates.
Managing this complex IT infrastructure can be a full-time job for businesses and a potential scalability nightmare for the customer engagement platforms they're relying on. Businesses will need to figure out how to host and maintain API clients themselves or seek help from an official WhatsApp Business Solution provider.
Ask your software vendors what their game plan is for hosting and managing WhatsApp API clients, and whether this is something they're prepared to scale.
From notifications to conversations
Beyond end-to-end encryption, WhatsApp is different from other business messaging channels in its commitment to trust and safety.
Unlike Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp is not planning to become another advertising platform. In order to keep the user's inbox free from spam, WhatsApp is introducing strict opt-in requirements and a host of rules and guidelines for businesses to adhere to when sending outbound messages to customers.
WhatsApp's intent is for businesses to use the API to send high-value notifications -- think boarding passes, shipping updates, receipts, and other transactional messages users have opted in to receive.
Unlike notifications sent through SMS, these paid messages will come from a verified business profile with full branding, similar to other emerging business messaging platforms like Apple Business Chat and Google-supported Rich Communication Services, or RCS.
Because they'll come from a business identity they know and trust, users will have a natural tendency to reply to these notifications. In the business messaging world, a notification is no longer just a notification -- it's an invitation to an ongoing conversation with customers.
Your WhatsApp Business checklist
When evaluating customer engagement platforms that can support WhatsApp notifications and replies, you'll need to consider a few operational challenges beyond hosting. The first is how your customer service software, and your support agents, will know which notification customers are responding to. Will agents have the context they need to reply quickly and gracefully? Or will they inevitably frustrate customers by having to start the conversation from scratch?
Next, agents will need a way to re-engage customers once conversations have gone dormant. To protect the user's inbox from unwanted messages, businesses will need to pay to send pre-approved, templated messages via the WhatsApp API after the reply window closes. Does your customer service software have the capability to support these WhatsApp proprietary message types?
Finally, don't let WhatsApp become yet another conversation silo. As I discussed in my last post on No Jitter, a true omnichannel customer experience feels like one continuous conversation with a business, no matter the communication channel. Make sure your customer engagement platform provides you with a unified view of the customer across all digital touchpoints, from the leading messaging apps, to Web chat to SMS and even email.
WhatsApp is finally getting ready to open the floodgates to businesses. Will your business be ready for WhatsApp?