You've probably seen several articles about chat apps recently. You've likely also seen predictions, some compelling and some dire: Chat apps are the new social media! Chat apps will replace social media in 2015! You may have seen those same sentiments in the form of questions. In this article I'm going to break it down for you. I'll review how people use chat apps, and the impact they are having on social media. I'll tell you why marketers and brands are so interested in them, and how I think chat apps will integrate into the social media mix. More importantly I'll tell you what you should be thinking about regarding how to marketing on chat apps, and tell you how brands are engaging customers on chat apps today.
What are chat apps?
Chat apps are apps like WhatsApp, Snapchat, WeChat, Viber, and Line. You use them to send text messages and in some cases make calls. They typically make it easier to chat through text from mobile devices, and provide additional easy to use features for sending images, videos, and creating groups to chat with. As I said, some chat apps take it further and include VOIP calling. Many chat apps try to be more private. They are inherently more private because you have to invite people to chat with you (for the most part). Some chat apps, like Snapchat, take privacy further by deleting content after a specified amount of time. Some chat apps support ads, others don't. Some have separate channels for publishing content. Snapchat has a new Channel, Snapchat Discover, where media partners like CNN can publish news related content. Snapchat even has its own original series, Snapper Hero coming out.
What's all the fuss about?
People. To marketers, people are reach. Reaching people provides the opportunity to raise brand awareness and make your pitch to current or new customers. Chat apps have experienced huge growth in the number of people using them over the last two years, so everyone is interested. How much have chat apps been growing? WhatsApp added over 100 million users in the last 4 months of 2014 alone. Martin Beck's recent article listed 4 of the top 6 social networks (based on active users) as chat apps.
Are chat apps changing the social interaction landscape?
Yes. People who spend more time chatting in chat apps, may spend less time on other social platforms. Moreover, since a large number of people can potentially be reached on chat networks, those networks and apps are places that brands and marketers need consider when looking to extend their reach, or to reach the audiences that populate those networks.
Is Social Media as we know it dead or dying?
In short, yes. But, before you freak out about how your brand just got its Instagram account where it should be, social media as we know it dies every day. A better way to say it might be that social media changes every day. Social media is not a static landscape. It's a constantly changing mix of technologies, use cases, personas, user types, and issues. People like to put things in boxes, because things in boxes are easier to understand. The most common social media box regarding business and marketing is, "you have to be on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn." You've probably heard that. It's been good advice for several years. It's good advice today, and it's going to be good advice next year as well. Social media changes with every new social app, every new type of social network, and every new issue that comes into focus. Most of the time the changes in the social media landscape are numerous and small, requiring periodic adjustments. Sometimes changes are impactful and large, and generate more immediate responses. If you want to keep up, you need to stay plugged in, and wear a good pair of running shoes.
A look back at past disruptive changes
I use this analogy when talking about chat apps and other disruptive technologies because it seems provide perspective. The original social media app was the Internet's original killer app - email. That was followed be the world wide web and websites for people and brands. Then ecommerce sites. Then came SEO awareness, the secret to make sure your website could be found in a world of websites Then SEO became a moving target, enter search advertising and pay-per click. Then came social media. Users flocked. Brands built pages and touted organic reach. Then organic reach became a moving target and social media ads matured. Get the point?
So let me ask you:
- Do you still put thought and effort into building a great website for your brand? Yes you do. You have to have a place for your customers to go, to sell your products, and to get your message out.
- Do you still optimize it for SEO? Yes you do. People still use search engines to find things, and it's always better to be found sooner rather than later.
- Does search advertising still work and do brands still use it? Yes. Digital advertising is growing at an enormous rate. Social media advertising makes up 30% of that, while search advertising is 40%. Those numbers will change, but search advertising is important and will continue to be important for some time. In fact, the bigger disruption in digital advertising currently is mobile vs desktop. The Woodside Capital Partners report on Digital Ad Tech: Growth, Disruption, and Consolidation has lots of stats of interest to marketers.
Don't forget, the biggest marketing event of the year is on boring old TV - the Superbowl. Also don't forget that Facebook is now bigger than any country in the world when you compare users to populations. Those aren't just static numbers, almost 900 million people visit Facebook daily. Facebook isn't diminishing in importance.
How might chat apps change things?
- They are used by younger audiences (from tweens to young adults). This audience tends to use the heck out of these apps. If this is the demographic you want to reach, you need to add this to your marketing plan.
- They are used for private conversations. A lot of opinions and recommendations will be exchanged in these chats. Again, if you want to influence them, you will need to find a way to be part of them, have a presence near them, or generate buzz that gets your brand talked about in them.
I can see lots of social media scenarios where chat apps are part of the mix. Chat apps are likely to be the place for private conversations between smaller groups with more active participation. As private conversations and active participation move to chat networks, "traditional" social media may be used for wider reaching conversations with more passive or sporadic interaction. One example that comes to mind is a media or sporting event. People might monitor traditional social media to capture the broad excitement, crowd level enthusiasm, and sporadically share and comments - color commentary. At the same time, friends may connected and constantly chatting back and forth with each other through chat apps - play-by-play. That's just one potential scenario. There are many marketing scenarios that brands, marketers, consultants will have to sort out.
What you should do
As with most new technologies and trends, a thoughtful approach is often best. The following process will give you insights about whether you need to change your marketing approach, and how:
- Listen: Listen to your audience. Find out where they are hanging out, and what their interests are, and what's compelling about your brand, and products, and how you stack up against your competitors.
- Investigate: Get onto a few chat apps. Use them with your team, your friends, and co-workers. Research use cases to see how other people and competitors are using them.
- Measure: Always measure your own efforts and web traffic. See what's generating results for you and your brand on Social Media. This will give you insights on what's working and what could improve. Analysis can help you determine if chat apps need to be part of your marketing approach.
- Act. If appropriate for your brand. If chat networks have users you want or need, act to get onto those platforms and interact with those users. How? Brands are doing it in many ways. You might advertise on one of the media outlets partnering to be on Snapchat Discover. You might use tools built into that platform (such as WeChat) to engage customers, or use other methods to engage. Sprout Social's Jennifer Beese wrote an article detailing three ways brands are engaging on Snapchat.
What's the future hold?
There are other disruptive technologies coming. Desktop computer interactions are moving to TVs. Content providers are building integrations to online and social apps. You will soon be able to watch the game on one part of your TV screen, have a Twitter chat up displayed on-screen next to the game, and a WhatsApp chat directly under the Twiitter chat. And none of us know what next big thing is coming. We might, however, have some insights where users be in the future. Here's a one forecast from Bob Hutchings on where social media users might go in 2016.