Oct 2013

SMS was touted to be the most simple yet effective “killer application” that led the mobile growth story for more than two decades – but its time to bid adieu to this service that had revolutionized both personal & professional communication. But what is it that is killing this killer app? The answer lies in over-the-top (OTT) chatting services like WhatsApp, WeChat, LINE, iMessage, BBM, Viber

In 2012, telecom operators lost about US$25 billion worth of revenue globally given the shift from texting to “whatsapping”. In 2013, that very number is expected to grow to US$34 billion, which is a significant 28% of the total global SMS revenue of US$120 billion.

About 19 billion messages were exchanged every day over these OTT apps like WhatsApp, iMessage, BBM, WeChat etc. in 2012 compared to 17.6 billion texts that were shared per day and these numbers are expected to grow to 50 billion and 21 billion respectively by end 2013. The signs are imminent – with smartphone penetration growing exponentially, OTT apps being offered free of charge and working over WiFi, there is every reason to believe that these “chatting apps” are here to stay and will eventually replace SMS as the most prevalent form of instant messaging.

Singapore is experiencing this shift in a major way and understandably so. With mobile penetration close to 150%; smartphone penetration at 78% (4th globally); smartphone app penetration at 70% (5th globally); low-cost/free wifi options available around the city; with 87% of smartphone users actively using apps over WiFi rather than their data plans, the city state is in an ideal position to enable and experience this transformation.

Now whilst I don’t have data about the penetration of the different chatting apps in Singapore in particular, my observation and experience tells me that WhatsApp is definitely the most actively used OTT app amongst Singaporeans. Globally the app has attracted more than 300 million active users, it processes 31 billion messages a day, including 325 million daily photo uploads . Whilst alternatives such as WeChat, Line, Viber, iMessage, Facebook Messenger have their own loyal fan bases across different demographic segments, WhatsApp seems to be universally prevalent across different segments, including the professional audience.

Now, you may wonder why would professionals use an IM service like WhatsApp at work? Are there are any inherent advantages to this new medium? Here are four specific business instances from my personal experiences at Happy Marketer:

1. Sales & Client Relationship Management

The inherent advantage that WhatsApp enjoys as opposed to SMS or some of the other OTT apps is that it automatically adds people from your phone’s Contact list, who are already on the WhatsApp network (there is no opt-in friend request that needs to be sent out). This means that the moment you exchange numbers with a potential client or customer and add her to you contact list, they automatically become a part of your WhatsApp network.

Thereafter the communication channel with the other party is pretty much open 24×7 – be it to schedule meetings, share industry updates through infographics, exchange business gossip, fuel rumours about corporate movements; inform them about relevant events or even to negotiate & finalize business deals. And all this happens at each other’s convenience, thanks to the asymmetric nature of these communication channels. This particularly comes in handy when these conversations happen across time zones, apart from help one save on international roaming.

2. Customer Service & Account Management

Over the last few months, I have observed that many of our clients prefer to initiate and carry out business conversations over WhatsApp, either on an individual basis or by creating group chats for all project members. I would like to think that one of the key reasons the clients prefer this route is the urgency it provides given the immediate notifications generated by these messages, which tends to pressurize and get a quicker response.

Unlike email, on WhatsApp not only do you know when a message has been read but it also tracks the last time an user was active on WhatsApp – this makes it much harder for either party to feign ignorance. Now is this ubiquity and the added pressure a boon or a bane? That is a debate for another day!

3. Project Management & Staff Communication Internally, we also use this app to create group conversations around different project teams, different hierarchy of employees as well as to broadcast and disseminate company wide updates. The thing that I have personally enjoyed the most is managing communication across a cross border project team through WhatsApp – it allows us to keep in constant touch, share information & knowledge about the industry, notify, push people to complete tasks and have some fun banter as well – all without paying a single cent.

Apart from these instances, I have come to understand that even venture capitalists are carrying out deal flow conversations over WhatsApp – last I heard a fellow entrepreneur friend of mine had politely rejected an investment offer over the app!

Whether these IM chats legally constitute as official documentation; whether it is ethical for clients to bother their vendors after office hours; what should the protocol be or etiquette of professional communication over OTT apps; are important questions that need to be pondered and debated over in the coming months. What is certain is that these apps have pervaded the business environment. They are here to impact and influence business conversations, dialogues and decisions and make the already thin line between our personal and professional lives even thinner.

What has your experience been thus far? Please feel free to WhatsApp your thoughts to me at +6590695123 or you can tweet me at @pranmaz.

Prantik Mazumdar

Prantik is a Managing Partner at Happy Marketer, who leads the firm’s Social, Mobile & Display Advertising practice. He sits on the Global Digital Board of Time International, a leading luxury chain in Asia.