A look at how marketers are using WhatsApp as a platform to promote, sell and highlight their products
Reporter:I am working on a cover story on how brands have started including WhatsApp in their digital media mix. May we chat about this?
Digital Agency Executive: Sure, just WhatsApp the questions and I'll call you back.
Now, when a noun is used like a verb, you know you're onto something potent. The ease and convenience of WhatsApp is lost on no one, least of all brand managers and digital agencies. Even Delhi Traffic Police is using it as a medium to connect with citizens; so far, the department has received over 85,000 complaints, in audio, video and text form, on its helpline number, via WhatsApp alone.
What are the most common ways in which WhatsApp is being used as a medium of communication by brands?
Many brands have begun using WhatsApp as a 'contest platform' – a platform on which consumers can participate in a contest. Most contests require consumers to send their entries, via WhatsApp, most often in image, audio or video format. The platform has become a favourite among both, mainline brands like Sony DADC, as well as media brands like radio channels.
Not too long ago Red FM conducted a WhatsApp-only contest called 'WhatsApp ka Superstar'. Essentially a talent hunt, people were invited to send, via WhatsApp, videos of themselves singing. In just a week, the team received 22,000 entries, from Mumbai alone. It led to the contest being extended to cities like Pune and Bengaluru. More recently, the radio channel used WhatsApp as a medium through which listeners could send in song requests, something they previously did via SMS or phone calls. 'Ab WhatsApp pe bhi bajao' is what the team called it.
Rajat Uppal, national marketing head, Red FM, says, "WhatsApp is the new SMS. We've realised that WhatsApp can be a very strong marketing tool. It is a good one-to-one platform for direct communication with our listeners. Previously we used mailers, Facebook advertising... now there's WhatsApp advertising; it offers ease of 'shareability'.
"Moreover, Uppal uses WhatsApp (along with YouTube, Facebook and SoundCloud) as a medium to push audio content from his radio channel. While releasing content on WhatsApp - whether in audio or image form - is there a set of thumb rules that apply?
There is. While the overall tonality of the campaign remains the same across mediums, on WhatsApp, the creative must have a call-to-action, that is, the consumer is expected to do something after receiving the creative. Secondly, the file shouldn't be heavy, given India's connectivity issues.
Vishal Chinchankar, digital leader, India, MEC, agrees that WhatsApp is a viable call-to-action tool. "But to me, WhatsApp is not a 'medium' to push brand messaging on. It is just a response mechanism platform. A number can be strategically promoted to source user-generated content through WhatsApp," he says. He did it recently for brands like Colgate and Ceat.
In the case of Colgate, people were invited to send selfies of their smile, via WhatsApp, to a phone number displayed on the toothpaste pack. The carrot: a chance to be styled by brand ambassador Sonam Kapoor's stylist. In the campaign for Ceat, aimed at promoting the 'Authentic North-East' expedition in affiliation with Mahindra Adventures, WhatsApp was the last of four digital platforms to be used, after Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, in that order.
Similarly, Times of India's recent 'Great Indian Litterbug' campaign, created by content portal 101India and digital agency MSL Digital, used WhatsApp as a supplementary medium. In addition to TV, print, Facebook, Twitter and a branded microsite, users were invited to share pictures and cartoons, in line with the theme, on a specific WhatsApp number promoted on other platforms.
For some brands, WhatsApp is part of a larger integrated campaign, driven by ATL. In a recent campaign for EverYuth Facewash, users were required to watch the TVC and then answer a question on WhatsApp to win prizes. Says Chetan Asher, founder and CEO, Tonic Media, the digital agency that executed this campaign, "WhatsApp served as an interactive, second screen of sorts." He adds, "As WhatsApp is an ad-free product, it's a challenge to use it effectively as a part of your marketing strategy. There isn't a fixed method. WhatsApp is now being used by marketers to promote, sell and offer after-sales services, especially for luxury and premium products that have a comparatively smaller customer base. With time, more brands will join the bandwagon."
While enjoying the advantages of the medium, mainstream brands are also being cautious. Mention 'bulk messaging' or bring up those unwelcome messages about real estate discounts, and marketers go on the defensive. With good reason too - the last thing they want is to be accused of spamming smartphone users.
So at what point does a WhatsApp message from a brand become spam? The answer lies in who messaged first – the brand or the consumer. According to Red FM's Uppal, WhatsApp can be a very effective tool if marketers manage their database properly. He explains, "Say, we create a database of our listeners from Delhi and Mumbai who have shown interest in one of our recent contests. There's a fair chance this group of people will be interested in our communication about similar initiatives. It also depends on how sensibly you use WhatsApp – for instance, we won't send these messages out daily or even weekly. We'll do so probably once a month"
Basically, the content must be targeted at a brand's existing base of loyalists and not as a tool to gain new takers. "WhatsApp marketing is very targeted marketing," he insists, "I wouldn't go to an ad agency and give them a demographic saying, 'Create a WhatsApp ad for 20-34 year olds in this city.' That's spam. I would rather send the creative to a filtered database of my loyalists, who already like a particular show/RJ. To them, it's not spam."
Similarly, when production house Viacom18 Motion Pictures and Mumbai-based marketing agency New Clear Ideas worked on a campaign to market the movie Dharam Sankat Mein, WhatsApp came into the media mix only after people showed interest in the film by sharing their cell numbers in response to promotional messages across other platforms. These push marketing platforms include print, Twitter and Facebook. The team then created a database of these numbers and started sending movie-related updates to this group of people on WhatsApp.
Retailers, especially the kind that stock items that please the palate, have discovered the option of using WhatsApp to send attractive images of products to potential customers. Swasti Aggarwal, regional head, Delhi NCR, Foodhall, a premium food retailer from Future Retail, admits that WhatsApp has helped bring her customer closer to her brand. She sees the medium as a "personalised, customised 'call back' service that works well with regular customers," not as a "promotional, commercial platform."
Shopping for items like ripe avocados or blue cheese is a sensory experience; an image of the product sent to the customer works as a great way to lure her to the store. "We use WhatsApp to show pictures of new products on our shelf. Some customers want to see an image of a hamper before coming in," she says. At any given point in time, around 500 customers are in direct touch with the staff; of which 100-200 are in touch via WhatsApp.
Aggarwal is quick to add, "But our staff would never WhatsApp someone to push a product." Only customers who're already registered with Foodhall's Payback system (for which they've willingly shared their contact details), or who've shown interest in a specific event (say, one in which a chef will come over to the store to teach people Sushi recipes) get promotional information through e-mailers or WhatsApp.
For small to medium-sized businesses, WhatsApp works as an inexpensive alternative to creating and promoting an actual mobile app. Sample this example: GetMyPeon, a Mumbai-based errand-running service, uses WhatsApp as a booking platform. Instead of going through the motions of creating an app through which people can 'book a peon', the team simply takes the same orders through WhatsApp.
Bharat Ahirwar, founder and CEO, GetMyPeon, says, "Being a start-up, we do not have the funds to launch an app immediately. Today, if I create an app, people will have to download it and then place a request. But WhatsApp is practically on every phone. And it is free."
His clientele comprises busy professionals like fashion designers, chefs and sales executives. It's easier for them to book his services through a WhatsApp message than through an email, where poor connectivity often slows things down. "Our clients want to book a task in a fraction of a second. WhatsApp is quicker than an email," explains Ahirwar, adding, "Besides, the chat history is stored right there. A client can message us saying, 'Hey I had booked a task two days ago. I want to repeat the task today.' So we can just scroll up and check the details." Ahirwar's team executes about 100 tasks a day, of which about 30 are booked on WhatsApp. His staff responds to every incoming ping within 20 minutes.
When it comes to crystal ball gazing, digital marketing professionals are divided in their views. Interestingly, not everyone sees WhatsApp as a viable communication tool for brands in the days ahead.
Siddhartha Vinchurkar, managing director, Mirum, a digital firm from the WPP stable, says, "We have never recommended this medium to any brand. Brand messages on WhatsApp do not connect with people. I don't see WhatsApp as the future of advertising or brand associations."
Either way, the big question is: Will WhatsApp ever evolve into a medium that people can transact on? Can m-commerce give way to w-commerce? Foodhall's Aggarwal hopes so: "With the right back-end technology and a secure payment gateway to support transactions, it will be groundbreaking."
Resh Wallaja, CEO and founder, Kachyng, a US-based payment technology company, goes a step further. The idea that WhatsApp can be a cog in the online purchase cycle is "not science fiction," he insists. According to him, WhatsApp can evolve from a communication platform to a trade platform. Kachyng is working towards making online payments more convenient for merchants and consumers. It is looking to harness the "ubiquity of mobile phones" and enable people to make a purchase with a single click, from any channel, be it Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, WhatsApp, email or SMS.
The possibilities are endless. Sudhir Nair, former senior VP and head, digital, Grey, says, "Today, when brands create content, they think, 'is it 'mobile' enough?' They evaluate the potential of the content to 'viral itself out' through social platforms, led primarily by WhatsApp."
Now that a single group on WhatsApp can have up to 100 members, what if a brand creates smaller subsets of its TG and tries to 'own' communities on WhatsApp? What if a brand manages to get a bunch of its loyalists to join a 'branded WhatsApp' group and sends out updates about its products/events to this mobile community? Brands could also use these groups as virtual research laboratories and glean consumer insights from these finely defined communities. Can a brand Geo-target a loyalist travelling by road from Colaba to Bandra and alert her with a WhatsApp ping just as she's riding past its new billboard? And, more importantly, would consumers appreciate receiving such contextual messages from brands on their mobile devices?
Nair would. He likens this to subscribing to a YouTube channel: "For brands, this would be a personalised way of interacting with finely targeted consumers. It would be a fantastic mobile-first approach to CRM."
Ultimately, it all depends on what Facebook decides to do with this livewire of a product. This will also have a lot to do with the fate of WhatsApp's cousin, Facebook messenger. But that's another story for another day.
A Note From the Editor
I got an insight into the popularity of WhatsApp in the strangest of ways, from the most unexpected of people - my physiotherapist. While she was treating me for a sports injury, I asked her if the kind of patients and complaints she received had changed over the years.
Yes, she said, promptly. In recent times she was getting a lot of younger women with neck pain (spondylosis), she explained, "because they are always messaging on their mobile phones." It had got worse in recent months, she said with exasperation, "because of WhatsApp - although that is what forced them into therapy in the first place!"
The pervasiveness as well as usage of WhatsApp are astounding. If Facebook was once the benchmark of popularity, WhatsApp has created a new one. Young people, old people, the well-to-do and the poor - everyone seems to have downloaded the app.
It's hard to put one's finger on what exactly it is. It's a communication medium but it is also a social networking tool as the countless groups testify. It's certainly the tool by which the largest number of jokes and rumours get shared.
Classifying it gets even more complicated when you consider that it is great for messaging - so it's replaced SMS. But it's eaten into email too, because it is quicker and less expensive to send a message or photographs across as an attachment. The reason, of course, is that WhatsApp has developed terrific compression technology. Don't forget that it allows you to share video or send a voice message.
Considering that it is on every phone, it was only a matter of time before businesses began using WhatsApp for marketing communication. This fortnight's cover story looks at the variety of ways in which companies big and small are using WhatsApp to reach out to their customers. Some of the case studies are impressive. Meanwhile, techies are trying to build software which will use the platform to do even more - for example, m-commerce.
It's early days but we can be certain that we ain't seen nothing yet as far as WhatsApp marketing is concerned.