Prepare to Get Chatty on Social

When you think of social media, which platforms come to mind? Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, maybe Pinterest and Snapchat, if you fancy yourself social-savvy? The big players on social dominate the market, but when you peek behind the blue and white curtain, you’ll find a group of the social cool kids standing next to Snapchat, and they’re dubbed… chat apps.

Along with Snapchat, apps like WhatsApp, WeChat, Kik, Line, and Weibo have become staples on young social media users’ screens. WhatsApp boasts more than 600 million monthly active users, WeChat is close to 500 million, Kik is gaining steam with 200 million, and Line has 170 million. To put it in perspective: Twitter has about 280 million.

If you’re surprised, you shouldn’t be.

If you had to define your life through a social media network, you’d probably use Facebook, right? Facebook users are connected to friends, family, and colleagues. Life milestones like graduations, moves, job changes, engagements, and babies are on Facebook. But this means that posting on Facebook is risky; everyone you’ve ever known sees that content. Similarly, Twitter is extremely public, and users often network professionally or talk to communities with similar interests.

Facebook and Twitter have also become giant social conglomerates where brand messaging is around every virtual corner. Factor in large global regions that have restrictions placed on these more traditional social media platforms, and it’s easy to see why chat apps are blowing up. Snapchat is easily the most recognizable of the group (what’s safer than snackable messages sent to a select group that self destruct in seconds?) but other chat apps aren’t far behind in popularity or monetization.

So why are marketers ignoring them?

To be fair, some smart marketers aren’t, but the majority of brands just haven’t caught up to the changes. They don’t see a clear way to monetize on these networks or an established system to measure the ROI, and many chat apps aren’t optimized for brand marketing just yet. If what we’ve seen so far is any indication, though, that will change significantly this year.

Take Line as an example. Line’s feed feature shows chronological (read: not algorithmic) updates from your Line friends and brand accounts, but this is just a bonus– the primary app feature allows you to send a private chat message to each of your followers, complete with push notifications. That means when Paul McCartney unveiled a surprise collaboration with Kanye West on New Year’s Eve, he was able to a send a private chat message (and link to Soundcloud) to his 10 million Line followers and they each received a push notification instantly. Paul also posted the collaboration on Facebook, where he has 6 million followers, and the post received a meager 14,334 likes.

Another chat app, Kik, allows brands onto its platform. Kik uses an advanced in-app browser that lets users surf content without exiting the interface, which is social gold for the ability to share. Operating a Kik brand account and chatting with followers is free, for now, but Kik is hoping to monetize by offering promotions and targeting.

WhatsApp, acquired by Facebook in 2014, recently gave Buzzfeed an experimental share button for mobile pages, which allows readers to click the button and share Buzzfeed content within WhatsApp. Clicks on it outnumbered clicks on the Twitter sharing button, and Buzzfeed now employs a full-time staffer dedicated to its chat app presence. Even The Paper, a media venture run by state-owned Shanghai Media Group, uses WeChat to publish its content.

So where is all this going?

Chat apps and brand marketing will only continue to intertwine as the apps get better at earning advertising revenue and the brands get better at navigating changes in the social media landscape. It’s already happening, and if we know anything about social, it’s that staying in front of the curve is key. Brands simply can’t afford to push the same salesy content on Facebook anymore.

We’ve all heard it before: organic reach via big network algorithms is decreasing. Users are going to find ways to connect on their own terms, and brands must react accordingly. We predict that chat apps will emerge from the cool corner to the mainstream stage, and eventually become important distribution channels for brands and publishers alike.