WhatsApp is making a radical update to its app, turning it for the first time into a platform for passively consuming content, similar to the way people scroll through their Facebook or Instagram newsfeeds – and it’s a move that could finally usher in a money-making system like advertising.
WhatsApp’s new Status feature, being rolled out on Monday, will let users share photos, GIFs or videos overlaid with drawings, emojis and a caption that will be visible to selected friends for 24 hours, before disappearing.
If this sounds familiar, that’s because it’s exactly like Snapchat’s hugely successful Stories feature, launched three years ago, which lets users share similarly-ephemeral timelines.
The move probably shouldn’t be surprising. Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, saw its other social media property Instagram roll out a clone of Stories last summer, also called “Stories.” A spokesperson for Snapchat could not be reached for comment at the time of writing.
This represents a bigger shift for WhatsApp than it did for Instagram though, because it potentially heralds a very different way of using the app. Till now WhatsApp has been a utilitarian hub of activity: people go on there to simply type and read messages and type some more. Not scroll endlessly through streams of other people’s content.
Status will change that use case for the first time. It also potentially opens the door to messages from businesses, or rather, advertisers. WhatsApp said more than a year ago that it was looking at ways that businesses could send messages to its users in an unobtrusive and useful way.
That has always sounded like a tall order — businesses ultimately want to persuade people, not just inform them — and particularly difficult given the chatting system that’s at the centre of WhatApp itself.
Facebook has been able to rake billions in revenue each quarter from advertisers precisely because it can insert their videos and photos into its content-heavy Newsfeed.
So far, attempts on Facebook messenger and elsewhere to invite “bots” from advertisers to chat to people has fallen flat – any success there needs smarter artificial intelligence behind it and so is probably some ways off.
WhatsApp may have experimented with bots in the hope that it didn’t have to go down the tried-and-tested route of displaying content; Koum and his co-founder Brian Acton have been vehemently against advertising on their app since their early days, but monetizing their app in any other way does sound almost impossible.
“As a utility, we’re focused on building features that will be used around the world by our 1.2 billion users,” a WhatsApp spokesperson told FORBES. “Over time, we’ve seen a big uptick in users sharing rich content, such as photos, videos and GIFs on WhatsApp. We wanted to offer an simple, secure, and reliable way for people to share this type of content with all their contacts at once.”