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Some Are Happy, But Most Aren’t

Facebook’s announcement to access WhatsApp data for advertising has received a huge response, but not all positive

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Rihanna’s number ‘All I See Is Dollar Signs’ must have played in a few heads as soon as WhatsApp informed that it would share its user data, including phone numbers and contact lists, with its parent company Facebook to assist it in ‘targeted advertising’. What does that mean? Facebook, which sits on literally unimaginable volumes of data, will have access to some more user information that it can use in its advertising solutions. A very attractive Facebook just got hotter.

Indeed, great news for all advertisers. Sure, brands and agencies would be calling up already to find out what it means for them, how they should gear up, the more personal access that this could lead to, so on and so forth. Users on the other hand, are not very happy. In fact, most have been agitated about it; they see it as a trust breaching act on part of WhatsApp, which had always maintained that it would not use information for advertising, and had very rigid privacy restrictions — one that Facebook also helped it to hold on to even after the 2014 acquisition.

Much is being said about how this data will eventually shape up and pan out, but WhatsApp has officially not been opened up for advertising. Though many markets are looking up to regulators to assess if this can be allowed, chances are that in most markets, if not all, Facebook would be able to use WhatsApp data.

For a minute, if we remove the public hurt and not look at how Facebook will use the data for advertising, you will see the bigger picture on what this means for WhatsApp and if the platform decides to be a bit bolder, what it means for the industry.

Let’s compare this to WeChat for a moment. At present, WeChat is not just about social messaging. The app that has 700 million monthly active users has collaborated with many to become a single source of several activities and utilities, allowing WeChat users to pay bills, hail a cab, shop online, make in-store payments, transfer money, avail laundry services, access news and other content, get gaming rewards… the list goes on. WeChat has successfully made at least 20 other apps on a phone redundant bringing it all under one.

However, this success is largely limited to China. Replicable model? Sure, but there is still time before WeChat can show similar success in other markets. Increasingly, people are relying on one or two services at best for messaging and WhatsApp has a significant lead over others even though sibling messaging app, Messenger, too has crossed a billion users.

There is a certain familiarity and ease in WhatsApp that is lacking even in Messenger. Whenever WhatsApp decides to go the WeChat way, a very large number of apps will have to rethink their strategies. If apps is the right way for mobile, and if mobile is indeed the present and future screen, the challenges that apps will face would be tremendous. Some may wait and watch, but the smarter players are probably already thinking their next steps, and soon the innovative ones would once again transform the media landscape as we know it.

That is a big ‘if’, no doubt. WhatsApp has agreed to share data, but it has also allowed for an escape route for users who don’t want to share data if they act on time. So there is still the big decision WhatsApp needs to take on opening up its platform to brands, transactions and other utilities but whenever it does, it will be a fun ride.