WhatsApp to Court Business Users as App Nears 1 Billion Users

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WhatsApp will begin to allow businesses to communicate with its user base through the app this year, co-founder Jan Koum revealed at the Digital-Life-Design Conference in Munich on Monday.

According to a report by Forbes, Koum also announced that WhatsApp is about to reach one billion “active” users, and will celebrate by killing off subscription fees charged after a trial period in some countries.

The popular messaging service currently has 990 million active users, and fees will be removed from the various versions of WhatsApp over the next several weeks, according to the announcement. At one dollar per year, even the potential revenue generated from user fees is hardly sufficient to cover the $19 billion price Facebook paid for WhatsApp in 2014, and Tom Millitzer wrote that he was sceptical of the “active” definition WhatsApp was using, and therefore the revenue potential it had, at the time of the deal.

When social networking has generated revenue, it has been from data collection and advertising, which WhatsApp has defined itself by avoiding. Instead, it will sell businesses the opportunity to have direct communications with users who have “opted in” to messaging from them.

“Starting this year, we will test tools that allow you to use WhatsApp to communicate with businesses and organizations that you want to hear from,” the company said in its first blog post in a year. “That could mean communicating with your bank about whether a recent transaction was fraudulent, or with an airline about a delayed flight. We all get these messages elsewhere today – through text messages and phone calls – so we want to test new tools to make this easier to do on WhatsApp, while still giving you an experience without third-party ads and spam.”

A source “close to the firm” told Forbes that WhatsApp has been studiously ignoring calls from businesses seeking network access, unlike competitor services like Kik and WeChat.

Whether WhatsApp will offer analytics, bots, or infrastructure for mass messaging remains to be seen, as does any response from its user base. It is also questionable how much value businesses will place on direct access to existing customers without those extras, so it is likely that the changes announced this week are just the beginning of an eventful year for WhatsApp.

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