There are few apps that have become so synonymous with the use case they solve that they have become the verb for that use case. WhatsApp is certainly one of them. Using a combination of being relatively early to the market, solving few use cases well and having a lightweight app capable of running on almost any platform from Symbian S40 to Blackberry OS and of course Android and iOS - WhatsApp has 700 million more users than its nearest competitor. It is completely dominant in a lot of markets. Even in the markets where it is not dominant, like the US, its marLet share continues to increase as more people download it to keep in touch with families abroad.
How does WhatsApp make its money?
For an app that is so successful, the thing that sticks out is how much money WhatsApp chooses to leave on the table. Initially launched as a paid app that charged you $1 a year, WhatsApp has remained completely free to use since the FB acquisition. It also doesn’t show ads. According to Forbes, WhatsApp made $5 billion in 2020. That’s not nothing - but for an app that has 2 billion users, having a $2.5 ARPU per year is quite shocking- especially one which delivers so much value. It’s only sources of revenue are WhatsApp Business and WhatsApp Pay. While WhatsApp business might be scalable due to the size of the audience WhatsApp provides, WhatsApp Pay operates in a fiercely competitive industry and its success remains an open question.
Even taking the success of WhatsApp Pay and Business a success, the nature of the two revenue streams is a bit worrying. Both require some level of data sharing with either the business users of WhatsApp or the payment partners and regulators. For an app that sells privacy as one of its core features- WhatsApp already suffers occasional controversies due to its association with Meta. These features will force it to make increasingly tougher choices as they mature. Apps like Telegram and Signal already gain market share at WhatsApp’s expense every time it’s in the news for some apparent slight against user privacy. Business and Pay are only going to contribute to the threat they pose.
Which brings me to the topic of this essay - what should WhatsApp build and how can it ensure continued success in revenue growth, user base and user engagement. According to me it is a workplace messenger.
Why a workplace messenger?
The most important use-cases a product team can build features for is stuff that they didn’t intend to support but users are using the app for anyway. Google meet recently released a companion mode - which allows people to login with two devices into a meeting and avoid cross talk and voice feedback. They did this because people were already logging into calls with two devices, one to talk with and one to maybe take notes or use the whiteboard. Since this was a use case already being solved for by the existing app through a workaround (by muting the mic and turning off the camera), building for this meant that the feature would be immediately adopted. The verification of the problem and the solution hypotheses was already done.
So what can WhatsApp build that people are already using it for, even though that was not the intended purpose of the app. Well, they use it as a Slack alternative. This idea came to my mind when I noticed that while my partner’s organization pays for Slack, her team still prefers to use WhatsApp for official communication. My own team at Media.net uses Flock quite extensively but we still have multiple WhatsApp groups. We often reach out to folks in the company via WhatsApp if they are unreachable on Flock. When I checked with a few friends of mine - it was the same thing. All of their workplaces pay for Teams /Slack/ Google Chat/ Flock but the use of WhatsApp at least partially for official purposes is quite common.
Why are people currently using WhatsApp for work?
Few reasons are quite apparent.
There is no universal workplace messenger - a lot of teams use Slack or Teams, I’m sure equal numbers use their own proprietary (and buggy) solution; and there are few other options. With occupation mobility becoming common, people are switching between jobs every couple of years - needing them to familiarise themselves with another new tool. It’s fine if you are a tech savvy person who enjoys such things. However, for anyone not tech savvy or interested in spending time to learn the new tool - using WhatsApp is a fine option. It’s an app their colleagues are definitely going to have and more likely already use for work to a limited extent. It handles the basics well - messages, attachments, groups, calls and is better than email (the other ubiquitous option) by miles.
Another reason is just habit- people check their WhatsApp quite often and it’s quite intuitive to start a conversation there if an idea pops into your head. Even if you’re an avid Slack user - it is quite a frictional process to move from one app to another and type the text.
Additionally, as people build relationships in the workplace, they start talking on more interpersonal mediums like WhatsApp and those conversations often become a hybrid of work/non-work topics. It is quite difficult for conversations to be bucketed to one platform these days.
It makes a lot of sense for the WhatsApp product team- to figure out how to serve this use case well. And I have a few ideas.
Improvement to Group Chats
One of the biggest challenges that WhatsApp groups face when facilitating conversations between a subset of their members is that the messages are still cluttering the main chat space. All of us know how annoying it is to open your phone to see 400 messages in a group and have no context of what the folks are talking about. This is even more true of work groups where it is more common for a few people to have conversations among themselves but in a group so that other people have some context. We tag people in mail threads so often for the same reason.
Another limitation of the Groups feature is that when you’re added to a group you can’t see the messages shared prior to you joining. This is a major hassle as you don’t have context of what people are talking about. If you’re brought in to troubleshoot an issue, having access to the past conversations makes a ton of sense. Although this feature might break WhatsApp’s current implementation of E2E encryption, but I am going to leave that to my fellow technical managers.
Video/Audio Calling Improvements
This is a no-brainer, right? Work calls need more people. Sometimes even going as high as 100, when you’re presenting to all your stakeholders. And the ability to add more participants just makes sense. We should also have the ability to add them by sharing call links instead of just calling like current WhatsApp calls. Call recording and screen sharing are also a must. Even Apple’s FaceTime - a highly consumer facing app- has added these features.
Have you ever used Huddles in Slack? It’s kind of like Discord but better. It’s a mix of push to talk and voice call that makes remote work seamless by having quick voice calls with your team-mates. Since it doesn’t have a persistent ringer, it is ok if the user getting the call sees it a bit later and joins. In my experience it’s like walking up to someone and just talking to them.
Work/Personal Mode Switcher
Apart from the features that make WhatsApp competitive in terms of feature parity - a switcher between work and personal modes would be awesome - if properly implemented. Here is what the toggle should do if personal mode is engaged-
- Create a status update in the Work Mode section that the user is on “personal time”
- Hide all the work related channels and chats
- Messages sent in personal mode should have a separate chat history but you should be able to move messages from one space to another.
- Automated suggestions to move conversations to personal mode, by recognising the context and if the chat is between colleagues.
- A timer to switch between work and personal mode automatically
- Notifications from the work-mode groups/chats/calls should be muted but a Work Mode Notification icon should reveal them without the need to switch the mode entirely.
Work Mode is one way of separating work and personal communication. But it is fundamentally against WhatsApp’s product philosophy to introduce complex interactions. I have never seen a more selective team about what it chooses to add to its product. So they might be better served by creating a whole lay different app as far as staying true to their product development philosophy is concerned. But maybe after 2 billion users, it is time to shake things up. An integrated feature within an app that is already installed in so many devices is going to have a better chance at success.
Third Party Integrations
Lastly, no workplace messenger is successful without adding support for the other tools you might use in your workplace - like cloud storage, video conferencing tools, support for custom bots for alerts, popular development tools, documentation tools, task management tools, calendars and others. This is a challenging task but if done well- it builds a moat around the already awesome product.
I have said all I had to say. We already love using WhatsApp. It has strong fundamentals. Responsive service, E2E encryption, high quality video calling experience, compatibility across platforms, a multi-device beta that is better than most finished products and a gigantic user base. I think this gives them a revenue stream worth billions of dollars and a source or organic growth.