WhatsApp may soon allow businesses to chat directly with users. The popular messaging service is reportedly testing the new feature with companies affiliated with startup incubator Y Combinator, according to Reuters.
If successful, courting businesses could provide WhatsApp with a sorely needed revenue stream. Since being acquired by Facebook in 2014, the service has eliminated its one, dependable source of income — an annual $1 subscription fee for all users — and failed to introduce any alternatives.
Shortly after retiring the fee, WhatsApp expressed interest in leveraging its billion users to attract corporate clients to the service. Facebook Messenger provides a good example of the direction WhatsApp appears to be heading. The competing communications app has long been promoted as a way to connect businesses with people for purposes beyond advertising, citing customer service as a primary goal. WhatsApp hopes to follow suit in this regard, and make the feature as beneficial to users as it would be to businesses. For example, retailers could use the app to relay a shipment tracking updates, and banks could use it to notify customers about fraudulent charges.
The company doesn’t expect to get there overnight, however. WhatsApp is wary of the new business-focused tools being abused as a conduit for spam. According to the report, the company is distributing surveys to its users, asking them if they’ve spoken with businesses yet and whether or not the quality of their experience on the service has suffered because of it.
Businesses, however, appear far more optimistic. Umer Ilyas, the founder of Cowlar Inc., one of the startups involved in the testing phase, told Reuters that communication over WhatsApp could be a huge boon to his company. Cowlar makes smart collars for cows that monitor their behavior, offering actionable data to dairy farmers.
“It represents a huge opportunity,” Ilyas said, “because in all the big dairy markets — India, Brazil, Pakistan — a lot of farmers have access to the app.
India and Brazil are two territories in which WhatsApp is most successful, so it’s no coincidence the company is angling toward a plan that could be particularly effective in the regions in which it already dominates market share among communication apps.
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