Are marketers ready for WhatsApp ads?

Popular with Canadian newcomers, the app is also largely used as a business tool internationally, says one agency leader.

In 2018, Facebook-owned messaging platform WhatsApp first released a business API to incorporate ads to its Status feature (similar to Facebook, Instagram and Shapchat’s Stories) starting in 2019, making that the first step in monetizing the app.

More recently, Facebook has confirmed that ads are indeed coming to the app, but have set 2020 as the official live date. Now, as the platform inches closer to full implementation, the jury is still out on what kind of effect the development will have on its hundreds of millions of users. Earlier this month, a study by eMarketer found that WhatsApp is the preeminent messaging platform globally, driving growth in the medium overall. But what can Canadian advertisers get out of it?

WhatsApp has an estimated 340 to 500 million users worldwide; the largest market is in India followed by Brazil and the U.S, according to eMarketer. The platform, purchased by Facebook in 2014 drives a reported 60 billion messages per day and is particularly popular with Canadian newcomers, 84% of whom use it daily.

Bobby Sahni, partner and co-founder of Ethnicity Matters (pictured below) tells MiC many of the brands his agency works with who target immigrant communities are active on WhatsApp. Even though it’s not an official advertising platform yet, he says, but a medium for content dissemination. Brands are using the platform because of its reach and shareability, he says, however the biggest difference with the ad-supported model will be the ability to officially measure the effectiveness of the messaging.


Still, he warns, implementing advertising can disrupt the experience for the end user. As new technologies are introduced, social media trends show a constant migration of users from one platform to another, he notes. It might be a great tool for advertisers but, “you don’t want it to go from being known as a communication platform to an advertising platform,” Sahni says, adding the challenge for WhatsApp during this shift will be retaining users.

“The devil is in the details,” he says. “Like anything, it really comes down to execution.”

The format of the ads will be similar to Facebook and Instagram stories format with a full screen takeover allowing for an undistracted and immersive brand experience, says Tara Landon, group account director for Reprise Digital. “Facebook has been cautioning investors for years regarding peak ad loads and expanding into areas like WhatsApp are levers that they are pulling to keep revenue growing,” she explains. For advertisers, that presents reach and cost efficiency, she adds.

Given the platform’s popularity with new Canadians, Landon says advertisers could find this an opportunity to improve native targeting to reach “this type of audience that can be difficult to pin-point with other solutions.”

In 2019, an estimated 2.52 billion people worldwide or 87% of smartphone users will use a mobile messaging app at least once per month, according to eMarketer; more than 90% of smartphone users in Brazil, Argentina and India use WhatsApp.

“To say it’s a popular app is a bit of an understatement,” Sahni says. “It’s actually about looking at the way people are using these platforms.” Many of its users conduct international business via WhatsApp. For example in India, Sahni says, businesses or brands drive calls to action not to an address or telephone number, but a WhatsApp number.

WhatsApp is very much a business tool internationally which is important for Canadian marketers and advertisers to understand, he points out. “As immigrants come to this country,” he says, “they’re bringing with them habits and trends from back home that often gain momentum here in Canada and then cross over to the mainstream and become the norms.”