In Brazil WhatsApp is now being used by 50% of the population and many brands are also using it as a tool to communicate with customers and fans. This enhanced use of the messaging service highlights the transition we are currently seeing – direct marketing becoming ‘direct messaging’.

SxSW: WhatsApp, Brazil’s favourite marketing tool

Brazilians like informality. They enjoy giving nicknames and pet-names to everything, including the brands they interact with. So Facebook is generally known as ‘Face’, Instagram has become ‘Insta’ – pronounced ‘Inchta’ – and WhatsApp, a very American name, has been turned into ‘ZapZap’,Fernanda Saboia, Head of Product and Business Strategy for the digital consultancy Huge based in Rio de Janeiro, told the audience at the 2016 South by South West (SxSW) event held in Austin, Texas last week.

And with 93 million active users in Brazil out of a population of just under 205 million, ‘ZapZap’ does indeed seem to have found a place close to Brazilian hearts. “WhatsApp is not just used by 50% of all Brazilians, it’s the most used app in the country, with 10% more users than Facebook!” Fernanda Saboia pointed out.

96% des propriétaires de small businesses utilisent whatsapp pour parler à leurs consommateurs

With its free messaging service, this highly popular app is really shaking up the business models established by the major Brazilian telecommunications providers, who are used to charging high prices. Sending a text message in Brazil costs 55 times as much as in the United States, Saboia revealed.

Meanwhile businesses have not been slow to take advantage of the app’s huge popularity, first and foremost small traders and retailers, who see WhatsApp as an effective online communication channel for reaching out to customers. “In Brazil, company owners see their business as a sort of extension of their personality,” she told the SxSW audience. “So why not have their own WhatsApp profile?” Saboia interviewed thirty small business owners in Rio de Janeiro, including clothes stores, photo studios, gyms and restaurants. Twenty-nine of these stated that they use WhatsApp to communicate with customers and ten went so far as to say that it was their favourite channel.

From frictionless after-sales service to brand image promotion

So how do these businesses use the app? Primarily as a customer service platform. You quite often see storefronts displaying the WhatsApp logo together with their phone number to encourage passers-by and potential customers to make contact. Fernanda Saboia cited the amazing example of a clothing brand with no physical outlets which had recently highlighted its WhatsApp number on an Instagram post with the aim of encouraging followers to connect to the brand, ask questions and even place orders.

In addition to the retail sector, the local authorities in Rio de Janeiro are also using the app to interact with citizens. Rio has changed a great deal since 2010. The city hosted the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and will this year be staging the Olympic Games. These international events have led to a substantial expansion in Rio’s infrastructure, involving enormous public works projects. This has prompted the local authorities to display WhatsApp numbers on the back of public transport buses so that residents can obtain information on temporary road closures or put specific questions about the works going on directly to town hall staff.

Sur la vitrine de cette salle de gym, on peut voir apparaître le numéro Whatsapp à contacter

The window of this gym in Rio de Janeiro displays an invitation to get in touch via WhatsApp

Another way in which WhatsApp can be used is to help build a community around a brand. Fernanda Saboia carried out a survey among Huge staff in Rio and discovered that on average each person belongs to 17 different WhatsApp groups, not only with friends or colleagues but also brand-related groups. “A WhatsApp group is a vehicle for sharing jokes or amusing videos and even conveying cultural memes.  In this respect, WhatsApp is a step ahead of Tumblr, Slack and Facebook groups in Brazil,” she underlined.

Moreover, Brazilian brands see WhatsApp as a means of creating a conversation with the user, who might already be a loyal customer or a potential customer. Fully 73% of the businesses who took part in her survey stated that they had already used WhatsApp to receive customer orders. “So why would a company set up Square or Shopify when WhatsApp is the perfect CRM tool?” Saboia asked her audience.

Last but not least, with its ability to circulate information easily and quickly, WhatsApp is seen as a great tool for in-house communication. Fernanda Saboia cited the example of a senior manager in a local governmental agency who, in order to announce news that was of high importance to his staff, instead of sending an email or holding a meeting preferred to video himself announcing the news and post it to the company WhatsApp group. This approach would certainly seem a very effective method in the event of a crisis.

The era of direct messaging is here

The popularity of WhatsApp is however just one illustration of the transition that we are currently going through. “This is the age of mobile. On a messaging system as popular as WhatsApp, your customers are permanently within reach.  And everyone can read a text message fast. WhatsApp also has the advantage of a user-friendly interface that’s quite easy even for people who aren’t all that tech-savvy to use,” pointed out Fernanda Saboia, stressing: “But we’re talking about something here that’s far broader than just WhatsApp. This is a trend that goes way beyond Brazil’s borders. ‘Direct messaging’ is appearing everywhere as the new form of direct marketing.

So how best can companies reach out to the consumer? Texting has a highly personal feel to it, but brands must above all not give the impression that they are spamming their customers. “First of all you have to find out how your users actually use the messaging platform and then build campaigns based on your analysis. If you don’t do it right, all your efforts might be counter-productive!” So the company needs to work out how it can project the brand through a messaging system without annoying users. “Basically you need to create original content for a given group that’s appropriate, light, and encourages your users to share it. It can certainly be branded content, so long as it meets these criteria,” Saboia argued.

Sur les 10 applications les plus utilisées par la population brésilienne, Whatsapp arrive en tête, bien devant Facebook

Out of the 10 apps most used by Brazilians, Whatsapp comes first, way ahead of Facebook

The Huge consultant cited the example of P&G, which had teamed up with Tele Santana, the well-known Brazilian footballer and coach, to make a funny video for one of its brands of shampoo. The content, all displaying the P&G brand colours, was designed for people to take on board and share with their friends. “People feel completely relaxed about relaying this type of content to their various groups of friends.  The P&G video very quickly became the subject of thousands of WhatsApp conversations, and many others besides, which was a very clever marketing coup,” Fernanda Saboia told the SxSW gathering.
So basically messaging systems should be used to provide services of value to the user, which brings us back to the question of how to supply a real service while trying to sell a product. “The timing must be right, the service must be something really useful to the recipient, and there must always be an emotional side to it,” Saboia stressed.

All in all, direct messaging systems now seem to be giving direct marketing a facelift. The sometimes highly unusual uses to which WhatsApp is being put by Brazilian companies and public bodies are a good example of the trend. Plenty here to put a broad smile on the face of Mark Zuckerberg, whose company acquired WhatsApp over two years ago…

Photos: Fernanda Saboia

By Pauline Canteneur