Today WhatsApp launches its first revenue-generating enterprise product and the only way it currently makes money directly from its app. The WhatsApp Business API is launching to let businesses respond to messages from users for free for up to 24 hours, but will charge them a fixed rate by country per message sent after that.
Businesses will still only be able to message people who contacted them first, but the API will help them programmatically send shipping confirmations, appointment reminders or event tickets. Clients also can use it to manually respond to customer service inquiries through their own tool or apps like Zendesk, MessageBird or Twilio. And small businesses that are one of the 3 million users of the WhatsApp For Business app can still use it to send late replies one-by-one for free.
After getting acquired by Facebook for $19 billion in 2014, it’s finally time for the 1.5 billion-user WhatsApp to pull its weight and contribute some revenue. If Facebook can pitch the WhatsApp Business API as a cheaper alternative to customer service call centers, the convenience of asynchronous chat could compel users to message companies instead of phoning.
Only charging for slow replies after 24 hours since a user’s last message is a genius way to create a growth feedback loop. If users get quick answers via WhatsApp, they’ll prefer it to other channels. Once businesses and their customers get addicted to it, WhatsApp could eventually charge for all replies or any that exceed a volume threshold or cut down the free window. Meanwhile, businesses might be too optimistic about their response times and end up paying more often than they expect, especially when messages come in on weekends or holidays.
WhatsApp first announced it would eventually charge for enterprise service last September when it launched its free WhatsApp For Business app that now has 3 million users and remains free for all replies, even late ones.
Importantly, WhatsApp stresses that all messaging between users and businesses, even through the API, will be end-to-end encrypted. That contrasts with The Washington Post’s report that Facebook pushing to weaken encryption for WhatsApp For Business messages is partly what drove former CEO Jan Koum to quit WhatsApp and Facebook’s board in April. His co-founder, Brian Acton, had ditched Facebook back in September and donated $50 million to the foundation of encrypted messaging app Signal.