Are Private Group Chats The Future of Messaging Marketing?

Illustrator: Jana Pérez
messaging marketing

Marketing as we know it is fading away. Flashy billboards and loud TV commercials are being substituted by quiet, personalized messages that light up the screens of our smartphones. We type away hoping to connect, communicate, be heard and businesses have begun joining that conversation. As if that wasn't enough, the upheaval of instant messaging is giving rise to a new marketing phenomenon - group chats.

I hear you.

Group chats have been around for ages.

However, no business managed to tap into their true power.

That is if you are looking at the Western market...

How Chinese Businesses Cash in on Group Chats

WeChat in China offers a far more exciting narrative making group chats the heroes of both ROI and CX.

While in the West the concepts such as conversational commerce and messaging apps marketing have been around for a few years, they are still somewhat in the early stages, stuck in second gear. Group chats are even further from the spotlight, only used by small businesses without a strategic approach.

Chinese businesses are killing it by using groups to offer concierge services, consultations, and sales. They not only lead to higher engagement, satisfaction, loyalty and a stronger connection with the brand but also to connections among customers and so, turn services into communities.Can’t quite imagine how that would work?In China, brands and businesses used WeChat to turn customer service into a crowdsourced community experience. Take, for example:


A travel provider Ctrip created a virtual tour manager (VTM) group chats. VTMs were used for 10 million trips in 2017 and 14 million trips in 2018. Common queries and requests in such group chats include airport pickup, local transport queries, tours, restaurant reservations. The group dynamic enables Ctrip to share relevant info.  Plus, it also allows the brand to upsell certain services in a way that feels natural and communal, not commercial. In addition, Chinese travelers get the reassuring perk of access to a bilingual service representative.

A traveler asking a Ctrip representative about choosing a local taxi. The rep replies with a pic explaining to the customer and the group how to differentiate official taxis from unlicensed ones. And a group member suggests alternative trusted service:


Image Source: a16z

Traveler reports a stolen phone and a Ctrip rep replies with instructions on how to contact local police:


Image Source: a16z


This AI-powered English learning app uses WeChat group chats to add value to its lessons. Upon registering for a language course, students are prompted to join a designated WeChat group along with their instructor and around 100 other students. Every day, the instructor gives the group a new activity, such as studying song lyrics, doing mock interviews or playing educational games like Word Snake:


Image Source: a16z

Not only do these groups provide a social component to otherwise solitary one-on-one learning experience but it also helps foster student relationships beyond the course.


Maternity and child-focused eCommerce with over 250 physical stores around China, focuses its group marketing efforts on providing childcare advice, consulting, promotions and product reviews. In-store consultants can add customers to company group chats, where they can book private lessons or ask anything about childcare from breastfeeding to pediatric massage. Also, local stores have their own group chats which allow shoppers to connect with other parents nearby.


Image Source: a16z


Perhaps the most impressive example of group chat marketing is this Chinese group-buying business. The premise is simple, the more people purchase a product together the lower the price per unit. Founded only in 2015, the company already boasts 366 million MAU. The growth spur is an impressive result of WeChat group chat messaging marketing…


Image Source: China Skinny

In other words, to ensure lower prices users turned to WeChat groups that connected friends as well as strangers for the sole purpose of getting and sharing better deals. In this case, group chat sharing became part of the purchase experience.

Messaging and Group Marketing: What’s Happening in the West?

In 2014, during a public Q&A session, Mark Zuckerberg admitted: “Messaging is one of the few things that people do more than social networking.” shedding light on the pricy acquisition of WhatsApp earlier that year.

The data were there already. As reported by The Economist in 2016:

“A quarter of all downloaded apps are abandoned after a single-use. Only instant messaging bucks the trend. Over 2.5 billion people have at least one messaging app installed. Within a couple of years, that will reach 3.6 billion, about half of humanity. The market’s leading duo, Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, which is also owned by Facebook, are nearing one billion monthly users each.”

They were right. Today, the leading duo boasts 1.3 and 1.6 billion MAU respectively.

messaging apps monthly active users
From Content Orientation to Person Orientation?

In 2016, Harvard Business Review was among the first publications to predict the marketing challenge the rise of messaging apps will pose to well-developed public social networks.

The article pointed out the core challenge of the impending change: Content orientation vs. Person orientation.The goal of businesses on social media is to gain mass relevance. It’s all about getting as many likes, shares, and clicks as possible which puts content at the core of the experience. The goal of messaging is to establish contact and create an experience for a specific person or a limited group of people. Such orientation forces brand communication to be more intimate, immediate and expressive.The report warned the existing social media strategies will face growing challenges as consumers slowly turn away from generic public messages towards smaller groups and communities where they feel more identified and experiences more meaningful.

Pledge to Private Spaces

Today, the western market is already on its way to revolutionizing marketing through messaging communication; mainly thanks to the two aforementioned popular messaging app giants in the West.The business-focused developments of Facebook Messenger such as quick replies, bot integrations, and product catalogs made businesses part of the messaging conversation. WhatsApp too unlocked the door for brands with the 2018 launch of WhatsApp Business App and WhatsApp Business APIZuckerberg’s note from spring 2019 shows him fully acknowledging and embracing the shift:

“I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won't stick around forever.”

His argument is clear and simple. Today, private messaging and group chats are by far the fastest-growing areas of communication because people start to crave the intimacy and trust-aspect of one-on-one exchanges or small closed group discussions. Also, he continues, people are more cautious about having a permanent public record of what they’ve shared in the past and start to expect greater safety measures from their communication channels. Zuckerberg pledges to focus on improving private interactions as well as the safety, betting on WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger becoming the main communication channels of the Facebook network. The plan is to “add more ways to interact privately with your friends, groups, and businesses.”The ever-multiplying Facebook Messenger business features, as well as the launch of WhatsApp Business App and WhatsApp Business API, set strong foundations for Zuckerberg to pursue these promises.

The Key Role of Groups in the Messaging Revolution

Let’s say it’s pretty clear why you should start meddling in messaging marketing while it’s fresh.

After all, as social media content marketing is becoming ever more complicated - not just because of user preference for private spaces but also thanks to personal-connections-favoring algorithms - messaging apps are the light at the end of a narrowing marketing tunnel.But why bother, for example, with WhatsApp group chats if API allows you to send notifications without any additional hassle?Here is why...

1. Group Chats Are the Best Trust Building “Materials”

It’s no secret trust is one of the most crucial influencers when it comes to purchasing behavior and customer loyalty. It’s the main reason why brands such as Amazon or Netflix have no problem scaling or finding new sources of revenue.Western messaging apps have also done their deal of actions to secure trust. For example, WhatsApp introduced end-to-end encryption while Facebook introduced a real-name policy.

In Asia, the WeChat app uses its group chats to layer a whole new set of trust signals.

For instance, consumers can discover the groups either by word-of-mouth or a QR code. A public search option simply doesn’t exist. Once a group reaches 100 members the QR code disables automatically. From then on, new users can only be invited by a friend. And, every group can only grow to a maximum of 500 members. While it might seem somewhat limiting, the rules act as a natural social filter. It ensures that any new person joining the group is likely a friend of a minimum of one other existing group member.

Also, unlike WhatsApp that shows users’ phone numbers to all members of the group and Facebook Messenger that reveals users’ real identities, WeChat lets users adopt aliases. Don’t misunderstand, WeChat still requires real-name verification and a phone number for people to be able to sign up. It's the only way to avoid anonymous troll abuse. However, the aliases feature allows users to control how their identities are displayed on the channel.In addition to the technology-enforced features, active groups, being voluntary, create a sense of both trust and exclusivity by default. If customers come back and actively engage in a specific group it’s a testament to the group (and hence the brand). It attests to its relevance, helpfulness, and friendliness. In other words, free of alienating marketing practices.

Plus, groups can be easily co-supervised by humans and chatbots allowing you to keep up with larger communities.

2. Group Mechanism & Dynamic have Decision Shaping Power

A study on group marketing revealed that group dynamics are underlined by powerful psychological mechanisms that allow the group to drive customer behavior beneficial to the company. However, for that to work, the customer must feel affiliated with the group and be exposed to its norms (preferences, opinions).

The research paper highlights that:

  • Reliable recommendation/information presented within the group is likely to become a basis for a group norm
  • When the information circulating in the group about a product becomes more consistent (more members agree), the group norm becomes more clearly defined and the norm stronger (increasingly perceived as correct).
  • Recommendations of group members have a higher status and hence more influence on purchase decisions than recommendations from strangers or simply non-members.
Function vs Social Decision Making in Groups

However, there is a significant difference in a group dynamic depending on whether the decision its members seek is:

  • Functional (goal: utility) - relies on facts and data
  • Social (goal: build individual and social identity) - relies on social and emotional relations over evaluations

When in comes to functional decisions, the group’s influence through fact and information appraisal diminishes over time as the person becomes more educated about the subject. On the other hand, the group’s power over social decisions grows with time. Once a person is familiar with the basic information, the group becomes a part of his or her identity and conforming to group norms will become essential to maintaining social identity.

The Data Behind the Claim:

To give you an example, the aforementioned research study observing group dynamics took place within the context of a large-scale multiplayer online role-playing game in a three-dimensional, immersive virtual world. It examined the purchase behavior of functional and social products in over 40 groups over time.Functional products included tools that helped gamers increase, e.g., farming output or supplements to increase the physical health of their avatar. Social products included souvenirs and accessories that enhanced gamers’ image within the game and their group.


As demonstrated in the graph, over time, the groups’ influence on purchases of social products grew stronger while the influence on purchasing functional products diminished as gamers gained more individual knowledge and experience on top of the group’s crowdsource knowledge.In the real world, take, for example, a group of teenagers. Strong norms in clothing choices are very easily observed. However, when it comes to the choice of, let’s say, a laptop, things change. The product norms within the group are more independent as functional/rational factors gain the upper hand.In either case, the study makes clear that groups are powerful social constructs that should not be underestimated. All it takes is choosing a strategy that plays well with your industry. That and knowing how to work with the new and old members.

3. Group Chats Magnify the Experience Aspect of the Messaging Economy

No ad can ever live up the magical effect of personal connection. You can’t create such a bond by simply making people stare at pretty images no matter how great your copies are.Relationships are built through conversations. While the growing customer experience hype pushes brands ever more mercilessly towards personalization, messaging is providing them with tools to achieve it.

Let’s break it down this way:

  • Messaging apps allow you to reach customers where they feel at home;
  • Bots allow you to streamline and scale personal messaging experiences;
  • Groups wrap these interactions with a red ribbon of community. They pitch in to help, support and guide communal customer experience alongside your agents and bots.

So on one hand, one-on-one messaging allows you to offer a high level of convenience and personalization. On the other, group chats work to solidify that relationship and promote trust through connections.Facebook realizes the power of groups, too… WhatsApp group chat function has been added to WhatsApp Business API; Instagram recently released Stories group chat sticker to promote private group communications on the app and Snapchat is working on a similar feature as well.


4. Group Chats Bring Online to Offline

Online to offline marketing, also known as O2O started to emerge as a promising strategy. The idea is for brands to reach digital customers at all touchpoints (including the offline ones) in order to drive engagement and sales.

Indeed, making a sale today requires forging a connection on a deeper level. The ever more crowded and competitive market turns customer acquisition into a fierce fight.

Group chats on messaging apps enable brands to transcendent the virtual pane and become part of customer real-life daily experience. They help forge customer connections and show the company’s willingness to listen and engage beyond the sale. We saw one amazing example of successful O2O group marketing earlier with the Chinese AI-driven language learning app LingoChamp. The company leveraged messaging group dynamics to boost engagement of its students not just with the app but also with each other. Hence, a service that would have otherwise been a confined digital experience, breached the barrier. It made a difference in the offline social life of its students.

A New Era of Marketing

Conversational marketing has been around for a few years and has a bright future. And, while the engagement and conversion power of bots is incredible, somehow they always stayed on the peripheries, never quite living up to our sci-fi-high expectations.However, maybe technological issues were never that much of a problem. Maybe, the problem was in our perspective. Commerce doesn’t have to be a lonesome, isolated experience. Messaging and WhatsApp group chats set up by brands don’t have to be impersonal, transactional… instead, they can provide customers with a community boasting with organic crowdsourced knowledge all the while helping your brand build trust and grow sales.

Expectations surrounding customer experience keep rising. Brands must find creative ways to break through all the noise and clutter to reach and serve their audience.

Leveraging the community marketing power behind the messaging group chats in different ways enables brands to foster more intimate connections and so a more streamlined and frictionless customer experience.

WeChat pioneered the concept and western chat apps will soon follow. And so, it’s high time to rethink your marketing strategy. Try out the role of a group admin that takes messaging platforms by storm!