Can WhatsApp Advertising Alienate Your Customers?

Illustrator: Jana Pérez
whatsapp advertising impact

Since the release of WhatsApp Business API in 2018 and the following announcement of WhatsApp adverts for 2020, the marketing world has been buzzing with excitement. Companies have been pining to get an official green light to tap into the power of WhatsApp advertising for years. However, while some companies are already servicing their clients using the API and planning their WhatsApp ads budget for the coming year, others hesitate...

Under the gilded advantages of marketing with WhatsApp loom doubts over privacy issues and fears of becoming unwelcomed intruders. And so, many businesses wonder: Can advertising through WhatsApp alienate their customers?WhatsApp messaging app might seem like a perfect way to reach customers. It’s an environment where they feel at home and comfortable.

But what if that’s the issue?

What if WhatsApp advertising is the door-to-door salesmen everybody hates?

This article will explore both the advantages and the downsides of business presence on WhatsApp be it through API or paid ads as well.

How Did We Get to Today?

WhatsApp was officially launched in 2009 by former Yahoo! employees Brian Acton and Jan Koum who so the opportunity with the opening of Apple’s new App Store. Surfacing at a time when people increasingly complained about the growing costs of SMS, the app quickly gained a strong following.

Feature after Feature
impact of whatsapp adverts

The idea behind the app was to offer people a private space to share statuses and messages; That is without any unnecessary gimmicks and, especially, ads. Over the years, the app became famous not only for its free text messages but also a plethora of great features, including video calls, voice messages, sharing information about location, status updates and so forth.

Acquisition that Came Down in History
whatsapp facebook acquisition

When the app was acquired by Facebook in 2014, Zuckerberg promised there will be no pressure to monetize the app for the first five years. And, even though a part of the Facebook empire, WhatsApp maintained a great deal of autonomy after the takeover. Businesses all over the world noticing WhatsApp’s growing user base and communication potential. As the app’s doors remained officially shut, companies developed makeshift solutions to leverage that potential and service their customers.

Trouble in Paradise

The calm waters of Facebook-WhatsApp collaboration started to stir in 2017 when Brian Acton left the company saying Facebook was planning to monetize the app by introducing targeted ads to its then 1.5 billion users.

Open for Business

In January 2018, the world saw the birth of WhatsApp Business App, a  free service that allowed brands to create official company profiles. The feature was aimed at small businesses that were hustling to provide more efficient customer support through the above-mentioned makeshift solutions. And indeed, making it official helped. Neither user experience nor user data were compromised.

Trouble in Paradise (The Sequal)

In April 2018, Jan Koum followed the steps of his former partner and left his CEO position at WhatsApp. While officially he claimed to want to take a well-deserved break from the world of technology, rumor had it his departure was related to disagreements over privacy.

Present Day Situation...

We know that since then WhatsApp proceeded to:

  • monetize the app by introducing a beta version WhatsApp Business API
  • announce the 2020 rollout of WhatsApp status ads

Where Does That Leave Your Business?

If you are here, reading this article and asking this question, you are at an important crossroads.Should you get in on the action or stay away?

How will your new or existing customers react to your presence in what they perceive as a private space?

With all the personal data manipulation scandals in the past years and people’s growing concern for data privacy, it’s smart to ask these questions. To answer them, we need to understand the rules and forces behind WhatsApp’s business API feature and the possible impact of the planned paid adverts on overall user experience.

WhatsApp Business API: Is It Safe?


Although WhatsApp Business API is the first attempt of the company to monetize its services, it saw almost no backlash. Why? Well, for one thing, its ironclad rules virtually force companies to be user-centric. API (Application programming interface) allows businesses to communicate with their clients automatically, on a large scale. In addition to sending free replies to customer queries within the 24-hour customer service window, companies can send paid proactive automatic notifications. Something the WhatsApp Business App simply wasn’t able to do.

How is WhatsApp keeping tabs on businesses to not abuse this power?

WhatsApp Business API is not an app you can easily download and it’s not available to just any business either. To be able to access this feature your company needs to pass an application process and more complex setup. And that’s just the beginning of a winding road of roadblocks created to protect the end-user experience.Let’s have a look:

1. Selective Application Process

Are you the right size? Since the feature is still in the testing stage it focuses on well-established medium and large businesses.

Are you in the right industry?

Given the high controversy or possible negative impact, access to WhatsApp API will not be granted to government-run or political organizations; independent software vendors; real cash industries (gaming and gambling); adult content and entertainment companies; arms dealing businesses; alcohol and tobacco brands and healthcare and supplements providers.

Do you have the right intentions?

The main focus of the API is to improve customer experience, deepen convenience and nurture bran-client relationships. Hence, companies interested in blunt, pushy advertising are unlikely to get approved.


2. What You Say & How You Say It

With API you can send users proactive message notifications. However, WhatsApp carefully controls the content of these notifications.Simply put, you have to predesign your paid message templates and have them approved by WhatsApp. If they don't pass, they won't see the light of day.Both their structure and content undergo careful evalutation. While there are quite a few rules, the main point is that your template messages can’t be salesy or promotional but rather offer user additional value.


3. No Permission, No Message

Naturally, businesses can’t just send a message to all 1.6 billion users. So, who can you message? Only users that agreed to receive a message from you. This agreement is called a WhatsApp opt-in and comes wrapped in a whole new set of rules. Just to give you an idea:

  • It has to be an ACTIVE opt-in, meaning it’s triggered by user action (e.g., entering the telephone number or checking a box)
  • The opt-in text must clearly state WHAT kind of information the user is opting-in to receive and that it will be sent via WhatsApp (e.g. delivery notifications, transaction notifications, new content/product updates, etc.)

This means that if a customer agrees to receive a delivery update, that is the only type of message template you can send them proactively. A violation of these rules can cost you your API access.


Where is the Benefit for You?

As you may have noticed, in terms of the Business API, WhatsApp has gone above and beyond to keep the user experience undisturbed. So much so that, at this point, you might be wondering if it’s even worth it. You might have had a different idea of WhatsApp advertising. However, it is precisely this roundabout way that makes WhatsApp marketing so special.

The highly controlled and supervised way in which you get in touch with your users ensures that whatever follows is welcomed and appreciated.

How is this different from talking to your clients via the WhatsApp Business App? With the API it doesn’t have to be you or any of your human employees that does the talking. The thing that can follow template messages or user inquiries is an intelligent WhatsApp chatbot. The best part is, that once the user replies to your paid template message your bot can talk and promote without restriction and without the “big brother” watching over your shoulder. Furthermore, since it’s still just a conversation, the user has power over the direction of the dialogue and hence over what he or she sees.

Hence, you can promote your product or service without making it feel like an invasion.


So, although the API rules might seem too restrictive or even annoying at times, they are setting you up for success. Especially in times when customer experience is the highest-valued commodity. Companies that implemented the API since the few months of its launch have already managed to produce some impressive results:

  • Tokopedia (online marketplace) achieved a 58% higher delivery rate compared to SMS;
  • Klook (travel booking platform) reached a 63% higher opt-in rate for WhatsApp notifications, compared to native app push notifications;
  • PlayKids (children’s education platform) noted a 40% increase in open rate compared to email;
  • Sefamerve, fashion e-commerce, noted a 70% increase in monthly chat sessions and achieved a 0% abandon rate with clients that used WhatsApp.
  • NoBroker (online real estate business) received a 20x annualized return on investment through cost-saving and a 2.8x increase in properties let out or sold.

WhatsApp Advertising: Is it Safe?

So far, we have established that the WhatsApp API solution, being the first monetization attempt, is quite non-threatening to user experience. However, when it comes to WhatsApp Ads that are to appear in WhatsApp status updates in 2020, the emotions run a lot higher.

Responses to the announcement ranged from pleas and criticism to users’ threads to leave the platform and switch to Telegram. When a well-known social media consultant, Matt Navarra, tweeted about the upcoming changes, the upset comments flew in from all corners of the world.


But will the launch of WhatsApp advertising really be that apocalyptic?

Today, WhatsApp boasts 1.6 billion users exchanging 65 billion messages a day. What’s even more impressive, the growth shows no signs of stopping as in the Q1 of 2019, WhatsApp proved to have been the most downloaded app in the world. Shooting WhatsApp down from its pedestal will take more than a few ads hidden away in the status update section.

Especially, since its main function, the messaging experience will remain unaffected.

Should Your Business Go for It?


It’s likely that WhatsApp adverts will act as an extension to the Facebook Business universe. A fresh addition to the Facebook and Instagram stories option. There is no reason, why you shouldn’t try this option, it might just hit the target.

However, as it is with every new advertising channel, you need to carefully assess the environment in which your ad will be perceived. WhatsApp has the image of a highly private and personal communication tool. Hence, there will be users who will feel you shouldn’t be there. The key to success will be striking a balance between intended promotion and perceived value. Perhaps the smartest approach will be to stick to the rules of the API and focus on the experience.

All in all, if you have a WhatsApp API and use the platform to provide users with additional value, ads can be a nice complement to your WhatsApp experience matrix. On the other hand, barging in thinking WhatsApp is like any other advertising platform may ultimately backfire.

When it comes to WhatsApp ads (as well as and any other channel), you need to think about what feels right for this channel, your brand, and your audience on this channel.

What’s Next?

WhatsApp is turning into a new marketing channel.

Some changes are in full speed, others are waiting to hit the gas pedal. Either way, WhatsApp as we knew it will change. Because of its personal nature, WhatsApp gives businesses a unique opportunity to leave the cold transactional relationships in the past. Instead, brands have a chance to build loyalty through meaningful personalized conversations and efficient service without making customers leave their comfort zone.

Thus, WhatsApp Business API paves the way for brands to become leaders of the ever-more-evident experience economy trend. On another note, the success or failure of the status ads depends on how businesses like yours approach WhatsApp marketing campaigns.

When it comes to WhatsApp, the experience should be your lighthouse.