Are Messaging Apps the Future of Social Networking?

Mobile messaging apps are the 'new face' of social media with global audiences in the hundreds of millions

Messaging apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat are at the perfect crossroads of mobile and social. These apps are simple and ubiquitous with some subscriber bases already in the hundreds of millions of users.

Audiences of that scale are hard to come by, even for the world's largest mobile phone network operators. Only China Mobile (with its nearly 800 million subscribers) can beat WhatsApp's 500 million monthly active users and Line's 420 million registered users. Half of the top 10 messaging apps have more than 300 million users.

A new report from Forrester suggests that while the WeChats and Lines of the world are forcing the big five global digital platforms -- Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft -- to evolve, the marketing opportunities will not reach a massive scale on these apps until at least 2016.

"Despite growing opportunities, the majority of marketers' mobile and social strategies are not mature enough to demonstrate a clear return on investment. Messaging apps, at the crossroads of mobile and social, only further complicate this challenge," Forrester analyst Thomas Husson writes in the report "Messaging Apps: Mobile Becomes the New Face of Social."

Until recently these apps were almost exclusively utilitarian, serving their purpose as a frictionless mode of free communication. Finding room for brands to fit into these one-to-one or one-to-few channels is still a relatively new idea.

When Social and Mobile Meet

Meanwhile, some of these apps are already transitioning into platforms by integrating more services, content and mechanisms for commerce. "These messaging apps are the new face of social in a mobile context. They've already reached large global audiences and have the potential to become widely used and innovative media portals that integrate games, location-based services, commerce, or payments into one single platform," Husson writes in the report.

"Messaging apps have the potential either to become digital platforms or to significantly enhance the power of current platforms because they so clearly deliver the three things that determine the digital platform power: frequent interactions, emotional connection and convenience," Husson adds.

China-based WeChat gets special marks from Forrester for being the "most advanced" of these messaging app that are integrating services into 21st-century portal. Third parties can connect with WeChat users through content, apps and services they build for the platform. Chinese consumers are already using WeChat to view entertainment and use location-based services or order a taxi, purchase airline tickets and more.

Whereas social media platforms are typically public broadcast mechanisms for one-to-many communications, these messaging apps are redefining social media in a mobile context. They embody some key evolutions in social media and mobility with unparalleled access to users' address books, photo libraries and an icon on their home screen.

The online and offline worlds are merging because of mobile, according to Forrester. Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel drove this point home in a keynote at the AXS Partner Summit earlier this year: "The traditional social media view of identity is actually quite radical: You are the sum of your published experience. Snapchat says that we are not the sum of everything we have said or done or published -- we are the result. We no longer capture the real world and recreate it online - we simply live and communicate at the same time."

This is leading to more expressive, raw and emotional forms of instant social communications, Husson writes, and it's helping users evince their identities in the process.

"The fragmented nature of the social media ecosystem is inherent to the fact that individuals have multiple identities," says Husson. Under the current framework it makes perfect sense for an individual to use LinkedIn for business pursuits, Tinder for dating and maybe Secret or Whisper to pour their heart out anonymously.

Marketers: Keep Your Eye on Messaging Apps

While the marketing opportunities on messaging apps are still nascent, Forrester encourages marketers and brands to keep their eye on the ball. "Because most of your customers won't visit your own mobile website and even fewer will download your app, messaging apps often provide the best opportunity to reach your customers on mobile phones -- especially in emerging markets where the audience of these apps is skyrocketing," writes Husson.

Forrester encourages savvy marketers to experiment with these platforms, learn about the complex and fragmented ecosystem and look to Asia for inspiration and scale from brands like Coca-Cola, Maybelline, McDonald's and Starbucks.

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