LONG READ: Where WhatsApp sits in the media landscape and how public sector communicators can use it

We’ve reached the point where it is more of a risk NOT using WhatsApp as a comms tool than use it.

That’s the firm conclusion I’ve reached sifting through the evidence, data and research.

I’ll take you through all that and then I’ll talk about how you can negotiate the pitfalls and risk.

The data low-down on WhatsApp

Firstly, what is WhatsApp? It’s a US-based Facebook-owned messaging service founded in 2009 to connect mobile phone numbers to the internet by sending messages, video, calls and location. You can also use it on the web so long as your mobile device is switched on and connected to the internet.

In the UK, Ofcom say that 30.7 million people use it. That’s around half the population. It’s the most popular app in the UK in 2019 and 2020, according to Audience Insights. And all ages use it. It’s as close to being the all demographic magic bullet.

The numbers are incredible. Ofcom say that between seven and eight out of 10 of ALL under 54s use it and almost half over 65s. They are astounding numbers.

Why communicators are hesitant

There’s a few reasons why comms people are not charging full tilt at using it. Firstly, they’ve got plenty on already using the channels they are.

Secondly, buried in WhatsApp’s terms and conditions is the news that you are not supposed to use WhatsApp as a business tool. You’re supposed to use WhatsApp for Business which is their gateway for business to reach the 1.2 billion global users. If you’re a private company this could mean using the WhatsApp API as companies like KLM have done. Anecdotally, this route isn’t open to the public sector in the UK.

The evidence in favour of using WhatsApp is overwhelming.

So, what can you do?

Well, you can’t have two WhatsApp accounts on the same phone. This basically means buying a cheap mobile phone to download WhatsApp for Business account. So long as this is charged up and connectged tyo the internet you can download a dashboard top your laptop.

The next problem is our old p[al GDPR. You can’t just shovel phone numbers into your new WhatsApp for Business account and crack on. You can sign people up through your Facebook page if its linked to your WhatsApp for Business or you can point people to the QR code or URL. If you put some terms of use when people sign-up you should be fine for GDPR.

On top of all this, the analytics for WhatsApp right now are poor. Your message disappears into WhatsApp and you don’t see how much engagement there is. It’s a Facebook platform so this will change, I’m sure but there’s examples of people changing behaviour in part influenced by WhatsApp.

What does a WhatsApp for Business broadcast list do?

The place you want people to sign-up to is the WhatsApp for Business broadcast list.

What does this mean?

Basically, this means you can send one-way broadcast messages to up to 256 contacts and those contacts don’t see everyone else’s phone numbers and names as they would do in a WhatsApp group. You also don’t have the conversation hijacked by someone looking to undermine your message. So, Coke messages would not be diluted by someone sharing a Pepsi promotion. Or a vaccine message wouldn’t be undone by a 5G conspiracy theorist.

But the 256-contact limit is less of a sticking point than you’d think.

The 256-limit is a red herring

Of course, it would be great if WhatsApp was  a kind of mailchimp substitute where you hoovered-up phone numbers and blasted them messages. The fact it isn’t makes it virgin territory for marketeers and if you can get your messages onto the network there’s more chance of it landing.

The best use of WhatsApp I’ve seen has come from a political pressure group who asked recipients to sign-up advised who to vote for in internal elections and then – this is the killer – asked them to forward the message onto other Party members.

So, in other words, if you get 10 people signed-up and they forward them onto another 10 you can get to 100 very easily.

Of course, it depends on the message that you are sending but the truth is you don’t need big numbers to start to reach people. Think of it as a Ponzi scheme for social good. You get a message and you pass it on.

It’s how Hackney Council used WhatsApp in the first weeks of lockdown to reach the observant Jewish population who didn’t use the internet. They listened to the Jewish community and understood that WhatsApp was the preferred method of keeping in touch. So they created content with WhatsApp in mind and people in the community did the rest.

Why WhatsApp is so powerful

Aside from the numbers, there’s another reason why WhatsApp is so powerful. It’s called ‘social normative theory’.

This basically means that you are more likely to be receptive to a message from your peers. Oner NHS person during a training session where we were looking at WhatsApp complained that she’d feel as though a message from the NHS on WhatsApp would be intrusive. She’s right. It would be. But that’s just it. Social normative theory means that it’s a message not from the NHS but from your brother Andy, your Mum or Dad or maybe Joanne who you work with. It flies under the radar and it’s beautiful.

Research shows that there is more misinformation on messenger platforms that across the open web. When it comes to something COVID-19 that means you can’t not be there.

Ways to use WhatsApp

There’s a range of ways to use WhatsApp. If I was working in the public sector the first thing I’d do is create a WhatsApp broadcast list for that town, city or borough’s COVID-19 news. I’d ask people in the organisation to sign-up then I’d extend it to community leaders and anyone who fancied signing up. Then I’d send them messages.

Or, it maybe that you are looking carefully at the data and you spot that the Yemeni population aren’t responding to Public Health messages and they tell you that WhatsApp is a favoured channel. At this point, it makes sense to buy a cheap £20 mobile phone to send a message to this group. You’d spend more on a display ad in the local paper or a boosted Facebook ad.

One thing to note is that if you are looking to send a video or picture plus words you need to send two separate messages.

The difference WhatsApp makes

In Singapore, the Government WhatsApp channel for COVID-19 gives out official information in four different languages. You can pick which one you’d like.

Such is the reach of the channel that around 10 per cent of the population have signed-up. Chances are those one-in-ten are forwarding the messages on to others in the population.

Researchers Liv & Tong in their research p[aper ‘Demographic data influencing the Impact of coronavirus-related misinformation on WhatsApp’ showed that severe mental health incidents were reduced by 7.9 per cent. At a time when health services are being stretched to breaking point this has real value.

This is why, dear reader, that it is more risk NOT using it than using it.

Research I carried out in May 2021 showed that just six per cent of communicators were using WhatsAopp as a communications channel. Of those that weren’t, 26 per cent said they were likely to use to use it and 26 per cent were unlikely. Almost half were undecided.

There is a small but growing user base of communicators who are experimenting with the platform. The innovators include Public Health Wales, Hackney Council, Watford Council and Sandwell & West Birmingham NHS Trust.

The evidence for using WhatsApp is overwhelming.

What you waiting for?

You can learn more about WhatsApp and other emerging channels as part of the ESSENTIAL COMMS SKILLS BOOSTER workshops I run.

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