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.

#BESTBYWM 2014: Good But We Dare Not Stand Still

14606509774_102b1412ab_kNo question I’m really proud of being involved for a second year with IEWM’s Best by West Midlands initiative.

From Herefordshire in the south to Stoke-on-Trent in the north the region and across the Brum and Black Country conurbation continues to blaze a trail for how local government best uses social media channels.

Last year the Best by West Midlands whitepaper and survey gave a snapshot of where authorities were.

This year, the 2014 survey has done the same and have we moved on? Of course we have. You can read the round-up post here.

But a couple of things really stood out and I’ll blog them in the coming weeks. Not least the statistic that comms teams are comfortable with the established platforms like Twitter and Facebook but new channels like Snapchat and WhatsApp? Not at all. Of the 18 channels used – three up from last year the results paint a picture.

Most Used Channels

Twitter 100 per cent

Facebook 96 per cent

YouTube 81 per cent

Flickr 65 per cent

….

Whats App 4 per cent

Snapchat 0 per cent

Source: Best by West Midlands IEWM July 2014

The findings formed part of a session at commscamp last week and it turns out this blindspot for new channels is not something unique to the West Midlands.

You need a digital comms expert in your team.

It’s something I’ve been banging on about for some time now. The world is changing. You need to keep pace. Unless you have someone horizon scanning you’ll be missing the bigger picture. Sales pitch: that’s a service comms2point0 provides but really as a comms person you need to have a voracious inquisitiveness about how the web is changing your job.

But what is Snapchat?

The low down is that this is a picture messaging service beloved of young people. It’s picture led and is meant to disappear from the web in 24-hours. The sender can opt to save a pic and the the recipient can take a screenshot. There’s a useful parents guide that Snapchat themselves have produced.

Some brands have started to use it like McDonalds who are telling people about changes to the menu and offers, the Philadelphia Reds baseball team giving behind-the-scenes access and the World Wildlife Fund who used a Snapchat-inspired campaign and this short YouTube clip showing endangered species at risk and asking if the images would be their #lastselfie.

You can watch the YouTube clip here:

The stats are that Snapchat is growing although the detail is hard to piece together. A survey suggests 25 per cent of smartphone users in the UK have Snapchat and 70 per cent of users are female.

 What is whats app?

It’s SMS without the spiralling charges. You send and receive something that looks like SMS but without the individual charges. As of April 2014, there is 500 million users and the company which was bought for $19 billion by Facebook says it has only just started.

It’s fair to say that marketing and comms people are baffled by what impact this will have on them with predictions of zero impact although others have been creative to engage with it. Like the Israeli chocolate company who created a game for users to play and the Bollywood cinema who created a competition to promote a new film.

But is this something that comms let alone public sector comms has got their teeth into? Not at all.

Your two big challenges

Firstly, you need to know where do they fit in the landscape and secondly, we need to think how we go about getting the skills.

Screen-Shot-2014-02-25-at-1.22.19-PM.png (288×435) - Google Chrome 13072014 111604The re-assuring thing in debating this at commscamp is that this feels no different to Twitter in 2007. Those that work in comms and PR at first thought it would go away and then we gradually worked out how to use it. That’s a journey we’ve already been on so shouldn’t be too worried.

It’s fine for us grown-ups to work out what these platforms are so you don’t appear like the magistrate who famously asked: ‘Who are The Beatles?’

The old rules stand true. Go onto a platform as yourself for a bit to understand the language and what works. Then think about using it yourself.

I’ve argued before that there needs to be space to experiment away from the bustle of the day job and campaign evaluation. This is one of those times.

Creative comms credit

Grid: Ann Kempster https://www.flickr.com/photos/annkempster/sets/72157645172301580/

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