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WhatsApp: the new business card, storefront, and cash register in India

Quartz logo Quartz 21/02/2018 Sushma U N

Nearly half of the 430 million internet users in India use WhatsApp and businesses want their hands in that pie.

From the country’s leading online ticketing portal BookMyShow to travel booking website Goibibo and even offline luxury watch retailer Ethos, several companies are taking to the Facebook-owned messaging service to engage with customers old and new. Besides having two-way conversations on the app, they are using artificial intelligence (AI), data analytics, and voice-recognition technology to optimise WhatsApp as a whole new sales and marketing channel.

“WhatsApp makes perfect sense because it is one app everyone knows how to use,” Suman De, head of products at online travel agency Cleartrip, told Quartz.

The 200-million opportunity

As data costs in India fall, WhatsApp is rapidly replacing traditional short messaging service (SMS) to become a primary mode of text-based communication. In any case, WhatsApp is where most personal conversations with friends and family happen, De said.

The platform has gone beyond being a no-frills, free instant messaging service to include features like video calls and Instagram-like disappearing status messages. Earlier this month, it launched a peer-to-peer payments feature—a million users are currently on its beta version in India. The full-feature version will be released if the beta one is successful (pdf).

To engage better with businesses, WhatsApp launched a separate app in September 2017, which includes features that will help small businesses. Businesses have options to list store addresses, access user metrics (like number of messages read), and deliver reciepts or booked tickets to users through WhatsApp. The version also helps companies chat with users and address their queries. The feature is currently on pilot in India and companies such as online travel agency (OTA) MakeMyTrip and BookMyShow are part of it.

All this might still be just the tip of the iceberg.

WhatsApp did not respond to queries from Quartz.

WhatsApp and businesses

Since mid-2017, OTAs such as Goibibo and MakeMyTrip have been using WhatsApp to share booked tickets and other travel-related information with customers. Goibibo has developed an AI-powered chatbot, GIA, to respond to customers’ queries without human intervention.

Soon, users could even book tickets via WhatsApp, said Vikalp Sahni, CTO of Goibibo. The company believes there is potential since, although smartphone users in India are well-versed with mobile apps such as WhatsApp, they may not be comfortable in downloading more sophisticated apps just for travel bookings.

“If I can give a conversational experience that he’s (a user) aware of and used to have with a travel agent, we will be able to bring these guys online and these conversation mediums will be the entry point,” Sahni explained.

Rival MakeMyTrip plans to take this a notch higher by leveraging voice-to-text technology on WhatsApp. “Over a period, we intend to carry out the bulk of our communication through voice instead of text as that is where it is moving next. We are already on that journey, making significant investments in product and technology,” a MakeMyTrip spokesperson said.

Offline retailers aren’t far behind either.

Even companies that haven’t invested in advanced technologies to integrate with WhatsApp, the platform serves as an efficient channel to keep in touch with customers. For instance, Reliance Brands, which sells labels like Diesel, Kenneth Cole, Zegna, and Brooks Brothers in India, often uses the app to share pictures of products or other such promotions periodically.

“Selling luxury is all about offering personalised services and platforms like WhatsApp enable that. Which is why brands encourage their store managers to make extensive use of it,” Yashovardhan Saboo, CEO at luxury watch retailer Ethos, told the Economic Times newspaper.

Besides, WhatsApp’s business app also verifies businesses, giving them more credibility. Eyewear startup Glassic, which has been using Whatsapp since September 2017, says it’s business saw a massive pick up after it was assigned the green verification tick.

Watch out

WhatsApp, however, comes with its own share of problems.

“It’s going to add a lot of momentum in terms of revenue for these brands but the reason it is still not there yet is simply because the feet on the street is missing,” Sanchit Vir Gogia, chief analyst at research and advisory firm Greyhound Knowledge Group, said, explaining WhatsApp will have to have staff on the street explaining the business-related features to small businesses—something the company hasn’t done much yet.

Then, there are concerns about data security and privacy. “…So that stops a lot of businesses from using it,” Gogia said, adding that brands have to protect their reputation and ensure there are no breaches.

“You’re sharing a lot of information about yourself, knowingly or unknowingly. The danger could be that many people do not read the fine-print and would accept on all terms and conditions, and companies have access to a lot of confidential data such as the calls you make or the messages you send,” said Sudipta Ghosh, a partner at PwC who focuses on data and analytics.

Also, given the largely personal nature of WhatsApp messaging, using it to market products and services could possibly turn some people off. “Your credibility on the WhatsApp network starts going down (if companies spam users) and if too many people start reporting (the messages as spam), WhatsApp will end up blocking you,” De of Cleartrip said.

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