WhatsApp sets its sights on the US

- Published: 28 January 2022
Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

With more than 2 billion users, WhatsApp is already one of the most popular messaging apps in the world. But its largest markets are all outside of the US. Now, Facebook, the parent company of WhatsApp that recently rebranded to Meta, is hoping to change that.

Starting this weekend, Meta is kicking off the first-ever US marketing push for WhatsApp, focusing on the privacy offered by the app’s encryption. The first TV ad will air Sunday during the AFC Championship Game, comparing unencrypted messages to a stranger opening your physical mail. Similar ads touting WhatsApp’s privacy will soon start appearing on billboards around the country and online.

The goal of the marketing push is to get more people in the US to switch to WhatsApp by highlighting the app’s security relative to other texting methods like SMS, according to Meta’s head of WhatsApp, Will Cathcart. “What we’re seeing in the US is that, especially over the last couple of years with COVID, people are doing much more of their life online,” he tells The Verge. “But there is a real gap in how much people are using services with end-to-end encryption in the US compared to everywhere else in the world.”

There are more than 5 billion unencrypted SMS messages sent in the U.S. every day, according to a 2019 study by CTIA. Much of that volume is likely spam and promotional messages, but SMS is also the default texting method for a lot of Android phones, or used when someone on iMessage texts with an Android device. Google is starting to heavily push for the adoption of RCS, the long-awaited upgrade to SMS that adds features like read receipts and in some cases encryption. But Apple has shown no sign that it wants to add RCS compatibility to iMessage. Green bubbles be damned.

Cathcart thinks that WhatsApp’s availability on both iOS and Android is a selling point for those who are frustrated by the experience of texting across platforms. He says the company is working to let you easily sync your chat history from an iOS device to any Android phone and vice versa. And last year, WhatsApp rolled out fully encrypted backups — something that Apple has yet to offer with iMessage.

Given how poorly Facebook’s brand is perceived in the US versus other parts of the world, the fact that this marketing push is coming after the rebrand to Meta is certainly convenient for WhatsApp. Like the screen you see when you first open the app, the TV ad airing this weekend says that WhatsApp is “from Meta” and not Facebook. Cathcart insists that the Meta rebrand wasn’t a factor in the timing of the US push; I’m still skeptical.

Cathcart says the new Meta distinction will rather be more helpful in other countries. “Outside of the US, I think it will be clarifying for a lot of people that we can now talk Meta the company versus Facebook the product,” he says. “We’ve seen at times confusion from users, especially ones who are less sophisticated, [that] if you use the term Facebook, they think of the app and their friends seeing something.”

As Meta knows from its own research, messaging apps tend to build strong network effects over time that can be difficult to compete with. Apps like Snapchat and iMessage, and even Facebook’s own Messenger, are way more popular in the US than WhatsApp. It’s unclear if a marketing push will change that.

No plans for RCS support

While he acknowledges that SMS traffic moving to encryption thanks to RCS is a good thing, Cathcart says WhatsApp has no intention of adding RCS compatibility. Since RCS is an open standard, Cathcart’s argument is that adding support would slow down the development of WhatsApp. Before joining Meta over a decade ago, he helped build early spam filtering technology for Gmail at Google, where he observed how hard it is to quickly iterate on the open standards that underpin email.

“Certainly to offer the level of security and reliability and ease of use that we’ve prided ourselves in, I think it would be very hard,” he says of adding RCS support. “And so it’s not something we’re working on at the moment. I’ll never say never. It’s great to see SMS get better. But one of the challenges with a decentralized system like that is you can’t really push the security, the ease of use, the reliability of that.”

 Photo by WABetaInfo

While it’s primarily used for one-on-one messaging, WhatsApp is working on additional features for larger groups to more easily communicate, potentially putting it in more direct competition with services like Discord and Reddit. I asked Cathcart about an unreleased feature recently spotted in WhatsApp’s code called Communities. It seems geared towards expanding large group chats to include sub-groups and more admin controls. According to Cathcart, WhatsApp is increasingly being used by groups of people like schools and religious groups that could benefit from such features.

“You could imagine a principal wanting to be able to delete messages within the school that are being sent,” he says. “Is there a way to structure and give admin control to help communities like that? We think it’s an interesting area of product opportunity for us to make WhatsApp better given how much people have started using WhatsApp for this over the last couple of years.”

Aside from competing with iMessage, WhatsApp’s biggest challenge to cracking the US market will likely be the relationship with its parent company. A privacy policy update last year that clarified how chats with businesses on WhatsApp could be stored on Facebook’s servers, even though they’re still encrypted during transit, was met with fierce backlash.

“The thing we learned is that really clear, simple, understandable communication about privacy policies is very important,” Cathcart says. “This stuff can be complicated to people. And we saw a ton of confusion where people thought we were changing something about the privacy of their messages, lots of people saying we were able to read their messages. None of that was true.”

As Mark Zuckerberg hinted at last year, Meta intends to introduce a new umbrella account system so that users can manage their identity across WhatsApp, Instagram, Facebook, and its other products. It’s part of a multi-year plan to eventually integrate the messaging architecture of WhatsApp, Messenger, and Instagram so that users can communicate across them.

The rollout of opt-in, encrypted messaging on Messenger this week is an early step towards the apps being more connected, Cathcart says. WhatsApp has so far thrived in huge swaths of the world while staying largely independent from its parent company. Now it’s a matter of whether it can do the same in the US even as it gets closer to the rest of Meta.

Source: theverge.com