With more than 2 billion users globally, WhatsApp is one of the most popular apps in the world. And while its U.S. presence is relatively small at just 98 million users, as iMessage and Messenger tend to be more popular, social media marketers still see the app as a relatively untapped vein.
Earlier in November, Will Cathcart, head of WhatsApp, told
Brazilian publication Folha De S.Paulo
that the long-awaited arrival of in-app ads is still possible. He specified that ads would appear in Status, the app’s equivalent of Instagram Stories, and would not touch user inboxes.
But WhatsApp must strike a careful balance with ads, as its built a reputation around private, encrypted messaging. Giving advertisers access to not just users’ data, but their private messages, would fly in the face of that promise.
Cathcart didn’t specify when in-app ads might arrive. His comments could be taken with a grain of salt, as WhatsApp has already teased Status ads for more than five years
Media buyers aren’t holding their breath for the day in-app ads come around, either. Jon Morgenstern, EVP and head of investment at VaynerMedia, hasn’t been approached by Meta about WhatsApp yet.
“Often there are pushes and PR mounted by the platforms themselves when they want to drive excitement and adoption,” he said. “Meta hasn’t pulled the trigger on that.”
But while marketers need not get excited about a change that might not come for another five years, social media experts see a few reasons to explore the app now, with or without in-app ads.
Before they do, here are three things they should know about WhatsApp.
Status ads be damned — the greatest potential lies in messaging
There’s a disconnect between where WhatsApp is willing to put ads to appease its user base, and where advertisers see the most value in showing up on the platform. According to social media experts, messaging – WhatsApp’s core feature – provides brands the greatest opportunities to connect with users.
Despite not having paid ad inventory within messaging, marketers are finding other inroads onto the app.
For instance, brands can create and invite users to communities, which function like Discord
, where they can directly interact and get real-time feedback on upcoming or ongoing campaigns.
“In social, we see this large focus in the last year on really niche communities and subcultures, and [WhatsApp] is definitely a new way to reach that and extend the life of an existing campaign,” said Grace Hoy, director of social media strategy at VMLY&R.
However, maintaining a community comes with its own set of moderation challenges.
“That’s also a risk,” she added. “What does that two-way conversation look like…no brand ever wants to open that door and have the floodgates open.”
There’s no quick and easy way in without ads
Companies can set up business accounts on WhatsApp, where they can
sell products or offer customer support within the app. But beyond that, community building is one of the only ways for a brand to maintain a presence on the app – and there aren’t any quick and easy ways onto the platform.
A short-form video made for TikTok can be quickly repurposed for Instagram Reels or YouTube Shorts. A post for X (formerly Twitter) can be copied and pasted onto Threads.
But on WhatsApp, which is known more for facilitating private conversations, it's difficult to build and maintain a community, especially one dedicated to a niche or subculture.
Until Status ads become available, WhatsApp asks brands for consistent attention and dedication to their communities.
VaynerMedia’s Morgenstern can only speculate why ads haven’t arrived yet, but suspects it's likely because the company is prioritizing AI
Encryption and advertising don’t go hand-in-hand
Should in-app ads finally arrive in WhatsApp, advertisers will have a hard time serving any kind of targeted ads, especially within direct messages.
WhatsApp has attempted to differentiate itself from other messaging services by leaning into encryption to ensure users' data privacy is protected. Giving advertisers access to user data and private messages would contradict the app’s biggest selling point.
“[WhatsApp] built their house on it,” said Monica Tailor, chief social marketing officer at McCann. “By saying ‘your chat is fully encrypted,’ they’re saying ‘we’re not listening to you and we don’t know what’s going on in this chat.’ If you target ads, you’re saying ‘actually, we are sort of listening to you.’
“As soon as people think ‘well how did they know that?’ you’ve immediately damaged that brand reputation,” she continued.
She added that should Status ads arrive first, they could help prepare users for ads appearing in other parts of the app, including within their messages.