2021—the year of hope, or at least better news and less pandemic-y than the one which preceded it—has provided a mixed bag in its first few weeks. Among other things, we've faced the worry of whether WhatsApp conversations with family and friends would be mined for all their content and used by Facebook to learn even more about our lives.
Many WhatsApp users received a notification on January 7 asking them to accept the platform's new terms, which included some data sharing with its parent company Facebook, or face losing access to the app on February 8. Chaos, panic, and pearl-clutching ensued. There were Slack threads about it at Conversocial, and in personal circles there were even discussions of whether we should all just move to Signal.
Since 2016, there has been an increasing awareness of the sheer power and depth of data that Facebook products hold. In 2020, it seems consumer awareness of data privacy reached a fever pitch, with so many of us relying on digital, mobile products from the likes of Google, Apple, Facebook, Tencent, Amazon etc, more than ever before.
Given Conversocial’s long-standing partnership with the WhatsApp Business API, I thought I would share our perspective on the implications, and benefits, of these pending changes.
It’s just business: WhatsApp isn’t spying on your personal chats
It’s important to clarify exactly what we are being asked to agree to. The information that will be shared with Facebook was already being collected by WhatsApp, the only thing that’s different (to quote one of my colleagues) is "the mothership will have access to some data that the subsidiary already had". Alongside what you’d expect (phone number, email address, crash data), were some data points you might not (advertising data, purchase history and contacts). One of the biggest elements that has upset people is that IP addresses are being shared. This doesn’t apply to EU and UK users, where it’s long been illegal for non-EU companies to collect that piece of information about users.
The crucial piece of information that may have been lost is that these changes only refer to business interactions, not private communications, something the head of WhatsApp Will Cathcart has been keen to emphasise:
It's important for us to be clear this update describes business communication and does not change WhatsApp’s data sharing practices with Facebook. It does not impact how people communicate privately with friends or family wherever they are in the world.— Will Cathcart (@wcathcart) January 8, 2021
A key feature that attracted users to WhatsApp is its end-to-end encryption of conversations, and given Facebook’s recent high-profile issues around data sharing, it’s understandable that some could see these privacy updates as the first step towards an invasive experience on their private conversations. However, everything we have seen since the initial noise surrounding the announcement seems to suggest that is a long way from being a reality.
WhatsApp has plenty of safeguards in place for its users
As an approved WhatsApp Business API partner, Conversocial has a good understanding of how the platform puts strict rules in place to protect its users communicating with brands via the app. Firstly, you need to be a verified business and there are certain industries that just aren’t allowed access to the API—gambling or cryptocurrency companies for instance. Even when granted access, WhatsApp Business has guardrails that prevent customers from being blasted with unwanted proactive push messages.
When users initially message a business on WhatsApp, the app automatically indicates whether the conversation is with a verified business account right at the beginning of the thread, helping reduce the potential for customers to share personal data with bad actors trying to impersonate a business.
There’s also plenty of restrictions around engaging more than 24 hours after an initial conversation, with a small number of approved templates allowed for these types of engagements. Even once they’ve been sent, the customer has to respond before a conversation can start.
With all that we know about how WhatsApp works to protect its users—both within business and private conversations—I would argue that it’s actually a platform that puts the experience of its customers front-and-centre.
How WhatsApp Business gives consumers a better experience
There are 2 billion WhatsApp users worldwide, and 175 million of them are using the app to communicate with their favourite brands. It’s a modern solution for superior brand-consumer interactions. Rather than waiting on hold for hours, relying on an email response or being tied to a website’s live chat function, a messaging channel like WhatsApp gives consumers a genuine opportunity to interact with brands on their own terms. All they need is a smartphone and they can have conversations anywhere, anytime.
It’s true that WhatsApp collects data and information about WhatsApp Business users, but this is geared towards creating a better, more personalised relationship between consumers and brands. This user data, that will now be shared on Facebook’s databases, helps businesses to better understand the habits and interests of a user. In some regions, for instance, brands are able to showcase products as 'shopfronts' that customers can browse and purchase all within the app. By having access to their location, purchase history and so on, brands can offer a more personalised selection of goods, offering a far better customer experience as a result.
In Conversocial’s State of CX Trends 2020 report, we found that two-thirds of consumers expect brands to offer personalised customer experience over messaging channels and that 94% are more likely to be repeat customers after great CX is delivered over messaging. Exceptional personalised experiences can’t exist without some level of prior knowledge before an interaction; if you’ve ever turned cookies off and seen the kind of adverts that follow you around the internet, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.
It's also important to note that WhatsApp collects far less data from users in comparison to Facebook’s other platforms, such as Messenger or Instagram messaging.
Users privacy concerns are still valid
As I said, there are plenty of safeguards in place to protect users, their information, and to keep businesses from invading what to many is a hugely personal and private app. If anything, the commercial arm of the company is the best way to ensure peer-to-peer communications stay free and without intervention from WhatsApp’s parent company Facebook. Allowing companies access to the API and to interact with customers is how the app makes money. With this revenue stream, it ensures there’s less need to even consider whether to monetise private interactions.
This doesn’t mean conversations about data sharing and privacy are invalid just because the update doesn’t affect private users. Over the past four years, there has been a better worldwide understanding of the expansive data access that Facebook has and people are now seeing that WhatsApp isn’t immune.
The reaction, and loss of users to rival platforms like Signal, will have helped WhatsApp HQ understand the need to tread carefully when weighing up commercial decisions and how they will impact both their users' privacy and their own reputation. This can only be a good thing for the trust between brands and consumers using WhatsApp to interact and the customer experiences available on the platform.
Steve Davies is head of communications and content at social customer service software firm, Conversocial.