What’s up with WhatsApp: Why we’re using it

May 15, 2016

Image via flickr courtesy of Jeso Carneiro at https://flic.kr/p/BHpJvi

Earlier this year, Facebook announced its purchase of WhatsApp, an instant messaging platform, for US$16 billion. That’s a substantial figure, especially from one of the world’s most profitable social media networks. However, it’s hardly surprising considering the platform currently has 450 million monthly users, and of that 320 million log into the app daily. 

What’s so good about it you ask? Well, we were interested too. So we decided to put the app to use as part of an exploratory positioning research piece to understand consumers lives in a digitally advanced landscape. What we found was pretty impressive.  

It’s on their level

One of the best things about WhatsApp is that it transports you, the researcher, into the pocket of your target audience in a ‘non-confronting’ way. The app already sits within people’s digital rituals of frequently checking their social media feeds and e-mails. The app is familiar, safe, and friendly - unlike travelling to a focus group full of strangers or completing a survey. Because of this, we found people’s responses on the app were more honest and less restricted. We had people WhatsApping us at all hours of the day; some messaged us on nights out, others just before bed when they had an off-hand thought. It was as if people felt free to express themselves as they usually would when texting. 

Instant reactions

Using WhatsApp we were able to get people’s instant reactions to initial concepts. They didn’t have time to tell us what they thought we want to hear. Instead, people reacted with their first thoughts. The platform is certainly not a space for complex ideas or deep thought but it does reveal a lot about what consumers are thinking at a specific moment in time. People could tell us about an ad they saw while sitting on the train or the type of music playing at the gallery opening they’re at. On multiple occasions, we were able to capture fleeting moments from consumers that helped us construct a bigger picture. The app also supports the exchange of multimedia across other platforms, which makes sharing quick snapshots of their current environment or images they like from Facebook easy. Collating images and ideas gave us an immersive idea of people’s journey, rather than just a superficial description. 

Image via flickr courtesy of Hernán Piñera at https://flic.kr/p/DDeKda

A comfortable yet contained environment 

What separated WhatsApp from other social media platforms (e.g. Facebook) was the contained ‘hub’ we were able to create. The app neither interferes with people’s personal contact list nor threatens to spill onto their Facebook feed. This hub-like environment let us conduct a number of separate conversations at the same time, creating the feeling of free-flowing conversation within targeted groups while maintaining control of initial ideas and prompts. ‘Groups’ also let people connect on a common platform before meeting each other in person. This meant subsequent face-to-face conversations felt more like a pre-formed community coming together to share new ideas. 

International possibilities  

The app also lets you communicate across international borders, skirting international SMS fees and only paying for the cost of data… I know I’m starting to sound like I secretly work for WhatsApp, but in terms of international research, this entails endless possibilities.

For years, unobtrusive research methods have instructed us to be observers. We’ve been told to keep researcher bias at a minimum, to not interfere in the lives of consumers and instead to watch, record and understand. We no longer believe this is the place for us. In this constantly changing media landscape, some form of digital immersion is critical. It’s about capturing tiny micro moments in people’s lives that lead to solving bigger problems. Of course, observation is still vital to understanding, but integration is what’s key here. And maybe WhatsApp is the way to do it.