What makes WhatsApp tick in a highly competitive market?

Despite tough competition, WhatsApp has been able to retain its No. 1 position. All thanks to its uncluttered user interface and first mover advantage

e4m by Sonam Gulati
Updated: Feb 3, 2014 8:06 AM
What makes WhatsApp tick in a highly competitive market?

The invasion of data-enabled cheap smartphones has given the most serious blow to good old text messaging. It has almost made it redundant and we use it only when we have to. Text messages have given way to the cooler, more social and real-time social messaging apps. While WhatsApp is one of the first such apps, we now have a number of such cross-platform messaging apps. Eyeing for their share of the growing internet market, all global apps have come to India in the past 18-24 months. Be it Chinese internet major Tencent’s WeChat or Japanese IM app Line or our very own homegrown app Hike. Everyone wants to do a WhatsApp in India.

But is that possible?
It does seem a little difficult as of now. While all these apps have managed to create a buzz and make users sit up and notice them, none of them are even close to touching WhatsApp’s marketshare. Just for some perspective, WhatsApp has recently crossed 30 million active users in India alone (globally it has a user base of a whopping 400 million). Compare this to Line’s latest figures that claim to have 15 million users in India (only half of that of WhatsApp). WeChat, on the other hand, doesn’t reveal country-specific numbers, but states that it has 100 million users globally (excluding China). Going by sheer numbers, chances of other apps making it as big as WhatsApp in India might look bleak, but anything can be possible.

WhatsApp, the brand
The aspect that works in WhatsApp’s favour is its simple-to-use, uncluttered user interface. It is also the most popular since it was one of the first players in the category (launched in July 2009). WhatsApp as a brand has stood out only because of what it is. They have never indulged in any kind of marketing. So, the company does zero marketing, is a paid app and still retains the largest user base. “WhatsApp has just 50 employees, and most of us are engineers. We’ve arrived at this point without spending a dollar on targeted ads or big marketing campaigns. We’re here because of all the people who share their WhatsApp stories with co-workers, friends, and loved ones – stories we love to hear,” said Jan Koum, Co-founder, WhatsApp, in a recent blog post.

On the other hand, there are the WeChats and Lines roping in local celebrities to tell their stories and offering various extra features just to move the audience from WhatsApp to their domain. But the relevance of WhatsApp has reached a point where it is used as a messaging tool and not just a social interaction platform. It has replaced SMS in our lives, and even if there are five more IM apps on our phones for their attractive features, WhatsApp will still be there.

Should WhatsApp worry about the competition?
Despite its huge fan following, other apps have eaten into WhatsApp’s share and all of them combined can have a lasting effect on the app only if it doesn’t move with the times. Recently, WhatsApp launched a new push-to-talk feature, wherein users can just push to record a voice message and send instantly. This feature was available on other apps and seemed like WhatsApp didn’t want to lose out on users because of this. It still has to upgrade to the hugely popular ‘stickers’ that other apps are offering.

It is also often accused of being too open a system. Since people can find anyone with the help of the mobile phone number, that functionality sometimes works against it too. Lots of people have also reported getting spam on the app. But despite these ‘problem areas’, WhatsApp has been able to retain its numero uno position so far.

“A few short years ago, my friend Brian and I set out to build a messaging service with a single focus: best possible user experience. We bet that if our team of engineers could make messaging fast, simple, and personal, we could charge people directly for the service without having to rely on annoying banner ads, game promotions, or all those other distracting ‘features’ that come with many messaging apps,” added Kuom in the same blog post. And that is exactly what they did.

Since WhatsApp is a paid app, it doesn’t have to indulge in any other revenue streams such as in-app games, paid stickers or other such avenues. It’s simple, effective and to a point quite addictive. So, if other apps want to do a WhatsApp in India (or other emerging markets), they have to follow this very rule of being simple and to-the-point.

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