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Facebook buys WhatsApp: what does this mean for online PR?

80:20 Communications - 27th February 2014

Facebook’s newly acquired messaging app has been specifically designed to allow users to communicate without interference. What does this deal mean for the PR industry’s use of social media?The $19bn price tag on Facebook’s acquisition of five-year-old internet messaging platform WhatsApp has stunned many. However, it’s not the app Facebook has paid so handsomely for, but WhatsApp’s connection with the teenage market. The newer messaging service is beloved of the very audience said to be deserting Facebook in droves, as well as savvy mobile users looking to avoid international texting charges.

Companies and PR professionals are naturally eager to understand how they can use WhatsApp to reach the notoriously fickle, fast-moving teen audience. But in this case, they may be up against something of a brick wall. WhatsApp is specifically designed to allow users to communicate without interference. The company’s founders have been outspoken in their refusal to accept advertising on the platform, and the one-to-one nature of messaging means there’s no scope for companies to join the party through established social media outreach tactics.

Conspiracy theories abounded when WhatsApp crashed shortly after the acquisition was announced, with some speculating Mark Zuckerberg had bought the app just to shut it down and force teens back to the familiar haven of Facebook Chat. However, those fears seem unfounded: Facebook has yet to reveal its plans for WhatsApp, but says it wants to maintain the service’s rude health and rapid growth (465m users and counting). We know a new voice service is in the pipeline, but what lies beyond this is uncertain.

Zuckerberg is being careful not to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs and insists he want to preserve WhatsApp as an advertising-free zone. This presumably also shuts out PR activities for the timebeing at least. Facebook’s brightest minds will be working feverishly on how best to access this audience commercially, but for the moment we may simply have to accept as an industry there is a layer of social media that marketing cannot penetrate.

Instead, however, it is worth appreciating the benefits the acquisition brings us in terms of its impact upon Facebook, a platform we and our clients can and do use to our advantage.

In acquiring WhatsApp, Facebook is reconnecting with the teenage audience and thereby maintaining its relevance, value and ability to invest. The deal also underpins Facebook’s long-term strength by giving it better access to countries where it has yet to establish a strong presence, such as Brazil and Australia. At this time, it is clearly in the interests of the marketing industry that Facebook stays around for a long time yet, so the deal is to be welcomed.

Furthermore, teens themselves may prefer the format of WhatsApp, but their parents remain happily active on Facebook and Twitter. Not only are ‘grown-ups’ a huge and important consumer market in themselves, but most parents still wield a degree of influence over the behaviour and spending of their children.

A robust Facebook strategy remains an integral part of many PR campaigns, regardless of the reports of teenage desertion. PR professionals and marketers would do well to stop scratching their heads as to how they can ‘tap into’ WhatsApp and continue with well-planned social strategies targeting their core audiences. If there is a level of social media we cannot reach, let’s focus on the levels we can.

To discuss how best to use social media strategies for corporate communications, please contact Marc Cornelius: or +44 1483 447380/+44 20 7664 6310.