Facebook-owned messaging platform WhatsApp has unveiled plans to develop standalone versions of its mobile app aimed at connecting businesses and their customers more easily.
WhatsApp Business will be free for small businesses, with a paid-for enterprise version targeted at those with a global customer base – an indication of one way Facebook plans to monetize the app, which now has a billion daily users.
In a blog post Tuesday, the company said the proposed enterprise app will allow large organizations including airlines, e-commerce sites, and banks to contact customers with notifications, such as “flight times, delivery confirmations, and other updates”.
Pricing information was not disclosed, though The Wall Street Journal reported that the corporate tool will be require a fee.
WhatsApp has been steadily enhancing its business-to-consumer capabilities for some time now. Last week, the firm announced a business verification system, with a green badge indicating WhatsApp has confirmed a phone number belongs to an authenticated business account - similar to Facebook’s own grey badge for business pages. WhatsApp has previously announced plans to allow businesses to contact customers with marketing messages.
In its blog post, WhatsApp said it will work with business users as part of a closed pilot program to test additional new services ahead of a wider launch.
One of the companies testing the enterprise service, UK-based ecommerce firm Yoox Net-a-Porter, said in a blog post that many of its customers prefer to use WhatsApp rather than email to complete transactions and get product suggestions. The company, which also has operations in the U.S., said it has completed single item sales of up US$104,000. WhatsApp is now integrated with its order management system application, and is being tested as a notification system for order shipping confirmations.
The announcement serves to highlight the growing acceptance of the consumer messaging app by business users. WhatsApp claimed that many small businesses are already using its platform to interact with customers, though acknowledged that kind of connection is “pretty rudimentary.”
WhatsApp is also increasingly being used in large and small organizations as a collaboration tool for staff. , for example, that doctors in the UK’s National Health Service have been using WhatsApp and video messaging tool SnapChat to send sensitive patient information despite a strict ban on such use, while British diplomats apparently use it for confidential discussions – both examples of "shadow IT," where employees side-step outdated systems in favor of modern messaging tools.
The prospect of more widespread use of WhatsApp at work could pose problems for enterprise IT admins because the messaging software is clearly aimed at individual users with no focus yet on corporate security or compliance features.
Even so, there are early signs of functionality that would support business uses. Last year, WhatsApp added document sharing capabilities, for example, allowing users to send and receive files such as PDFs via its app, and it developed desktop clients for Windows and Mac OS.
Facebook also began a more concerted push into business use, with its Workplace social network platform launch at the end of 2016.
Facebook acquired WhatsApp in 2014 for approximately $19 billion, and has been attempting to find ways to generate revenue streams from the popular messaging app.