A topical question for you all: Should media companies include WhatsApp in their social media/mobile strategy?

INMA’s 2013 Outlook report said the main accelerators of future traffic for publishers will be mobile and social media.

I thought in this blog piece I would focus on the latest big news in the digital world and especially whether there are any implications for media companies.

I am referring to the phenomenon that is the mobile app, WhatsApp, Facebook’s recent US$19 billion (yes, that’s billion with a B) purchase.

WhatsApp is probably best known as a cross-platform, instant messaging service for smartphones. But it could (stress could!) also become a powerful distribution tool for the publishing industry.

The app, which lets consumers send short messages to friends for free (similar to SMS/ text messaging), has an incredible 450 million users (and 70% of those use it every day).

While that figure is dwarfed by Facebook’s own 1.2 billion monthly active users, it’s still more than double that of Twitter, which has 200 million people using it each month.

Initially, a “personal message” service might seem a strange bedfellow for any media/publisher. However, e-mail is where the potential surely rests, as it is very much the source of massive content sharing.

WhatsApp should perhaps be considered the next evolution of e-mail (in addition to text messaging), and that’s something that presents big opportunity for publishers with outbound marketing and new revenue opportunities with advertisers. It also is another social media channel for user-generated content sharing and opinion.

WhatsApp offers many publishers a way to get their own content shared simply by embedding the WhatsApp button within their own bespoke mobile news apps. Powerful one-to-one marketing options!

The WhatsApp app contributes in excess of 10% of its “total sharing activity,” making it more or less as popular with users as say, sharing via SMS message. And we all know — or should know — how powerful a well-targeted, customised, localised, personalised SMS campaign still can be? (You do, don’t you? If not, contact me and I will aim to enlighten you.)

But back to WhatsApp. It was interesting that, at the end of 2013, the excellent, free, photo-editing app “Aviary” reported its users were sharing almost as many pictures to WhatsApp as they were to the likes of Facebook and Instagram. The company said WhatsApp “barely registered” with it at the same time back in 2012. What a difference a year makes in digital?!

Similarly, Buzzfeed, already working with WhatsApp, reports it is seeing more shares to WhatsApp than to Twitter on iOS, where it displays the button on its mobile Web pages, along with other social share buttons from Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

And, all this activity before Facebook gets its hands on it!

Still, WhatsApp is not without limits. For instance, when people share things to Facebook or Twitter, they’re sharing to a large number of people. The situation is different with WhatsApp, which people use to share with smaller groups or perhaps an individual. This could potentially limit the amount of referral traffic publishers get to see from WhatsApp, even as the app continues to add more and more users. Just a thought!

And, a further potential issue is that WhatsApp isn’t, of course, an actual news destination like LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc. WhatsApp’s main functions are messaging and short conversation, i.e. “chat,” unlike LinkedIn and Facebook.

No one shares to WhatsApp in the same way they would to Facebook. It needs, therefore, careful and individual attention to get the most out of it.

However, speaking of Facebook, they say the WhatsApp messaging volume is approaching the entire global telecom SMS volume (amazingly), and it’s currently adding more than 1 million new users each day.

That alone is why I described WhatsApp as a phenomenon at the top of this post. And that was before the Facebook announcement. (Just consider how Instagram grew after Facebook bought it and you can start to see the potential?).

So, bottom line: WhatsApp, despite its huge growth, is still at the mercy of how its many users will decide to use it in the future. Yet it would seem that after anyone spends US$19 billion on anything, you can surely assume you’ll be hearing much about it in the months/years to come. And you can probably expect to be amazed by its impact.

It might be worth keeping an eye on, with a view to including WhatsApp as part of your future social media/mobile strategy.

As I said at the beginning, INMA’s 2013 Outlook report said the main accelerators of future traffic for publishers will be mobile and social media. WhatsApp combines both of these and gives us all a glimpse of what we can expect in the next year or two from the industry ... and where our focus should be.