The growth of messaging apps and the potential for sport

Oh, God! I’ve left it on the plane. It played out in slow motion in my head – like an action replay.

The announcement for the plane’s descent was made, I shut the laptop, put it back in the case, popped my headphones into the pocket, and placed it under the seat in front. I’ll remember that before I get off for sure.

I did not.

It was now the next morning and I was in the hotel – we got in late and after dinner went straight to bed. I reached for my phone – surely the Internet will help me. But, my first instinct was not to open Chrome but rather WhatsApp: “Lads – I’ve had a ‘mare!”

“Ah, don’t worry – I left my iPad once” came back a response immediately “Give them a ring”. And another: “I left a very expensive camera for a shoot once, they are generally very good”. This instant feedback and comradery gave me hope and a sense of support. These guys were going through it with me – some had been through it before; all will be well. It also provided an avenue to live update as I phoned various numbers enquiring about lost property.

Communicating through WhatsApp

I have known this group of friends for over two decades, we met at school and have managed to keep in touch through the years – from ringing landlines to messages on pagers (remember them?), then onto mobile phones (some the size of bricks), text messages, and emails. But, 2016 provided a new medium in which we communicated: WhatsApp. Even though WhatsApp has been around since 2010 – circumstance and technology adoption (we have a luddite or two among us) seemed to come to crescendo and our chat group was born.

It was like being back at school again – complete with good humoured exchanges and outright bullying. But what this group provided us was a new channel in which we could comment, theorise, share, and discuss not only our life events but the bigger happenings in 2016 – which were either sport or politics. Let’s gloss over the latter (ahem!) and focus on sport.

Euros 2016 and the Rio Olympics were fascinating in different ways and WhatsApp gave us our own small community to chat at hours which suited us. Our group is an eclectic mix with various careers, from charity and media to marketing and law, as well as the armed forces and emergency services – so the hours at which we communicate varies greatly (even more so as some are parents, and some new parents). The pervasiveness of mobile phones and the ease at which we could communicate, gave us an immediate yet enhanced sense of enjoyment and fulfilment – something that we had not shared previously. Add to that the visceral passion main sporting events bring and it quickly becomes a winning formula.

Themed social networks (i.e. specific to sport) have emerged and while they help fill a gap – the privacy aspect and ease of WhatsApp removes the barrier to entry: you don’t have to make an account, for example. Of course there are other messaging tools out there – Facebook’s Messenger, Telegram, Line and Viber to name but a few. Interestingly some are bigger in certain geographical regions: for example, WeChat is prevalent in China, while Line is bigger in Asia – itself providing fascinating insight into how different segments and markets adopt technology. Alas, WhatsApp remains our tool of choice.

Tapping into chat

In this growing paradigm, the challenge presented to content owners, brands and advertisers is how to tap into private conversations: the ‘dark social’ as it has been dubbed. The key focus is perhaps understanding that ‘in chat’ monetisation might simply not be possible – people want privacy, I know I do – and so peripheral avenues should be explored.

Leveraging Artificial Intelligence & Chatbots

An emerging trend is the use of artificial intelligence to enable conversation. This presents numerous possibilities as technology advances accelerate. For example, selective targeting based on conversation: during a chat with friends, Andy Murray is mentioned – the messaging tool can provide a link to his website or to a retailer selling his tennis racket. This is a fine line and must be trod carefully as it can be deemed intrusive.

An alternative direction is a Chatbot which shows as a ‘friend’, allowing for conversation and questions to be posed. For example, ‘What was the Chelsea score last night?’. Added value in this scenario is crucial – why would I not go to Google or another media outlet? So the wider possibilities are where it gets interesting: ‘Are there any tickets left for the match on Saturday?’ Or perhaps enhancing the match day experience by pushing messages: ‘Discount at the Shop – just for you’.

Utilising Chatbots in customer service is a growth area with the likes of Uber, Bank of America and Pizza Hut launching in various formats. They can assist in solving simpler issues and answering questions – thereby freeing up the representatives for the more complicated tasks. The risk however is dehumanising the customer journey and avoiding unwanted spam, something which will evolve with time.

Exploring revenue streams

A small charge upfront or on a recurring basis could be explored. While this acts as instant revenue, it could be detrimental against free Apps, cutting out certain sections of the audience without disposable income. It would however create a premium captive audience.

As a result, high quality content should be leveraged to engage this captive audience. For example, a Q&A session with an athlete where people can pose questions, or a live video of the team training. By offering content via a medium not available anywhere else, a sense of exclusivity is conveyed. This in itself can be used heavily as a marketing tool to gain and grow the subscriber base.

Understanding the value of sharing

Instead of ‘listening’ to the conversation, the ability to understand what is being shared and therefore targeting outside of dark social becomes relevant. Users are very likely to click on a link shared by close friends. The value is to understand why this link was posted and follow through to personalise the user journey.

If a link to an article about the England Rugby team on the Guardian’s website is posted in a group chat – let’s understand who clicked, and why it was posted. This can lead to commercialisation opportunities – for example, offering a chance to buy tickets to the Six Nations through tracking and ad servers.

Unlocking the potential

Enabled by the advent of mobile phones, messaging apps have changed the way in which we communicate as humans. This is no mean feat. Brands and content owners have started to understand the power these apps can wield and so have started to explore the landscape. The challenge presented to them is fragmentation – and the potential that Chatbots may cannibalise traditional forms of media (specifically apps). But, a clear decisive strategy and consideration of audiences – what do they want, where do they want it, when do they want it – coupled with editorial tone and appropriate content is the key to unlocking this potential.

Oh btw – I eventually found the laptop: the ground crew had found it and kept for safe keeping. In fact, I am typing on it right now.