Why Brands Can Ignore Telegram—for Now

Opinion: The messaging app hit 200 million global monthly users in March

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You’ve undoubtedly read in the past few months about social applications that offer heavily encrypted messages that can self-destruct and a faster delivery system than most platforms, along with promises that they will remain cost-free forever and are nearly unhackable.

One such example is Telegram, which hit 200 million global monthly users in March, yet has received considerable opposition from both Russia and Iran—the two countries, in fact, with Telegram’s largest user bases.

As messenger apps such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger have become a staple of modern life and consumer fears about data privacy have risen to a fever pitch, will people turn to these more encrypted messenger platforms to protect their confidentiality? And what does this mean for American brands that have read about Telegram and other platforms and are considering their implications?

On balance, brands can rest easy—at least for now.

The rationale is simple. Unlike when Telegram first launched, a lot of those features are now actually available on both Messenger and WhatsApp, including end-to-end encryption of messages, meaning that even Facebook (which owns both platforms) can’t read your messages. If either of the Facebook-owned platforms were to be hacked, those in control of the data would still not be able to decrypt the messages—they would only be able to see who had been talking to whom, and when, which is the same case on Telegram.

Building a platform that is supposedly hack-proof, Telegram caused several countries to oppose its platform, citing their own national security. Russia has even gone so far as to actually disrupt its entire Internet in attempts to block Telegram, knocking out some of the country’s top websites for a short time, including Yandex and Vkontakte. According to Wired, this was still initially ineffective against preventing use of the app.

Telegram co-founder Pavel Durov cited Russia as a key reason for his backing of the platform: “The No. 1 reason for me to support and help launch Telegram was to build a means of communication that can’t be accessed by the Russian security agencies.”

In a recent New York Times article, it was stated that the Islamic State has used Telegram to organize its terrorist activities because of its untraceable and encrypted messaging, and despite Telegram’s attempts to crack down on the group’s use, “They [Islamic State] have so far thwarted those efforts and continue to operate on the platform.”

As for the impact of all of this on brands, let’s start with the fact that WhatsApp and Messenger remain the most popular messenger platforms, with more than 1 billion users each. Next, Messenger already offers end-to-end encryption on all messages, and WhatsApp actually forces it on all users.

From a brand monitoring perspective, this means that the actual content of messages is unavailable to them and is not even available to the companies developing the apps, and it hasn’t been for several years. This makes the ability for brands to obtain any information about what customers or potential customers are saying about them on messenger platforms already impossible. Telegram is no different in this regard and has no advantage here.

Third, using messaging apps to promote brands is actually still fairly new for social media marketers. Why? Because individuals often use these platforms to get away from places like Twitter and Facebook, where there are already massive brand interruptions. Thus, if brands start inundating them on messaging apps, as well, it may well do more harm than good.

Brands, however, should explore or become active in the messaging app space, as it does have tremendous scale behind it—a user base in the billions.

For example, some news sites, including Forbes, have already set up Telegram chat bots, which allow viewers to ask about a subject and receive related news. Fashion brands have also been testing the waters on WhatsApp. India is one of WhatsApp’s largest markets, and Reliance Brands—which retails Diesel, Kenneth Cole and Brooks Brothers there—engages customers on the app for those who cannot access its physical stores. Potential customers select items that they want to be delivered by scrolling through the latest updated stock.

Without a doubt, in the post-Snowden world, with state surveillance and Cambridge Analytica on everyone’s mind, it’s hardly surprising that consumers are looking for ways to protect their privacy, and brands need to be wary of these tidal shifts in behavior. However, brands that rush into messaging apps like Telegram may find a platform that’s more than they bargained for.

Like the “Dark Web” before it, Telegram has already been widely used for untraceable communication between terrorist cells. Considering the fact that most people use messaging apps to share their latest selfies and animal pictures or to find out if their friends want to hit the beach on the weekend, all of which is already safely encrypted, brands should instead focus on a messaging strategy with relevant content to their audiences, without being intrusive.

It is best to recognize the limitations of Telegram, sit this round out and see how it plays out—at least for the moment.

David Woods-Holder is a social media insights analyst at social media agency The Social Element.