Ads Are Coming to WhatsApp Status Sometime in 2019, but Will Agencies Bite?

App has 1.5 billion monthly users, but fewer than 20 million in the U.S.

There are more than 3 million business accounts on WhatsApp Getty Images

Ads are coming to WhatsApp Status, the Facebook-owned messaging application’s version of a stories format, sometime in 2019.

While ad buyers are looking forward to adding WhatsApp as an option for their clients, some are also wary of whether creative for other platforms’ stories offerings would translate well on the messaging app, as the bulk of its users are outside the U.S.

“Clients have been asking us to explore opportunities in WhatsApp for a long time, so it’s great that we finally have something to discuss,” said Jenny Lang, senior vice president and managing partner, integrated investment at global media and advertising agency UM Worldwide. “I have a bit of a concern on the reach because I’m not sure how many people actually use that Status feature. But, on the flip side, it could be a less ad-cluttered environment, as it’s a new space. Its social competitors are so big and can be a bit cluttered with ads, so maybe this is a good way to get in on an early test to drive brand awareness in a user-engaged environment.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said during the company’s third-quarter earnings call last week that there are now more than 3 million business accounts on WhatsApp.

“Facebook has really tried to figure out the best opportunity to monetize WhatsApp,” said Courtney Blount, group director of creative agency The Media Kitchen. “There is definitely an appetite to reach an audience in a place where we know they are the most engaged. It’ll be interesting to see how brands begin one-to-one communication with a non-branded, non-heavy-hitting focus while still achieving whatever their business goals are.”

While monetizing WhatsApp would seem to be a logical step for Facebook, which acquired the app in October 2014 for $19 billion, disagreements over how to proceed were a major factor in the departures of co-founders Brian Acton in September 2017 and Jan Koum in April, WSJ’s Kirsten Grind and Seetharaman reported in June.

“The Status tab seems like a very safe place for advertisers to work within a generally closed messaging app and community, so we’re optimistic about acceptance from the WhatsApp user base for this format versus other customer-service-focused advertising options explored across other messaging solutions,” said James Douglas, senior vice president and head of media at global agency Reprise Digital.

Douglas added that the story and Status ads formats have driven more cost-effective traffic to sites, with overall brand lift metrics coming in at 15 percent to 40 percent above those for other ad options, depending on the specific advertiser and targeting factors, so he sees WhatsApp Status as an area of focus for 2019.

Facebook poached Snapchat’s Stories feature and debuted it on Instagram in August 2016, opening up Instagram Stories ads to all businesses in March 2017. Ads in Facebook Stories were made available to all brands in September.

Facebook revealed in September that 300 million people were using its Stories feature every day, and Instagram said on Aug. 2, the second birthday of Instagram Stories, that it had more than 400 million daily users. But they both trail WhatsApp Status and its 450 million daily users.

“Stories in general is a great format because it’s a quick hit and we know people are enjoying consuming content that way,” Blount said. “Brands will need to figure out creatively how to take advantage of that quick second or two they have with the audience. What will Stories content from Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat translate into in WhatsApp?”

Digitas associate director of social strategy Trevor Davis raised a similar question, saying, “It will be imperative for WhatsApp to continue pushing the boundaries with developments to avoid becoming just another story ad for marketers. Brands will need to be tactful with creative and targeting approaches to properly tailor messaging in this uncharted medium.”

Overall, WhatsApp has more than 1.5 billion monthly users worldwide, but less than 20 million of those users are in the U.S. Douglas believes the impact of ads in WhatsApp Status will be felt more in markets outside of the U.S. and Asia, where usage of the messaging app is much more prevalent.

Periscope social creative director Bridget Jewell said contextual relevance is the key factor in whether she will recommend ads in WhatsApp Status to her agency’s clients, saying it appears Facebook is attempting to provide contextually relevant ads from businesses that already have a presence on WhatsApp.

“I want to make sure I am maintaining the great user experience that made people want to be on the app in the first place,” she said. “It’s not something I would recommend as a blanket offering. I’m not in the business of irritating consumers. The smart part about it is doing it in the Status section and not trying to interrupt conversations.” David Cohen is editor of Adweek's Social Pro Daily.