Why WhatsApp wants to convince Americans to stop texting

“I think I left the car unlocked, can you check?” reads a text message displayed on one of the billboards. The consequence, outlined next to the text bubble: “Unless your private texts are end-to-end encrypted, they are not private.”

IN TV commercialthe postman hands the already-opened letters and packages to outraged recipients before telling them that “every text you send is as open as your letters.”

Data provided to CNN Business by research firm eMarketer shows that as of last year, WhatsApp had fewer than 63 million users in the United States, or about 19% of the country’s population. This is a far cry from its audience in countries such as India, Brazil and Indonesia, where it is one of the most popular ways to communicate. According to eMarketer, there are about 500 million WhatsApp users in India alone, which is more than a third of its population and more than half of the Internet user base.

This marks the first time that WhatsApp, which has declined to release statistics on how many users it currently has in the United States, has launched an ad campaign in the country.

“Over time, we’ve seen more people in the US turn to WhatsApp,” Eshan Ponnadurai, the platform’s head of marketing that spearheaded the ad campaign, said in a statement emailed to CNN Business, though he acknowledged the break with the rest. peace. “We’re just, in a sense, representing ourselves in the US.”

The stakes could be high for Facebook, now known as Meta, to expand its reach Whatsapp. Despite the massive turn to virtual reality, Meta’s social media platforms still form the core of its business. And that business is fading — Facebook’s user growth has slowed as it saturates the world and faces increasing competition from other platforms like TikTok, especially among younger users. Meta’s advertising business has also been affected by Apple’s privacy changes related to user activity tracking.
While apps like Facebook and Instagram are already widely used in the United States and don’t have much room to grow, the potential for WhatsApp is much greater. The messaging app cost Facebook $19 billion nearly a decade ago but generates little revenue. Now Meta is trying to change that.

The development of WhatsApp in the US could have a positive impact on other platforms and create new monetization opportunities in a lucrative market. But to achieve this, WhatsApp must fight an uphill battle to change how Americans text and perhaps how they feel about WhatsApp’s parent company.

Fighting to Change the Way Americans Write

With over 2 billion users worldwide, WhatsApp has become the dominant messaging service in many parts of the world, including much of Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

This is not the case in the United States where more than half of the country uses the iPhone and their default iMessage app. For non-iPhone users, traditional text messaging, also known as SMS (or MMS for photo sharing), is still popular. More than 2.2 trillion text messages were shipped to the US in 2020, according to CTIA, the US telecommunications industry trade group.

“The only common denominator is SMS, a 30-year-old technology,” said Inderpal Singh Mumik, CEO of New Jersey-based communications company Dotgo. helps businesses communicate with customers through various messaging apps.

Google, whose Android operating system is Apple’s biggest smartphone competitor, is in the process of replacing SMS with a system known as Rich Communication Services (RCS) for its default messaging app. Google describes RCS as a “modern, more secure industry standard” that gives users a more secure and interactive way to communicate with each other.

But the rollout has been slow and SMS remains popular. Mumik estimates that there are about 40 million RCS users in the US out of 500 million worldwide.

WhatsApp, which works the same no matter what device it’s used on, appears to have settled on a strategy to convince Americans to make the switch – appealing to their desire for data privacy..

Privacy book

WhatsApp has long touted the use of end-to-end encryption, which means that only the sender and recipient of a message can see its content. While several other competitors including iMessage and Signal also offer end-to-end encryption, WhatsApp is by far the largest in terms of user base.

Ponnadurai said WhatsApp saw the growing data privacy conversation as “an opportunity to educate Americans who are missing out on secure communication because they’re still using SMS.”

According to some privacy experts, the argument that SMS is insecure makes sense.

“SMS is definitely insecure,” said Riana Pfefferkorn, an encryption and privacy researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory. The telecommunications architecture that allows text messaging, known as the SS7 protocol, has vulnerabilities that “leave American calls and text messages unprotected from attackers,” she added.

A new WhatsApp ad campaign warns against using unencrypted text messages.
WhatsApp’s privacy push comes as lawmakers in the US and around the world are also drafting laws that would weaken encryption, citing the potential use of the technology by attackers. But critics of the law say it could have dangerous implications for online privacy.

“In terms of encryption policy, now is the most important time to launch a public relations campaign touting the benefits of an encrypted chat app,” Pfefferkorn said. “Americans are aware that they need and deserve privacy and security for their communications, but they may not know that end-to-end encryption is a great way to meet these needs, or may not understand that WhatsApp [encrypted] default.”

But the biggest problem WhatsApp faces in trying to convince Americans to switch may come from its own parent company.

Trust issues

In recent years, Facebook has faced scandal after scandal when it comes to protecting the privacy and security of its users. A series of revealing leaks from a Facebook whistleblower late last year may have only further damaged the company’s credibility. Even guaranteed encryption can be a difficult task.

“The company’s numerous breaches of confidentiality have created a general climate of distrust,” Pfefferkorn said. “People just don’t believe that Facebook really respects their privacy, and a lot of people don’t even believe that Facebook [and] WhatsApp really can’t read their WhatsApp messages.”

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WhatsApp has faced its own backlash against privacy. The company was forced to delay updating its privacy policy last year after confusion over how much user data it shares with Facebook caused an exodus to competing messaging platforms like Signal.
If his US push succeeds, the opportunities for WhatsApp will be significant. The company has rolled out business communications and digital payments in some of its largest markets in an attempt to monetize what has traditionally been a free service. And the United States is considered one of the most profitable markets in the world in terms of revenue per user of online services.

But ingrained texting habits and the mistakes of your own parent company will likely make this battle hard.

“Facebook has completely eroded public trust, so if the US PR strategy doesn’t work, Facebook will blame itself,” Pfefferkorn said.

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