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How brands can use WhatsApp as a direct marketing tool

PR is an always-on industry that loves fast, short-form communications tools. WhatsApp is one practical way for PR professionals to quickly speak to groups and individuals. Rick Guttridge, co-founder and managing director of PR agency Smoking Gun, says: “With over 55 billion messages sent via WhatsApp everyday, there is no denying that this is a communications channel to be reckoned with.”

Below Guttridge joins other PR leaders to discuss how WhatsApp is used in PR and offer tips for making more of this platform, both for agency and client work.

WhatsApp Business

Guttridge says: “Brands should be using this platform as a direct marketing tool, and this is where WhatsApp Business comes into play. Agencies looking to ramp up their new business wins should consider using WhatsApp as a creative way to get in front of prospects. The same features apply including voice notes, images and video – my top tip would be to think about more creative ways to show off your best work.”

Group talk

WhatsApp is probably best known for its ability to create conversations. Stephanie Bennett, UK managing director of communications agency Battenhall, discusses talking to groups: “In groups we can reach all key stakeholders quickly, and see if they are online or have read our messages instantly. In turn, they can respond in real time, and the conversational nature of the tool can be a real boon when time is of the essence.”

Guttridge adds: “WhatsApp is a fantastic tool for internal comms; my team use it effectively to communicate both inside and outside of working hours, whilst also using it to contact clients. We live in a fast-paced, ever-changing society, and things don’t stand still – clients included. Often, we’ll need quick sign off on a newsjacking opportunity, or the client is at an event – WhatsApp can often be the quickest and most effective form of communication.”


Broadcast lists are saved lists of message recipients that you can repeatedly send broadcast messages to without having to select them each time. Stephanie Bennett explains why they are so useful: “Broadcasts enable us to share information en masse, directly to our contacts or subscribers. The primary benefit is that broadcast subscribers are highly engaged (they have to opt-in), and open rates on WhatsApp far exceed email newsletter for example, where good email open rates are on average 40% versus 98% on text and WhatsApp.”

Jessica Pardoe, PR and digital media executive at agency The Source PR adds: “Using broadcasts (much like the old BBM broadcasts which were once so popular), brands can send messages straight to the phones of anyone on their database. It’s like email marketing, but improved. I can see WhatsApp marketing really being utilised heavily in the future. We spend so much time on our mobile phones, it makes sense to try and reach your consumers this way. There’s already a few brands that do this well already, and it won’t be long before others follow suit.”

However, Tim Gibbon, founder of communications consultancy Elemental, warns: “Broadcast to all approaches may not sit well with the collective and the individuals the brand is trying to reach because WhatsApp is about community. Quality over quantity and conversations which can be more immersive should be paramount. Consumers and customers have been savvy for too long to know they're suddenly part of a movement that is all about the masses and isn’t about ‘their’ collective and about ‘them’.

“With the changes to broadcast messages and groups, things are changing with the world of messaging and PRs need to be mindful how changes will have an impact upon the community they build and interact with.”

The future

Dan Simpson, digital specialist at PR agency Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, discusses the present craze for WhatsApp and its future potential: “WhatsApp’s exponential uptake (especially outside of North American markets) has led to a new wave of ‘dark social’ communication which marketers have struggled not only to track, but also to break into. We have seen successful uses of WhatsApp for PR and marketing over the last couple of years which brands should consider, including Broadcast and hotline solutions for local communities (by Adidas in its “100% Unfair Predator” campaign). What we’ll see more of over the next few years is hyper-personalised message and call experiences, which brands can use to build loyalty and influence wider social circles. Monitoring will also improve in the future, as the new “Send in WhatsApp” button in the share menu on Facebook, part of the outcome of the “messenger merge” announced at the start of 2019, will bridge the gap between public and dark social.”

Four top tips

Elemental’s Tim Gibbon says that balance is essential when using WhatsApp: “Audiences want to be part of something and receive exclusive content. PROs need to resist the temptation to reach a broader audience (to go viral – and viral everywhere), as it is a bad idea to spread the communication too thin.”

Gibbon offers these four pieces of advice:

  1. Personalisation is huge. Be personable and focus on ‘it’s all about you and your collective’ communications.
  2. Understand the power of cross-platform promotion, the pros and cons. Appreciate WhatsApp for many brands won’t be about being everywhere to everyone all of the time. Focus upon community.
  3. Consider the environments, methods and platforms to build the community. Do not use a one-fits-all approach – audience, brand and content should define the tactics.
  4. WhatsApp functionality is evolving, build contingencies for if things change. Facebook’s ambition is to merge all of its messaging applications, so note what impact that can have for the audience on WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Instagram.

WhatsApp might not mean the death of emails, but it is a move away from them. As Battenhall’s Stephanie Bennett concludes: “Whether you’re managing your day-to-day activity, tackling a crisis, or keeping your audience updated with news, moving away from our distracting inboxes and using a private messaging app gives us the agility we need in this digital age”.


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