It’s been nearly a decade since Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg shocked the tech world by announcing that his company would spend $19 billion on WhatsApp, the popular messaging app with a small business presence.
Since then, WhatsApp has remained somewhat of an anachronism. Usage continued to grow, with over 2 billion people using the app to chat with friends and family, over 450 million at the time of purchase. But it is still not a big moneymaker.
Unlike Instagram, which Facebook bought in 2012 for a much cooler sum of around $1 billion, WhatsApp does not serve ads, which is Zuckerberg’s core business. Nor does WhatsApp relate to his company’s excessive move into the metaverse or his efforts to catch up to TikTok with its short video product Reels.
But the company, now known as Meta, has no intention of leaving WhatsApp. Rather, Zuckerberg regularly touts the asset’s value and its potential for expansion, bragging on Meta’s latest earnings call about the 200 million people who use WhatsApp Business, an app that helps businesses communicate with customers. He expressed in June 2022 that WhatsApp represents the “next chapter” of Meta.
WhatsApp needs more large companies around the world to trust the service as a primary way to talk to customers so that it can build a huge user base into a product that helps generate significant profits. Companies pay between half a cent and 15 cents for each conversation, depending on the type of conversation and the country of exchange.
“It’s been clear for several years that people are trying to contact businesses through WhatsApp,” Alice Newton-Rex, the unit’s product manager, said. “If you go to India or Brazil and look around, you’ll see WhatsApp numbers all over the windows of rehearsal rooms. This is how companies want to treat their customers.”
For example, consumers in India use WhatsApp to order Uber rides and get movie recommendations for their Netflix accounts.
Newton-Rex joined WhatsApp four years ago, leaving a high-profile role at London-based financial firm WorldRemit for a new gig. WhatsApp had only 15 product managers, and that number has since grown to 90.
The product team is now tasked with creating features that can open up WhatsApp’s business and help WhatsApp fulfill the potential that Zuckerberg has long seen in the app.
Newton-Rex said Zuckerberg has always been “a big part of the team,” adding that he speaks regularly with Will Cathcart, the current head of WhatsApp.
“He’s a big part of our strategy,” she said of Zuckerberg’s support for WhatsApp and its agenda.
The popularity of WhatsApp worldwide is undeniable. In countries like Brazil, India, and Indonesia, people use it to chat with family and friends and keep up to date. It is a particular attraction in countries that have historically lacked solid telecommunications infrastructure, as WhatsApp has enabled people in those regions to communicate using an affordable smartphone.
“In 2009, texting was extremely expensive, and if you wanted to make a phone call, or especially an international phone call, it could set you back hundreds of dollars,” Newton-Rex said. “WhatsApp changed everything.”
Newton-Rex recalled a time when a member of the program’s research team compared WhatsApp to oxygen.
“I think it’s everywhere, and it’s effortless to use. Maybe you don’t think too deeply about using it, but if someone took it away, you’d be in real trouble,” she said.