Technology Salon

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6 Reasons Why WhatsApp is a Game Changer for International Development

whatsapp strategy

Quickly messaging people via computing technology is not a new activity. Internet Relay Chat (IRC) started in 1988, and we’ve gone through messaging service peaks with AOL, Yahoo, Blackberry, and SMS. Now there is a new wave of messaging apps and it’s Facebook Messenger, Viber, Telegram, Signal and WhatsApp’s turn.

As one participant said at the WhatsApp Technology Salon, chatty people are going to chat.

However, WhatsApp has six key differentiators, especially vs. SMS text messages that sets it apart from SMS and most other instant messaging tools, and make it a revolution in the way we communicate with constituents.

1. Rich Communications

In our love of SMS, development practitioners have learned to count every character and celebrate when they can fit their message into a text. With WhatsApp, that constraint disappears. In its place, we can send voluminous text messages, and enrich our messages with emoji, audio files, location data, and more.

This message richness means that communicating via WhatsApp requires a whole different approach than our SMS past – for example, we need to speak fluent emoji and can ask constituents to respond in their own voice – literally.

2. Trusted Platform

WhatsApp is primarily a person-to-person communication tool, with anecdotal data pointing to family connections as the mainstay of the service. Without brands advertising on it (so far) a message on WhatsApp feels more trusted and valid than SMS text, especially as SMS is being abused by spammers – including many of us.

In addition, the much-touted end-to-end encryption means that neither WhatsApp or governments can read message content. However, WhatsApp does have security concerns. Anyone with access to the phone can access WhatsApp since there is no login requirement.

3. Almost Free to Use

Unlike SMS, which has relatively high per-message costs, WhatsApp is very light on data usage, which is usually priced much lower than SMS on a per byte basis. WhatsApp also allows phone calls (international and local) at low data usage rates, which are a fraction of international actual phone call costs.

In fact, with low cost data bundles, such as $1 per month for unlimited WhatsApp usage in South Africa, it’s practically free. Mobile Network Operators are actively promoting these bundles as a way to gain and maintain subscribers, which is speeding WhatsApp adoption.

4. Global Portability

A single WhatsApp phone number can be used to connect people globally. This number portability means we can escape the pain of per-operator, per-country communications setup for projects, and we can run a country-specific or even a global program from anywhere – Washington, DC or Timbuktu, Mali.

The globality of a WhatsApp number came into sharp focus recently when Mercy Corps used WhatsApp numbers to uniquely identify, track, and communicate with Syrian (and other) refugees crossing from Southern to Northern Europe. They had no other unique ID that was common across the majority of refugees.

5. Immense Popularity

20% of the world’s population now uses WhatsApp on a monthly basis. In multiple countries, WhatsApp is gender neutral, one of the few technologies to achieve this feat. And in places like Zimbabwe, where its half of all internet traffic, its becoming the Internet itself.

The days of assuming that only SMS or USSD can reach everyone are quickly drawing to an end. Yes, there are still late adopters and non-adopters of WhatsApp, as there are with any technology, yet we can start to assume that anyone with a mobile phone is on WhatsApp – or a similar messaging service.

6. High Potential Sustainability

All these aspects of WhatsApp mean that it could be one of few tools that improves project sustainability. Its low price point means that the cash cost for a community to live on after a project ends is practically zero. Since the infrastructure is provided by Facebook, we don’t need to worry about maintaining the system (so far). And its popularity means that people are adopting the tool without our assistance.

Actually, we may need to catch up, just to stay relevant. Constituents are already forming their own WhatsApp peer-to-peer coaching, communities of practice, and support networks. We need to move fast in our program areas or we’ll face entrenched incumbents who might be hostile to our message or even involvement.

How to Use WhatsApp in Programs?

While WhatsApp itself is a new tool for international development practitioners, messaging systems are not. We already have mature community of practice worst practices and we know how to run peer-to-peer mentoring models online. We can apply them on WhatsApp today.

We do need to adjust to this new medium, and we could be faced with a serious success challenge with WhatsApp. When we use SMS, we don’t expect too many replies, as each reply will cost our constituents money. However, with WhatsApp messages essentially free, and the more personal, informal aspect of the medium, we could be overwhelmed by replies.

For example, when’s MomConnect pilot on WhatsApp had garnered just over a1% adoption rate to the WhatsApp version of MomConnect, WhatsApp users produced over 50% of the traffic to the program, overwhelming’s response system for their typical SMS campaigns.

This a good problem to have, of course, as WhatsApp users are 6.7 times more likely to engage with MomConnect content than SMS subscribers and once engaging with, they are 3 times more likely to stay engaged, suggesting they are more likely to follow MomConnect guidance than SMS subscribers.

So if you want a cheap, engaging platform that is more likely to live on after your program, you should have a WhatsApp business strategy for your programs today.

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