Messaging apps like WhatsApp and Snapchat are at the perfect crossroads of mobile and social. These apps are simple and ubiquitous with some subscriber bases already in the hundreds of millions of users.
Audiences of that scale are hard to come by, even for the world's largest mobile phone network operators. Only China Mobile (with its nearly 800 million subscribers) can beat WhatsApp's 500 million monthly active users and Line's 420 million registered users. Half of the top 10 messaging apps have more than 300 million users.
A new report from Forrester suggests that while the WeChats and Lines of the world are forcing the big five global digital platforms — Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft — to evolve, the marketing opportunities will not reach a massive scale on these apps until at least 2016.
"Despite growing opportunities, the majority of marketers' mobile and social strategies are not mature enough to demonstrate a clear return on investment. Messaging apps, at the crossroads of mobile and social, only further complicate this challenge," Forrester analyst Thomas Husson writes in the report "Messaging Apps: Mobile Becomes the New Face of Social."
Until recently these apps were almost exclusively utilitarian, serving their purpose as a frictionless mode of free communication. Finding room for brands to fit into these one-to-one or one-to-few channels is still a relatively new idea.
When Social and Mobile Meet
Meanwhile, some of these apps are already transitioning into platforms by integrating more services, content and mechanisms for commerce. "These messaging apps are the new face of social in a mobile context. They've already reached large global audiences and have the potential to become widely used and innovative media portals that integrate games, location-based services, commerce, or payments into one single platform," Husson writes in the report.
"Messaging apps have the potential either to become digital platforms or to significantly enhance the power of current platforms because they so clearly deliver the three things that determine the digital platform power: frequent interactions, emotional connection and convenience," Husson adds.
China-based WeChat gets special marks from Forrester for being the "most advanced" of these messaging app that are integrating services into 21st-century portal. Third parties can connect with WeChat users through content, apps and services they build for the platform. Chinese consumers are already using WeChat to view entertainment and use location-based services or order a taxi, purchase airline tickets and more.
Whereas social media platforms are typically public broadcast mechanisms for one-to-many communications, these messaging apps are redefining social media in a mobile context. They embody some key evolutions in social media and mobility with unparalleled access to users' address books, photo libraries and an icon on their home screen.
Sign up for CIO Asia eNewsletters.