WhatsApp’s slow-paced innovation is leading it to dominance in the world’s biggest markets

Quartz africa
Quartz africa

WhatsApp has always been pretty basic. Its simple interface and ‘lite’ weight have helped ensure the messaging app’s ascendancy in emerging markets across Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, where internet access has either been too expensive or too slow to handle some of the heavier social media options. But the habits of those markets are also informing WhatsApp’s strategy, which looks increasingly different than Facebook’s.

Facebook bought WhatsApp in 2014 for $19 billion, and last week said the app has more than 1.5 billion monthly active users, who send more than 60 billion messages every day. WhatsApp also has the most popular “Stories” product in the world—yes, more popular than Stories via Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat.

That may be because WhatsApp, and its group chat feature in particular, have taken on a life of their own. There are entire sub-cultures, and endless debates about etiquette, with frustrations emerging over everything from old school mates to extended family group chats.

But while its popularity grows—WhatsApp is the social media platform of choice across all of Africa—the company has long been reticent with information about its own developments. Most of its innovation has been un-flashy, almost boring. It may have the resources, but it seems WhatsApp is keen not to get too far ahead of the emerging markets in which it operates.

That seems to be the right strategy. Sure, there might be more value in more advanced economies today, but there are lot more people in emerging markets, particularly Africa and South Asia. In fact, WhatsApp has become so successful at reaching millions of people that many small businesses are hacking their way to integrating the platform into customer-service delivery. WhatsApp last month said that 80% of small businesses in India and Brazil were already using it. The company made that revelation as it rolled out a standalone WhatsApp Business app on Google’s Android platform.

There’s no question that Facebook’s DNA is in advertising. But WhatsApp might go a different way—if only because digital advertising is a less lucrative prospect in emerging markets. With so many active users, local businesses will be keen to move beyond customer service to more advanced services such as payments and remittances within the app, and much more. It’ll happen slowly, but it’ll happen.

Sign up for the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief — the most important and interesting news from across the continent, in your inbox.

home our picks popular latest obsessions search