WhatsApp Success Relies on a Specific Niche

As of the date of this post, WhatsApp serves about 600+ million users worldwide and it is still the most popular messaging App. It was acquired by Facebook about 10 months ago and the clamor of the $19 Billion acquisition price still resonates throughout the web, focusing the attention of analysts trying to reverse engineer the secret recipe which led to the highest transaction ever for a company backed by a Venture Capitalist (in this case Sequoia).

Analysts and bloggers associate WhatsApp success with features, excellent user experience, quality of service, market preemption and, in general, numbers. Undoubtedly, those are all factors that dramatically enabled and contributed to the exponential growth, however, deeper underlying reasons should be found in terms of customer need satisfaction and viral strategy implemented by the company.

Being an emigrant with tons of friends and family members living on the other side of the world, I have incredibly benefited from WhatsApp which, de facto, allowed me to quickly exchange unlimited multimedia messages, bypassing expensive telephone operators. Although there is a clear cost advantage here, is it enough to support the explosive growth of the App? I had plenty of available alternatives such as Skype, Viber and Hangouts: why did I choose WhatsApp? What did WhatsApp do differently?

Here is my theory.

The history taught us that the most impactful innovations originated from the adoption by a specific niche that successful companies served better than any of their competitors. Reflecting on this concept, I understood I am part of that niche a “generalist” app like WhatsApp serves excellently: I like to call it the “non-politically correct humorists”, for convenience NPCH.

Funny Chimp in the Net

More or less unconsciously, what really makes me recommend WhatsApp to friends is the availability of cool content, considered borderline but extremely appealing to NPCHs. I am referring to pictures and videos, typically banned by traditional Social Media, which allow NPCHs to appear “cool” with their circle of trusted genuine friends. Here is where WhatsApp first mover advantage comes into play; Social Media are very good for keeping weak ties alive with a low/moderate effort, whereas WhatsApp, after introducing multimedia capabilities and groups, became the n.1 medium to nurture stronger ties, allowing people to share funny unfair mean videos and pictures with friends who are well known to appreciate them. This paradigm finds a scientific reason in the social dynamic according to which somebody finds satisfaction by gaining social recognition for being the first individual to share a certain secret/cool/original information or content. In the case of WhatsApp, secrecy and partial anonymity (users cannot track the content source) are insured by the platform and the rush for sharing is fostered by the ephemeral opportunity to be the first to push a particular borderline content to the circle/group of good friends. This mechanism is at the base of any viral content, also on traditional web-based Social Media.

Social Media are very good for keeping weak ties alive with a low/moderate effort, whereas WhatsApp, after introducing multimedia capabilities and groups, became the n.1 medium to nurture stronger ties

The key success factor of WhatsApp consists of fully supporting an uncensored communication among trusted friends, as it happens in real life, allowing traditionally banned content to spread among groups virally. This approach very much maps the real social interactions whereby people do not feel the need for filtering what they say to their best friends. Finally, WhatsApp users have the opportunity to use one single channel to chat and freely share with their close friends without censorship. It is very likely that individuals are part of more than one closed group, and this triggers the spread of the entertaining mean content among groups, enabling word of mouth dynamics, which quickly led to the reach of a critical mass.

Where does WhatsApp viral content come from?

I would not be surprised if the company planned to introduce certain kind of untraceable content (and possibly still does it) to foster network effect and increase the user base.

Let us know what YOU think!