By Nader Bitar

Managing Director, MMPWW


When Elon Musk tweets to his 42 million followers that they should abandon WhatsApp for a rival service called Signal, you have to wonder if he’s even more sleep deprived than usual, or maybe he’s on to something. This endorsement may seem like it’s come from nowhere, but really he’s just vocalizing what WhatsApp users are thinking – this new privacy update is concerning.

Or is it? As usual there’s a lot of misinformation out there and confusing jargon that essentially made it seem as though WhatsApp would shortly be sharing more information with its parent company Facebook inc. Cue panic. Signal downloads actually rocketed by 4200% in the week that Musk tweeted his support, racking up 7.5million downloads in the process. If that isn’t a clear ‘It’s not me, it’s you’ message to Zuckerberg and co. then I don’t know what is.

Since the outcry, WhatsApp has announced they will push back the date for this scheduled update to May to try and clarify what these new T&Cs will mean. The cynical side of me thinks that this move is purely to appease rather than change direction entirely. Who knows, maybe they expected this backlash, especially as anything to do with user privacy is such a divisive topic right now. However, I don’t think they expected users to so readily flock elsewhere so quickly.

It’s probably a wake up call for all of Facebook’s platforms – they aren’t invincible. TikTok has now overtaken Facebook in time spent per user per month, according to a new report from App Annie. I’m not saying this platform is without its flaws either, but users won’t put up with shady dealings when it comes to their privacy anymore.

My take is this – you can take my data, but… make my experience better. Be upfront about what you are using and allow me to say what’s off limits. As a user and someone in the industry, I can see both sides, the good and bad. Advertising is only successful when it is relevant and useful to the person they are trying to target, and if you can anticipate my needs without crossing a line, then I’m all for it.

User confusion only arises when they get half the story. The updates planned by WhatsApp specifically related to the feature that allowed users to interact with businesses on the platform. Last year Facebook announced that businesses on WhatsApp could store and manage their chats with customers, which could at a later date be used for marketing purposes, most likely across one of Facebook’s platforms.

Taken out of context, users thought this meant their private messages would be shared with Facebook, which isn’t the case. Messages are still encrypted and that’s not changing. A series of unfortunate events later and a snowball effect of bad PR and you have people wanting to jump ship. I’m not one of them. I like WhatsApp. I understand what the trade off is and I’m comfortable with that.

Here’s 3 reasons why I think data sharing is useful in the right circumstances and why the grass isn’t always greener on fledgling platforms…

  1. Personalization & Privacy Can Co-Exist: Last year Apple rolled out its App Tracking Transparency in iOS 14, forcing Facebook to ask your permission before tracking you across the web. Apple positioned this as a move to safeguard users privacy, Facebook took it as a blow to its personalized advertising approach. So, who’s right? Both to an extent. Users don’t want their experience interrupted online, but they also want the right to shield their activity online from potential advertisers. It’s a catch 22, but both privacy and personalization can and has to co-exist today. User expectations are incredibly high; they want to feel valued, heard and understood, and the only way to do that is to personalize. Marketers need to find the sweet spot and walk a fine line between being invasive vs being useful. Contextual could well be the key to this as the cookie finally, ever so slowly crumbles. It’s certainly a big one to watch in 2021.
  2. New Platforms Aren’t Necessarily Better: Indy platforms like Signal and Telegram offer an alternative to the mainstream options, and I’m all for that – the more choices we have, the better. However, smaller businesses don’t have the infrastructure in place to deal with a sudden influx of users, which is why they have experienced a disruption in services and power outages recently. That’s not to say they won’t learn quickly and upgrade to meet demand (and with it a new monetization stream) but users have become used to an undisrupted flow of connectivity. Ultimately, we’re hardwired to be impatient and online 24/7 and if a company doesn’t provide that they will quickly fall out of favour.
  3. Our Digital Footprint Is Evolving & So Too Must Social Media: Even before the coronavirus we were already in the middle of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, but in the past 12 months, digital change has accelerated at an unprecedented rate. We’re at home and online more than ever before, forcing social media to evolve along with us.  Facebook, for all its notoriety, isn’t static – it’s always updating the algorithm to create new features for users and targeting and tracking capabilities for marketers. It’s naive to think that we’re not all part of a larger data sharing ecosystem – it’s how Amazon knows when we’re out of razor blades and how Nike knows you have taken up running again. To me, that’s valuable and time-saving. Razors at my door in hours and recommendations for new trainers without me having to look. It’s all about balance.

Before I sign off… I’d like your input. Please let me know if you have any suggestions or topics you would like me to cover around programmatic and I’ll pick one for my next article. Thanks!