Facebook’s Retail Push to Hit WhatsApp

Facebook’s online shopping push may have started with its own network, Instagram and Messenger, but now it’s spreading to the company’s popular app, WhatsApp.

On Thursday, the company revealed several changes to the messaging platform, including bringing in-app shopping and transactions to chats in the app, a new Facebook Hosting Services offering that can corral brands’ online assets and activity and new fees associated with WhatsApp for Business.

Shopping isn’t entirely new to WhatsApp. Brands that use the app for marketing or customer communications can share QR codes and product links to catalogues uploaded to Facebook or Instagram. From the looks of it, the difference is that such links or others won’t kick users out of the app. Stores will also be able to apply “buy” buttons that send customers to WhatsApp for checkout.

The apparent goal of the coming hosting service is to give businesses that use Facebook’s platforms a way to keep everything in one place, instead of paying separate hosting providers. In a sense, that seems to take aim at web hosting providers or even cloud services from rivals like Google and Amazon. But here, FHS looks like a play specifically targeted to small and medium-sized merchants, whereas Google Cloud and Amazon Web Services cater to all businesses, from small to large.

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“Providing this option will make it easier for small and medium-sized businesses to get started, sell products, keep their inventory up to date, and quickly respond to messages they receive — wherever their employees are,” WhatsApp wrote in its company blog.

As for the fees, that’s not likely to win over fans in the business community, considering WhatsApp Business has been operating as a mostly free platform, apart from charging for features like ticketing or purchase receipts. Now it will charge for more of its business services, though the company didn’t specify which ones or at which scale.

The changes haven’t launched quite yet, but will arrive “in the months to come,” according to the company.

The announcement rounds out a spate of retail updates that have unleashed Facebook Shop and Instagram Shop, as well as a new integration bringing Messenger’s chat tools to businesses on Instagram.   

Increasingly, Facebook has been turning its apps into a more cohesive online shopping destination with multiple points of entry, regardless of which of its platforms retailers initially sign on with. With regard to Messenger and now WhatsApp, the effort looks like a merging of conversational commerce and social commerce.

As the company brings its various networks more closely together, what sets WhatsApp apart is its end-to-end encryption for messaging. WhatsApp’s user base totals more than two billion people, so that’s a lot of data at stake. So there’s less chance that the contents of these WhatsApp chats will end up feeding Facebook or Instagram ads, at least for now.

The updates arrive amid Facebook’s broader efforts to appeal to small and medium-sized businesses, which include new Commerce Eligibility Requirements that allow more independent merchants to sell products on Instagram, Facebook’s #BuyBlack Friday campaign to spotlight small Black-owned businesses and free Paid Online Events, among other services, tools and resources.

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