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Could WhatsApp Ads Change Our Daily Messaging Habits? Some say the ads would diminish user privacy, but WhatsApp already collects user data.

By Yoav Vilner Edited by Frances Dodds

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Chesnot | Getty Images

More than 41 million messages are sent every minute via smartphones globally. And with the increased need for communication in quarantine, that number is surely rising as we speak.

The Apple iMessage has come to dominate North America, with millions of blue bubbles sent back and forth every minute. On the other side of the globe, countries like China have apps like WeChat.

WhatsApp, though, is by far the world's largest messaging app, totaling 300 million daily users worldwide. WhatsApp added around 1.5 million people to its sphere after being acquired by Facebook in 2014 for $22 billion.

So what's a messaging app to do with a user base that just surpassed a 2-billion-user threshold? Advertising, of course.

Facebook made headlines last year for floating the idea of introducing ads to WhatsApp, and then backed off to some extent. But in its quest to monetize the messaging giant, the company still has plans to integrate ads into WhatsApp's status feature.

Dialogues over the prospect has included the usual suspects: Privacy activists who detest the idea of adding ads, and targeted-ad fans who prefer personalized ads to sifting through advertising content on their own. There are also some who simply believe that successful apps, which serve users for free, have the right to choose their ideal business model in order to thrive.

Related: Why You Should Be Buying Facebook Ads Now

Silicon Valley is thinking hard about user privacy

If WhatsApp was ever to incorporate ads on a large scale, the app would be opening its doors to third parties to whom it would be selling ad space, potentially lessening the data privacy WhatsApp users enjoy today.

Those who genuinely value data privacy and fear the implications of opening the messaging giant to ads might jump ship, instead turning to alternative messaging apps like Viber, which prides itself on its commitment to data privacy and security, and Wire, designed by Skype co-founder Janus Friis to be ultra-secure.

WhatsApp Co-Founders Jason Koum and Brian Acton seem to fall on the side of privacy advocates. They have reportedly expressed concern that a commercial messaging feature would force WhatsApp to weaken its end-to-end encryption. And their concerns don't fall on deaf ears at Facebook's headquarters.

Back in early 2019, Mark Zuckerberg floated a plan to shift Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram into one unified encrypted system, meaning only those who send and receive messages would be able to view them.

The idea was that the push for privacy online would leverage private messaging as the future of social networking, and Facebook rightly sought to get ahead of the trend. The challenge Facebook faces in its march toward a privacy-friendly, unified encrypted messaging system is that about 98 percent of the company's revenue comes from advertising, and it's not easy to advertise on such a platform while maintaining a commitment to privacy.

Related: WhatsApp Pay To Fully Launch In India Soon: Mark Zuckerberg

WhatsApp already collects our metadata

Some industry experts argue, though, that since WhatsApp already collects metadata today, introducing targeted advertising based on that information wouldn't be such a huge leap.

"I do not think that we will have a major difference in privacy on WhatsApp since it already collects data," says Omri Argaman, CMO of marketing technology firm Zoomd. "WhatsApp already does cross-data sharing with Facebook. Someone who sends a WhatsApp message to a new contact, for example, will receive a friend recommendation on Facebook within less than 30 minutes. At the end of the day, the data is already collected in the first place such as with many other popular platforms. Ads might be an issue for usability, but for privacy? Not at all."

Ads probably won't be WhatsApp's demise

Those who would choose to stay aboard a WhatsApp ship heading to the land of advertisements (let's be real, probably most everyone) value the continuity, familiarity, and efficiency of WhatsApp.

Just as few Facebook users left the platform when it introduced ads back in 2007, targeted ads likely wouldn't be WhatsApp's downfall. This is good news for advertisers and publishers wanting to broadcast their ads across the screen, as well as users who enjoy the efficiency targeted ads offer.

We will see whether Facebook incorporates ads to WhatsApp's status feature, and whether that opens the door to additional targeted ads in the future. Only time will tell, but (hint, hint) ads tend to prevail in these situations.

Related: The Business Case Of WhatsApp

Yoav Vilner

Entrepreneur, thought leader and startup mentor

Yoav Vilner has founded several companies, and is currently CEO at Walnut. He is also a startup mentor in accelerators associated with Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and the U.N.

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