Today I’ll share their recipe for success and tell you how to make a messaging app to rival the market’s giants.:
- The secret behind WhatsApp success
- Chat app essentials
- Must-have features
- Standing out from the crowd
- Monetization strategies
It all started in 2009 when Jan Koum and Brian Acton quit their cushy jobs at Yahoo to develop their own chatting application. Nobody could’ve predicted that their messenger would soon become the fastest growing app ever.
As of 2018, WhatsApp has over 1.5 billion monthly active users, each sending on average 40 messages a day.
What’s even more impressive is that its creators managed to achieve this without spending a penny on promotion. So why is WhatsApp so popular?
- The app is the first of its kind.
The majority of messengers and VoIP services like Skype were desktop-oriented. WhatsApp was the pioneer that chose the mobile-first approach.
- It is an affordable alternative to SMS services.
Unlike Skype which aimed to cut the cost of international calls, WhatsApp targeted SMS (which were quite expensive at the time). The messenger became extremely popular by charging only $0,99 a year before becoming completely free in 2016.
- It is powered by word-of-mouth marketing.
Instead of advertising, WhatsApp creators relied on word of mouth: positive reviews and recommendations created an avalanche of new subscribers. Over 50% of users install a particular messenger to be closer to their friends who already use the app.
- It is multi-platform. Despite starting its life as an iPhone app, WhatsApp quickly conquered other platforms. It became available on Android, Windows Phone, Blackberry, Blackberry 10, Nokia Symbian s60, Nokia s40, PC and Mac. This helped WhatsApp to take the leading position in countries such as India, South Africa, and Malaysia, where iPhones are not so popular.
- A users-first approach.
At the time, most chat apps made money via ads. But instead of going for the easy money, WhatsApp creators opted for the better user experience. And people loved the app that didn’t spam them with annoying ads.
- Consistent improvements.
WhatsApp started out as a simple texting app. Now you can make audio and video calls, share images and GIFs, set up group chats and even post a self-destroying Status just like in Snapchat or Facebook Stories.
WhatsApp’s success is a combination of unique historical conditions, luck, and hard work. Nevertheless, it gives us a few hints on how to create a messaging app that would grab the attention of modern users.
The first lesson is to launch a Minimum Viable Product (MVP, an app with just the essential features) and develop the 2.0 version based on user feedback.
This will reduce the costs and help you get to market quicker.
Second, decide on which platforms to launch your messenger. Your chatting app can be:
- Native. Following in WhatsApp’s footsteps, you can build a chat app for iPhone/Android using native tech. Such apps run on a single platform, have the best performance and can access camera/mic as well as other hardware features.
- Hybrid. Such apps are platform-independent but often suffer from poor performance and subpar look. For these reasons, I won’t recommend building a hybrid chat application except as a quick prototype.
- Cross-platform native. Technologies like React Native allow us to build apps that offer native-like experience, look, and performance. For a fraction of cost, you can make your messenger work on multiple platforms. Building a chat app with React Native is totally feasible (just ask Discord), but its optimization might be tricky.
Next, think of UX/UI design beforehand.
The look and feel of your app is the very first thing that influences user satisfaction.
You’ll only have one chance at making your app memorable and pleasant to use.
WhatsApp had a crisp design and a somewhat minimalistic interface which allowed the users to get straight to what they wanted the most: texting like crazy.
So search for the designers with an impressive portfolio and minimalistic approach. Your options are hiring a freelancer, a design agency, or a software development company that has a designer on its staff. The last option is preferable since new requirements may arise on the development stage — well after the app’s design was created. Tweaking the look of your chatting application might require a lot of back and forth between the developers and designers. The whole process would be much faster (=cheaper) with all of them working under one roof.
In addition to the obvious functionality (texting), people find it important to call through the messenger app, send photos and be confident that it is secure. I believe the statistics give you a good reason to take care of these in your MVP.
In the western world, the app’s security has become the top feature that influences the choice of a messenger. The NSA scandals made lots of people suspicious of government agencies and hackers collecting their private information.
That’s why we see a surge of messengers like Snapchat, Telegram, Wire and Signal that put security and privacy above everything else.
WhatsApp uses an end-to-end encryption system from Open Whisper Systems. It scrambles all your messages and their recipients have the keys required to decipher their content. This makes it impossible for any third party including WhatsApp to read your messages.
Telegram offers two kinds of messages. Secret Chats are encrypted end-to-end like in WhatsApp (although Telegram was criticised for using a non-open source encryption protocol). The default Cloud Messages are encrypted and then stored on Telegram’s servers, theoretically allowing the company to access their content.
For extra security, chat apps periodically change their cryptographic keys (Wickr does this for each new conversation).
Now let’s proceed to other must-haves.
All you need to sign up for WhatsApp is to type your phone number and then verify it with an SMS code. This makes it extremely easy to start using the app.
But there are some drawbacks. You can’t, for example, use the same WhatsApp account on multiple devices. The same goes for launching two accounts on a 2-SIM phone.
That’s why some messengers like Wire provide users with an option to register via e-mail and no phone number for the extra privacy.
You have to think about your server architecture beforehand. Chat apps handle millions of requests every day. Such high-load systems require extra reliability and 100% uptime.
WhatsApp uses Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP) to exchange data between the users. The protocol is decentralized, secure, and flexible. It can be used to transfer messages both in one-on-one context and in group chats.
The company uses XMPP server called ejabberd. It is optimized for mobile needs, has little downtime, scalable, and friendly to high-load systems. Ejabberd has a great degree of customization and modularity. The server offers high security with SSL/TSL encryption.
To store pictures and other multimedia, the messenger uses Yaws server written in Erlang programming language. The server is created for high-load systems and web applications with dynamic content. It is well-known for its capability to seamlessly handle a large number of concurrent processes.
Integration of geolocation
Using geolocation services has gradually become an integral part of modern life: every 3rd adult American uses geolocation services at least once a week.
The main idea behind the app that we’ve developed recently (Juvo), is to help local communities organize meetups and exchange information. Users can ask questions, post advice, ask for assistance or broadcast a message to all the community members within a customizable radius.
All of the most popular instant messengers allow users to share their location together with status changes, so users expect to have this feature in every new messenger they upload.
WhatsApp acquired its first 250,000 users when Apple introduced push notifications. Recent studies suggest that they can and give you 3-10 times more retention and boost user engagement.
In most cases, push notifications serve as a direct communications link between the app’s creators and its users.
But you can go a step further. Besides alerting users of the incoming messages, you can use push notifications to let them know when their Favorites come online, when their messages are received and read, when a friend begins a response and many more. You can even combine notifications with geolocation for contextual messages.
Just don’t go overboard, as too many notifications could annoy your users.
Have you ever watched Mission: Impossible and thought: “I could use those fancy self-destroying messages”?
You can do this with Snapchat, Wire and a whole lot of other messengers without the nasty explosive side-effects. You can set a self-destruct timer which would delete the message after a single viewing or when the countdown reaches zero.
In addition to destroying the messages in a way that makes their recovery with special software impossible, chat apps like Wickr prevent you from taking screenshots (which nevertheless can be bypassed using an external camera).
Cloud services synchronization
Cloud synchronization keeps your files stored in different places up-to-date. When you make a change to a file on your phone, it is automatically applied to all other instances of the file (be it in the cloud or your tablet).
For messengers, this means that the chat histories and files sent by users are securely stored in the cloud, and can be accessed anytime from anywhere.
This is incredibly useful if you access your messenger account from multiple devices. It would also come in handy if you lose your phone, delete the app or make a hard reset.
Telegram, on the other hand, offers fully-fledged cloud sync (except for Secret Chats as those leave no traces on its servers). The company stores Cloud Chats on their servers in an encrypted form and the keys are stored locally on user devices.
Among the main challenges of cloud synchronization is the security and the speed of messages exchange (for more on this see this article).
With this function, you can create a group of selected contacts once and then repeatedly send messages to all of them. These texts appear to recipients as normal non-group messages.
The thing that sets broadcasting apart from the group messages is that their recipients have no way of identifying other people who received the broadcasted message.
Broadcasts are extremely popular among news agencies and bloggers. New users may be acquired if a public person or a magazine offers their fans to join their broadcast.
Broadcasts are also incredibly valuable for brands and marketers. After acquiring customers’ phone numbers, they can send promotional messages that will be treated as any other personal message.
All the mentioned features are well-known for users as they already exist in their favorite messengers.
So how do you make your offer unique?
As of Q1 2018, 2 million apps were available on Apple’s App Store and 3.8 million apps were available on Google Play. 23% of users will leave an app after the first use and never come back.
It’s clear that you need something to stand out from the crowd. Here is what we suggest:
- Pinpoint your business niche. Having a general-purpose messenger like WhatsApp can be rad but the competition is steep. It may be more beneficial to launch a more specialized app. There are plenty of success stories out there.
In 2015 Mateusz Mach, a 17-year old from Poland made Five, the first messenger made specifically for the deaf. It uses custom stickers and animations which look like sign language. The app’s success was a neat surprise that proves you can succeed with a bit of out the box thinking.
DocTalk is another specialized messenger. It connects doctors and their patients. After finding a physician, you can subscribe to him/her and ask health-related questions. You can get info on your prescription or a quick consultation without waiting in lines full of sneezing people.
Again, Juvo targets local associations and clubs of the Nordic region, providing them with custom features for communities.
- Develop an app for a local market where the competition is low. WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger boast well over a billion users each. But the geography of messaging apps popularity is far from being uniform.
A so-called “granddaddy” of instant messengers, WhatsApp, is relatively unknown in the USA while being incredibly popular in Europe and emerging markets. But it has a stiff competition in China and Japan dominated by WeChat and LINE respectively.
- Implement some killer features. Sometimes only one exclusive feature can lead you to success. That’s what happened to Snapchat with its option to share images or video clips that can only be viewed for a matter of seconds. Even WhatsApp has borrowed ideas from Snapchat with its Status.
Here are a couple more features you may add to your chatting application:
- Provide video streaming within your app and give cable operators and streaming services a run for their money.
- Think about vibrant customizable designs to make your app stand out. The ability to personalize the chat threads helps to give those conversations the emotional coloring they may otherwise lack.
- Create the perfect platform for chatbots. These AI-based programs act as a conversation partner for the messenger users. Most chatbots are designed for a specific function, such as customer support or weather reports. Their aim is to respond organically to users’ questions. WhatsApp is a little bit slow on this front, so you can use this as an advantage.
Now let’s find out how to make your messenger make you money.
WhatsApp’s single monetization avenue was a subscription fee. The app used to cost $0,99 per year with a one-year free trial. Subscription can bring substantial revenue if your user base is large enough.
Most messengers are free nowadays and subscription fees may prevent people from using your app. But how do free apps make money?
Advertising used to be a cornerstone of earning money online.
Even though people prefer their messengers without the invasive ads, Facebook started putting ads in its Messenger. Meanwhile, a Japanese chat app Line reports increasing revenue from ads.
LINE revenue Q2 2017
Even WhatsApp is warming up to the advertising after the departure of its creator Jan Koum. So paying for the ads-free experience might become the norm again.
Paid stickers are one of the main sources of revenue for many messengers. In 2016, Line has earned $270+ million on sticker-addicted users. These cute pictures and animations are usually sold in packs for a modest price. And there are free stickers to get users hooked. A win-win situation.
Branded stickers can also be used by companies to promote their products, such as upcoming movies.
Infinity War stickers; source: Facebook
In addition to stickers, messengers can sell customization options such as wallpapers, themes, filters, etc.
Some messengers have an option for brands to create paid official accounts to better connect with their clients. Facebook plans to use two of its chat apps to better connect businesses and consumers.
WhatsApp Business is a part of this strategy. It allows companies to set up profiles with useful info and answer to customer requests. All replies are free if sent within 24 hours.
After this, Whatsapp charges a fixed fee per late message.
If customers get quick replies, they’ll be more likely to use Whatsapp to contact businesses. The company could then start charging fees for all messages or reduce the free period.
And if companies overestimate their ability to respond in time, Whatsapp gets free money.
Video games have become a major source of revenue for several messengers like LINE.
These games can be played directly from the chat threads. The revenue comes from in-app purchases, such as game currency, experience, or items, i.e. everything that helps you to progress the game. Pure cosmetics can also be a source of in-game revenue.
Online payments. Chinese WeChat was one of the first messengers to allow people buy stuff using its app. It charges a 0.6% fee for each transaction (which is much lower than PayPal or Stripe).
WeChat’s average revenue per user (ARPU) is $7.
Telegram now allows you to pay for goods via its bot platform. The company is even planning to launch its own cryptocurrency and a blockchain platform called TON, turning the app into a fully-fledged payment system.
And then there are some unorthodox methods like selling messenger-themed merchandise. So again, thinking out of the box = more money.
LINE Friends merch
It is important to understand how each of these monetization techniques works and what ROI you can expect. And to get an idea about the chat app development costs, I’d recommend checking our article on determining the costs of developing a mobile app.
In many ways, real-time chat apps represent the future of communications.
Although the world is divided between a handful of messaging behemoths, there’s still some place left for the high-quality chat apps. Now that you know how to make a messaging app like WhatsApp, it’s time to apply that knowledge.
We take pleasure in challenging and innovating projects. So feel free to contact us if you’d like to create the next big thing in instant messaging or ask some questions.