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On Whatsapp, Its Telco Relationships In India & Other IMs


Lets face it: it’s difficult to be a paid app in India – you’re unlikely to ever achieve mass scale without being free, and even if yours is a paid app, you’re unlikely to have a substantive business unless you’re cheating consumers through automated subscriptions or billing without consent. Whatsapp, probably the largest mobile Internet based messaging app, which had adopted a freemium model and appears to have achieved massive scale in India with its free offering, was never really going to go paid. Instead, it signed a telco partnership deal with Reliance Communications to offer free access (alongwith free Facebook access, SMS at Rs 0.05 each, group SMS at Rs 3 each) for Rs 16/month.

What will make people switch from Whatsapp

The Indian market has a large number of competitors for Whatsapp  - Bharti Softbank’s HikeImsy, Tencent’s WeChat, Micromax’s Hookup, among several gazillion others – and the Indian consumer would probably switch to one of the free alternatives in two circumstances: a significant outage (which, if you’re a Whatsapp competitor, you should be prepared to make the most of), or a situation where customers have to pay to use.

What Whatsapp is probably trying to do

Whatsapp has deftly addressed the latter issue with a tie-up with its first telco deal in India: it is seeking to both consolidate its position as the leading mobile Internet messaging service in India, and also looking to grow its base with marketing support from Reliance Communications (it’s being marketing on the RCOM homepage for now).

Whatsapp and Telco Relationships in India

Whatsapp will, in most likelihood, try and replicate the deal with other telcos, though it might be tricky: Airtel, the largest telco in India, will have a natural inclination towards Hike, which has been built by a Bharti Enterprises group company BSB; in any case, Airtel is the slowest to move when it comes to partnering for applications and services. My sense is that it tends to hold out for most leverage in a deal, instead of being inclusive and try and grow a user base, unless it can leverage the partnership for marketing and promotion, like it did in case of free Twitter access; especially now that Whatsapp has partnered with Reliance Communications, and Airtel, Idea or Tata Docomo won’t get “exclusivity”, the company is probably better off leaning towards Vodafone India, which has been rather progressive in recent times, trying to help build a mobile Internet ecosystem with better revenue shares for application companies.

There is, of course, the concern SMS is far more lucrative for telecom operators than data, and that is revenue that telcos wouldn’t want to give up. However, the more pragmatic of telcos will agree that it is only a matter of time before instant messaging over data becomes the dominant form of messaging, and if it won’t be one of the apps mentioned earlier, it will be Google Talk or BBM.

What other Mobile Instant Messengers will need to do

Most other IMs should take the Whatsapp example, and try and strike similar telco deals for growing and consolidating their user base. While its inconvenient to use more than one IM, it’s not unusual. This isn’t Whatsapp’s market alone, and there’s still a substantial base out there for the taking. The network effect will favor Whatsapp, which is probably why marketing will become key, both mobile advertising and below the line promotions: targeting college festivals is a good idea in order to build usage from the ground up.

The key question is – how will Instant Messengers make money if the consumer-paid model doesn’t work. Telecom operator partnerships – correct me if I’m wrong – appear to be (at best) a mutual back-scratching exercise. We’d be surprised if Whatsapp is getting any share of that Rs 16 per month, and even if it is, initially, it’s unlikely that that will remain. One way of monetization might perhaps be by pushing content like Imsy does (and Affle tried with SMS 2.0), but that’s a difficult model to scale.

Any ideas?


  • http://www.facebook.com/paritosh.sharma Paritosh Sharma

    Brilliant thoughts Nikhil. Some key pointers raised. Messaging is fast getting crowded, though a large space! Operator relationships are a key growth driver, though relationships not only w.r.t to coming up with low cost packs but more deeper value oriented partnerships. The value in this case should really be for the end user.

    The Indian user is fast evolving and there are key trends which any such app which is enabling ‘communication’, must ‘listen’ to!

    Revenue is one piece, which requires innovation, thinking beyond the what’s worked outside, will work here as well, lets replicate!

    *Disclaimer:
    I represent Growth for @hikeapp which has been mentioned in this article. We are happy to listen to comments/ feedback/ reviews/ love and build better, as we go global soon!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sheth-Raxit/692059765 Sheth Raxit

    1. Enterprise messaging solutions
    2. Ads

  • http://www.deepakgupta.org/ Deepak Gupta

    The competition in the IM app space is quite high today. But apart from competing with each other, these IM apps also have other competitors in big players like Facebook and Google as well.

    Facebook already has a standalone Messenger app which provides similar features (group chat, sharing media etc) as other IM apps. It works across multiple devices – PCs, tablets, phones – as well. On top of it Facebook is also signing deals with Indian carries to not only provide free access but also incentives like free talk time to join the network.

    Google can also come up with similar deals to promote their G+ social network. They may also integrate their different messaging options of gtalk, G+ messenger, Gvoice, Hangouts etc into a unified app which will again work across multiple devices.

    Another positive thing working in favor of big players is that they have the network effect in their favor. There aren’t many factors that can stop them from being the IM app of choice.

    In a price sensitive market like India, there would be very few users willing to pay an upfront prices for an app or a yearly subscription. People will rush towards a free option wherever they find one.

    If the most simplistic revenue model of user paying for a service doesn’t work, the next step would be introducing ads into the app. But then most users don’t like it. Apart from carrier deals of providing unlimited data packs for apps, another option could be provide more context based/user targeted/location based sponsored content, deals or premium features like cross-device support etc.

    • http://www.deepakgupta.org/ Deepak Gupta

      So facebook jumps more deeply into IM fray in developing markets (as of now). http://www.theverge.com/2012/12/4/3725498/facebook-messenger-account-requirement-sms-whatsapp-bbm