How and Why WhatsApp Will Conquer America
Soon, we will all be green bubbles
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One of my most repeated (perhaps at times tiresome) takes of the last four years has been predicting the rise of WhatsApp in America. It started as an idle observation based on my own experience, but it has hardened into a prognostication, and an excuse to apply some theories about what causes products to succeed and fail.
In a way, it’s baffling that WhatsApp hasn’t taken off in America yet. How can the world’s leader in space, pharma and software innovation be behind every other region in terms of its communication preferences? How can one of the core products of one of America’s greatest technology companies be succeeding in every country it is allowed except its own? Will this ever change?
There’s no doubt: America has been allergic to WhatsApp. The question is whether, or why, this will start to change.
I think it will. And this post talks about how it might go down.
But first, let’s start with why WhatsApp has not worked in America so far.
WhatsApp’s US conundrum
It is the view of this (British, but sometimes US-living) writer that America is the most advanced country on earth. And it’s not particularly close.
But there remain a few pockets of US society that are pretty much medieval: 2-4 day ACH payments, cheques(!), paper tax returns, fibre penetration, public transport, the list goes on. These anomalies tend to be because of regulatory capture, monopolistic (lack of) competition or complexities because of US decentralisation and size.
It will pain some people to read this, but WhatsApp is a more advanced form of communication than iMessage. (If you don’t agree now, hopefully you will by the end of this article.) So why has it not worked in America? By my estimation, three main reasons:
(1) US iPhone share is high
US iPhone penetration is ~60%, by far the highest of any major country (Europe is ~40%, and far lower elsewhere). “iMessage works fine”, the argument goes, and there isn’t much need for a cross-platform messenger.
This is the reason I hear the most, and it’s absolutely correct. There’s no doubt iPhone penetration has played a major role in thwarting WhatsApp so far.
But, as I will explain later, it’s not sufficient to prevent WhatsApp’s rise.
(2) Messaging is an American status symbol
The US has a unique history with text messaging. At first, America was one of the only countries on earth that charged to receive an SMS. Shifting part of the cost burden onto the recipient totally changed the social dynamics of texting vs. other countries: sending an SMS was like ordering the porterhouse steak when splitting the bill with a vegetarian. It felt a bit rude.
This quirk of American telecommunications also drove the success of BlackBerry’s BBM. BBM relieved the social cost burden of sending an SMS, and its premium customer base elevated the user’s status above that of a “mere” SMS user.
With the launch of the iPhone, the status advantage began to move to iMessage. Apple merged iMessage and SMS inboxes, but gave iOS users different colours to speak to iOS users (blue) as opposed to other users (green). Users began to refer to their non-iPhone friends’ annoying “green bubbles”.
This set of conditions led to a deeply-ingrained status association with messaging platforms in America. iMessage is cool, and WhatsApp hasn’t been.
This, too, is changing.
(3) Multi-app friction and network effects
Ask any successful founder of a consumer app about consumer behaviour and they will tell you most humans are completely impotent.
If a user taps a button, scrolls, types something or literally does anything it’s a miracle.
Don’t underestimate the power of laziness.
— Hunter Isaacson (@hunterjisaacson)
Oct 26, 2023
The modal number of apps downloaded by a smartphone user in a month has long been zero. And even when an app is downloaded already, users need a compelling reason to actually use it.
The generally-accepted way for social apps to dislodge competitors is to start with a “killer app” and then branch out from there (Instagram: photo filters; Snapchat: disappearing messages, TikTok: vertical video).
So far, Americans haven’t seen a killer app for WhatsApp. Why is it needed when they can message perfectly well on iMessage?
WhatsApp’s turning point in America
To cut to the chase: WhatsApp’s killer app is group chats. That’s step one. It all starts there.
Step 1: group chats
Scheduling. Memes. Banter. Cyberbullying. Group chats are an important part of all our lives.
But these social phenomena result in product requirements: “likes”, read receipts, availability, and platform intercompatibility (our “green bubble problem” above).
But the most simple, important and underrated feature that a group chat should have is knowing who is in the group and sending the messages.
It sounds painfully obvious. Of course you should know who sends which message! But iMessage doesn’t have this, and WhatsApp does.
Below is a screenshot from an iMessage chain I am currently in.
Look closely and you will see that I have absolutely no idea who is saying what. Unless you have somebody’s number saved (which for most large threads you won’t), you have nothing to distinguish senders’ from each other except the long string of digits that happens to be their phone number. At best you just know which state they first bought a cell phone! iMessage doesn’t share names without numbers saved, presumably for user privacy reasons, which Apple needs to uphold as a non-optional operating system.
With WhatsApp, users share their names by default, even to users who don’t have their number. So you can see who sent every message, making larger group chats actually work. So the next time the bachelor party to Vegas gets booked where not everybody knows each other, WhatsApp is the logical choice. Even if everybody is on iOS.
These social features are what Sam Lessin was referring to with his WhatsApp-pilled tweet on the weekend:
WhatsApp is actually a lot cooler than I realized… it isn’t a messenger - it is actually a hidden encrypted full social network...
— sam lessin 🏴☠️ (@lessin)
Nov 4, 2023
In other words: iMessage is a messaging app. WhatsApp is a social network, with a messaging app its core offering.
This is how WhatsApp will start to get a foothold in America. I repeat: it’s not about the green bubbles. And it’s not about internationals.
Step 1 is already underway in America. Next is:
Step 2: one-to-one messaging
OK, so after a few group chats take off, you’ll (I’m assuming “you” are an American, currently WhatsApp-phobic reader) spending about 20% of your messaging time on WhatsApp to keep up with our group chats. Now what?
WhatsApp starts to spread into your 1:1 messages.
It happens for a few reasons. Maybe you like the encrypted messages, maybe it’s the fact that you can download the web client onto your work computer (Mac or PC), maybe it’s the fact that you start to get used to the messaging interface. Or maybe you like that you can see when your friend was last online (a good proxy for if they’ve read your message).
Gradually, your 20% of messaging on WhatsApp becomes 30%, then 40%, and rising.
iMessage starts to feel more bare. An increasing proportion of your iMessage / SMS inbox starts to be made up of spam, 2FA, and unwanted notifications from apps you joined years ago.
Slowly, WhatsApp becomes your primary method of communication, with groups and individuals.
Then the final step:
Step 3: living on WhatsApp
Once most messaging has transferred to WhatsApp in the US, it will start to take over more of daily life. Calls, work messages, notifications, even some (carefully managed) automated business chats.
By this point you have WhatsApp on your phone, work computer and personal computer. Your dopamine loops start to light up when you see the notification sticker on the WhatsApp app. Conversely, iMessage sits with hundreds of unread notifications with FLASH SALES, discount codes and “the greatest feature Apple has ever launched”. It is a barren wasteland.
The transition will be complete. Mark Zuckerberg’s coverage of our social life will be unquestionable. His domination will be complete.
What does the data say?
American WhatsApp traction is starting to take off.
Based on SensorTower (imprecise and unreliable, but in my experience directionally accurate), US WhatsApp usage is far behind every other western country, but growing.
US SensorTower WAUs
US Google Trends: WhatsApp
If historical growth extrapolates, it will take at least a decade for WhatsApp usage to reach non-US levels. But I think it will move faster than this, and that we are nearing an inflection point for WhatsApp, with more and more groups being started.
Meta are certainly hoping so, they have started pushing WhatsApp monetisation initiatives for the first time since their $19b acquisition almost a decade ago: click-to-message ads, enterprise customer service, and developing channels.
But the most important factor of all: it looks like Zuck has WhatsApp winning America in his sights. They are even advertising the platform out-of-home:
Saw this ad in NYC this week. Numbers agree - WhatsApp is finally gaining traction in the US.
WhatsApp US DAUs (from SensorTower)
Long way to go but there's a real chance it eventually expands beyond international friends and drug dealers. twitter.com/i/web/status/1…
— Sasha Kaletsky (@SashaKaletsky)
Jun 14, 2023
I, for one, will not be betting against Zuck. Will you?