The only thing more stunning than the price Facebook paid for WhatsApp — originally $19 billion, but about $22 billion in the end — is what Facebook has done with it since. It’s actually been great for users, with new features like video calling, voicemail, and end-to-end encryption getting added after the acquisition, but until now, Facebook hasn’t seemed too interested in directly monetizing the app. In fact, they did the opposite by eliminating the nominal $0.99 per year usage fee early last year. That’s all about to change, with a WhatsApp blog post teasing big changes.
Fortunately, the average user probably won’t have to pay up. Facebook’s strategy seems to mostly involve bots and businesses. The blog post discusses the challenges that businesses large and small face when using WhatsApp to communicate with users. The volume of messages can be hard to manage, and it’s also difficult to verify that a business’s account is legitimate. The post says WhatsApp will begin testing features to help businesses improve communication, which can be for anything from orders to customer support.
We’re guessing smarter chatbots that can take over some of that response workload will also figure heavily into the strategy. Facebook started talking about their broader chatbot strategy last year, but we haven’t seen it really take off just yet. The idea is that chatbots could be used to automate relatively straightforward tasks like ordering products or booking flight tickets and hotel reservations — Facebook could package that technology in with any service bundle they might sell to businesses.
In the end, it’s unlikely that it’ll cost us to interact with these bots. If the idea is that the new WhatsApp features make customer support more efficient and cheaper for businesses, that’ll probably be good enough for Facebook — especially considering that there’s probably no better way to drive people away from a messaging platform than to start charging users a fee! WhatsApp has over a billion users now, and Facebook probably wants to keep it that way.