Private messaging apps are on the rise and while this may be worrying mobile operators, brand marketers are seeing this as an opportunity to connect.

Image by Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr

One of the first forms of “private” communications. Image by Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr

In 2012 private messaging apps cost mobile operators an estimated $23 billion, reports Parmy Olson at the Guardian, and they are beginning to threaten social networking sites. A study by ad measurement firm, Flurry, reported that private messaging app use grew worldwide by 103 percent in 2014.

The apps provide a low-cost means of messaging, but as Cathy Boyle from eMarketer observed, it is features such as gaming, in-app purchases and mobile payments that are making apps like Snapchat, WhatsApp and Line (Japan) money.

Brands are now treating private messaging apps as an extension of social media that can be used to captivate younger audiences in a more personal way.

Here are a few reasons why brands are flirting with private messaging apps.

They are popular

Private messaging apps are no longer a novelty – they’re the standard tools that people around the world use to message their friends and family.

Mobile Marketing Magazine reports that WhatsApp has more than 300 monthly worldwide users. Tech Crunch estimates Snapchat to have more than 200 million users (most between the ages of 18 and 24). Japanese app Line has 200 million users, with a 71 percent user rate on iPhones and according to Mobile Marketing Magazine, offers gaming and a social network.

Just a few private messaging apps: Whisper, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Line, WeChat and KakaoTalk (from left to right).

These apps appeal to those looking to lower their SMS costs, but also to younger audiences searching for an interactive and private experience beyond social media.

As Cathy Boyle from eMarketer explains, “U.S. mobile messaging users are drawn to chat apps less for the cost-saving benefits they offer (vs. SMS/MMS) and more for the immediate, private and fun nature of the messaging environment.”

They can cut through the noise

While social networks remain essential content distribution tools, they are also becoming increasingly crowded and noisy. It doesn’t help that Facebook’s new algorithm is lowering the reach of certain posts and updates.

Marketers can determine which private messaging app is most popular in a specific country and connect directly with users.

Take Toyota Spain, which developed a flirting competition close to Valentine’s Day to win the new Toyota Aygo. Individuals were invited to send a private message to Toyota with their best cheesy one-liners, pictures and videos.

Image by Toyota Spain via Interactiva Digital

WhatsApp users were invited to message a number with their best one-liners for a chance to win a car. Image by Toyota Spain via Interactiva Digital

In this case, Toyota mirrored how the private messaging app was being used (to send photos, videos, chat and even flirt). Most importantly, the campaign used WhatsApp, which according to Mobile Marketing Magazine is on 99 percent of iPhones among messaging app users in Spain.

The campaign proved successful, with more than 1,100 “flirts” received in the first five days.

They can earn media

All sorts of brands are using private messaging apps to release announcements and offer sneak peeks of upcoming content – so much so that we might consider the form of communication as the press releases for the mobile age.

Pop stars are using private messaging apps to spark conversation and surprise the media. Madonna, for example, recently launched her latest music video through Snapchat’s new discovery feature.

With this exclusive release, she managed to reach a younger audience while pushing beyond the traditional YouTube video premiere. The debut caught many by surprise and consequently created plenty of earned media for the singer (and Snapchat).

They can encourage brand loyalty

It is becoming increasingly common for people to add brands to their private messaging contacts to receive exclusive content.

Image via Twitter

A tweet sent out to fans looking to catch a sneak peek of the new season of Girls

Last November, the popular HBO show Girls generated buzz when the show shared a sneak peek of the upcoming season through Snapchat. Only fans that added the show as a contact could access the content.

Uri Minkoff, the CEO of fashion retailer Rebecca Minkoff, shared some insight on how these apps can be used to connect with loyal fans:

“Giving access to something that’s fleeting is a great way to engage our community and energize a microgroup of ardent supporters,” he said.

By inviting people to add brands as “friends,” marketers can use private messaging apps as a loyalty rewards tool without invading privacy.

Not your average platform

With the recent launch of Snapchat discover, private messaging apps are just beginning to be used as a mass marketing tool. According to Re/code, this new feature allows publishers with their own channel to sell ads and receive 70 percent of the revenue, while revenue is split evenly when Snapchat sells ads.

Many private messaging apps have not caught up to Snapchat’s marketing capabilities. On some apps tasks as simple as setting up contact lists to publish mass messages can be time consuming and tedious.

Increasingly, news sites are using messaging apps to maximize their reach. Take the Huffington Post, which uses WhatsApp to produce instant alerts. Digiday reports that to send out updates, publishers must create a broadcast list, which has a maximum of only 256 contacts.

Brands must commit time and resources if they are to effectively infiltrate the private messaging app realm. This may be a hard sell since the results of these campaigns are very hard to measure and publishers cannot collect much data from these apps.

Still, brand marketers can use these apps to connect with younger audiences if they properly mirror the behaviour of the people using them. The growth of private messaging apps has resulted in an unexpectedly intimate relationship between brands and users. As marketers catch on to this unique opportunity, let’s hope that they don’t exploit this channel to the point of exhaustion.