WhatsApp will today begin beta testing a new, cloud-based version of its WhatsApp Business API, hosted on parent company Facebook's infrastructure. With the shift to the cloud, the setup time for integrating with the API will drop from weeks to only minutes, the company claims, so businesses can more quickly transition to WhatsApp's API platform to communicate with their customers who have opted in to receive their messages.
The company has been steadily building out its Business API over the past couple of years to become one of the key ways the otherwise free messaging app will generate revenue from its service. Businesses today pay WhatsApp on a per-message basis, with rates that vary based on the number of messages sent and region. Currently, tens of thousands of larger businesses have adopted the existing (non-cloud based) API, including brands like Vodafone, Coppel, Sears Mexico, BMW, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Iberia Airlines, Itau Brazil, iFood and Bank Mandiri, among others.
This older version of the API will continue to be supported and WhatsApp doesn't have any current plans to force them to shift over to the new cloud-based version at this time. Both APIs are free to use.
Generally, businesses using the WhatsApp Business API will work with a solutions provider like Zendesk or Twilio, which help facilitate integrating the API with the customer's backend systems. In these cases, WhatsApp is often just one part of the company's customer communications strategy. They may also direct communications with customers to other channels, like SMS or other messaging apps, email and more. But this API integration process, historically, has taken time -- even as long as several weeks, or potentially, even a month.
With the pandemic having accelerated a shift to online shopping that was already underway before COVID, many companies don't want to wait that long when getting up and running on new systems.
The new cloud-based API aims to simplify things on that front by offering a much easier, and therefore faster, technical integration process.
Initially, beta testers for the new API will include a couple dozen of WhatsApp's existing solution provider partners, such as Zendesk in the U.S., Take in Brazil and MessageBird in the E.U.
"The Cloud API is a big step in reducing the complexity of using WhatsApp for both service providers like us and our customers," noted Zendesk VP of Product, Mike Gozzo, in a statement. "Not needing to worry about hosting WhatsApp Clients will allow us to better focus on supporting the many rich features available via the API," he added.
The launch comes at a time when the way people connect with businesses is changing. Today, more than 175 million WhatsApp users message a business every day, and this trend is growing -- particularly in non-U.S. markets like India, Brazil and Indonesia, WhatsApp notes. More broadly, WhatsApp is seeing demand from consumers in shifting to messaging instead of using 1-800 numbers, where they have to navigate phone systems and be placed on hold. This is annoying for customers. And call centers can be expensive for the businesses to operate, too.
WhatsApp's own survey, conducted last year, indicates a preference among its users for messaging over calls. It found that 75% of users in some of its largest countries said they wanted to be able to communicate with businesses through messaging. And 68% said they were "more likely" to do business or make a purchase from a business that they were able to contact via messaging.
WhatsApp has been taking advantage of this trend in another way, as well. Its other significant revenue stream involves click-to-chat ads that pop up on Facebook's News Feed or in Instagram, which offer consumers a way to send a message to a business on WhatsApp with a click of a button.
Meanwhile, the company addresses the small business market with its WhatsApp Business App, which allows local shops, like mom-and-pops, to get online to reach customers. It's now grown to 50 million users globally following its 2018 launch.
Before today's Cloud API launch, WhatsApp had been working on other API improvements. These included giving businesses the ability to more quickly respond to inbound messages and support for different types of messages, like out-of-stock alerts, for consumers who opted in. (Before, WhatsApp's API was focused on "timely" notifications -- like sending out a boarding pass for a flight, for instance.)
The company says customers who receive communications from businesses will see an informational message at the top of their conversation that will inform them that this is a different experience than messaging with friends or family (which is fully encrypted). Customers can also choose to end communications in a number of ways, depending on what the business supports. They may be able to opt-out by just texting the business to stop or visiting the company's website to make a change. But the easiest way may be just to block the business in the app.
The Cloud API is arriving in a limited beta starting today with select partners who will be onboarding their first clients in the days ahead.
However, WhatsApp plans to open up the API to other solution providers and to businesses directly starting in 2022.
Correction, 11/2/21; 2pm et: The API currently has tens, not hundreds, of thousands of customers. We've updated with the correct information.