There is a race underway to be the global leader in over-the-top social messaging, and one of the latest surveys suggests Facebook, while still dominant in the U.S., is falling behind the upstart mobile players in the rest of the world.
WhatsApp is tipped as the most popular social messaging service, followed by Facebook Messenger and WeChat according to a survey of 3,759 Android and iOS smartphone users carried out by OnDevice Research, a mobile market research company. The survey questioned people who use smartphones in five key countries, U.S., Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia and China, and found that 44% used WhatsApp at least once a week, while 35% used Facebook Messenger, and 28% used WeChat. 19% used Twitter. (The data was collected between Oct. 5 and Nov. 10, 2013.) Facebook could not be reached for comment.
Messaging services aren’t really about messaging anymore. They’re a new breed of social network. WeChat, LINE and Kik have become platforms for games, third-party apps and digital stickers, while on the Beijing subway you can buy a snack from special vending machines through the WeChat app. In Hong Kong you can book a restaurant table through WhatsApp, and a recent API release has led to a sprinkling of WhatsApp “share buttons” throughout the mobile web, on sites including Buzzfeed. These apps are typically free save for WhatsApp, which charges an annual subscription, but the market is worth billions in potential sales, posing a risk to SMS fees for mobile carriers and ad dollars for established social networks. The mobile messaging market will be worth $16 billion in 2016, according to Informa, of which wireless carriers will take 54% of sales from SMS fees, but over-the-top (OTT) messaging services like WeChat (which now has 272 million monthly active users) and WhatsApp (350 million) will take 46%. And there are other avenues for revenue too: Japan’s LINE sold $27.4 million worth of digital stickers in the second quarter of 2013.
As well as competing against each other, these apps are winning against the very act of calling, texting and emailing through smartphones, according to OnDevice’s numbers. Across five countries, 86% of smartphone users are regularly accessing social messaging apps, where while 75% are doing the same for SMS, and 73% for calls. “Social messaging is eating calling and SMS,” said Siim Teller, marketing manager for London, U.K.-based OnDevice.
The challenge for leading social messaging apps is to expand beyond their geographic origins. LINE has made some headway in Spain and now has offices in the U.S. WeChat, which also recently established an outpost in the United States, crossed the threshold of 100 million registered users outside of China in August 2013, according to OnDevice. Some 20% of Indonesian and 18% of South African smartphone owners now say they use WeChat on a weekly basis.
Facebook Messenger is the most popular messaging app in the U.S., but the country has yet to be “cracked” by rival messaging platforms in a big way. American users on average have 2.1 messaging apps installed on their phones, the lowest number in the survey group, while South Africa has 4.1 and Indonesia, 4.2.
“It is a global war,” says Steve Chung, founder and CEO of the ephemeral messaging app Frankly, which in two months has booked 350,000 downloads and a $6 million investment from South Korean mobile giant SK Planet. “If you ask me what’s the most exciting area in mobile today it’s hands down the messaging war… and it’s a battle for the United States.”
OnDevice broke down the numbers in the U.S., and suggested that despite being dominant here, Facebook Messenger still faced stiff competition as WhatsApp gains popularity, particularly among the 16-24 age group, where the two platforms are neck and neck:
Facebook admitted last month that it had seen a slide in daily users “particularly among younger teens.” Much has been read into this: many believe teens point the way towards the latest trends in communication and technology, while others say they shouldn’t get all the credit. Either way, separate research shows that teenagers are quickly gravitating towards mobile messaging services, and avoiding the prospect of leaving a digital trail of status updates and embarrassing photos on which everyone from family members to college administrators can make unwarranted judgements.
A recent, 32-country study by GlobalWebIndex showed that between the first and second quarter of 2013, Chinese mobile messaging app WeChat saw a remarkable 1,021% growth in activity among Asian teenagers. Video-sharing app Vine and Instagram, saw similarly big activity spurts among teens, while teens were also more active on Facebook Messenger than on the Facebook app itself.
OnDevice’s Teller says it has become much easier to challenge a monopoly on mobile, than on a desktop environment, and it can happen much faster. “It’s a threat and an opportunity,” he says, “depending if you’re the Facebook or you’re the next LINE or WeChat.”
This article was written by Parmy Olson and Forbes staff from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.