Modern life can feel frantic. There’s so many technologies out there, so much noise and distraction.
For brands, that means that the days when you reach the vast majority of your target audience with a single TV ad are long gone, but it also means that there’s a lot of new digital platforms and channels that marketers can take advantage of. To engage customers effectively these days, you have to speak to people where they are—and a lot of people (billions and billions of them) can be reached in one specific kind of place, namely OTT messaging platforms.
Not sure what those are, exactly? Read on for a look at what marketing, growth, and engagement teams need to know about this key engagement space and their latest customer outreach tool, OTT business messaging.
What does OTT mean?
OTT stands for “Over-The-Top.” And as we wrote back in 2016, OTT refers not to the 1987 Sylvester Stallone arm-wrestling epic but to a group of technologies that layer on top of proprietary information delivery systems. That layering is what makes OTT technologies unique, since it makes it possible for new services to spring up on top of an existing device—and for brands to use these new services to expand the number of ways they can engage with consumers.
Doesn’t OTT have to do with my set-top box?
Yes, but that’s just one specific kind of OTT technology. The term was originally popularized in connection with digital media, but these days, OTT gets used in a few different contexts:
- OTT media platforms — Think Roku, Apple TV, ChromeCast; these are all technologies that make it possible for consumers to access media like TV shows, movies, and more using separate set-top boxes or other technologies that are distinct from the television or other main device they’re viewing this media on
- OTT voice calling — Think Skype or Google Voice; this type of technology, which is often called voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), allows consumers to make calls from their phone or other connected device without using that device’s built in calling capacity by taking advantage of voice platforms via the Internet
- OTT messaging platforms — Think WhatsApp, Viber, Telegram… the list goes on; these platforms, which can operate on smartphones, wearables, and beyond, allow consumers to communicate via text without leveraging their devices’ built-in systems (such as SMS, in the case of phones)
While each of these OTT technologies are impacting different industries and touching different aspects of the consumer experience, OTT messaging is arguably the biggest thing happening in the OTT space, with multiple platforms sporting more than a billion active users. A number of major OTT messaging platforms are also moving to support OTT business messaging, making these services an emerging engagement tool that marketers should be aware of.
What is OTT business messaging?
At its core, OTT business messaging—often referred to simply as “chat”—is an expansion of the traditional OTT messaging model (where consumers are able to easily send text-based messages to their friends and other connections) to encompass communications between brands and their customers. This tool supports automated one-to-one customer/brand interactions, usually at a lower cost than SMS, the traditional method of delivery for these kinds of messages, and without dependence on telecoms and other traditional gatekeepers.
If you’ve spent any time in APAC countries from Singapore to South Korea, you’ve probably used OTT business messaging to conduct business. From getting Singapore Airline status notifications to booking a cabana in Bali, chat is one of the fastest, most reliable, and inexpensive ways for brands to communicate with their customers in much of the world.
Why did OTT messaging platforms get so big in Asia?
When we think of the rise of mobile and the shape it’s taken in the APAC region, it’s important to remember that many markets effectively skipped the desktop computing revolution of the 1980s and 90s. With many consumers first connecting to the internet via smartphone, channels like email that were dominant on desktop didn’t come to play an integral role in digital communications for many Asian consumers. And because OTT applications required only an internet connection, rather than pay-per-message approach that traditionally characterized SMS support on many telecoms, OTT messaging platforms tended to be cheaper to use, too.
That meant that for many of those consumers in the region, OTT messaging platforms became the main way they communicated with their friends and connections online, as well as the central way they digitally engaged with brands.
In APAC, these platforms are often dominant in particular countries or regions. In China, if your brand isn’t on the WeChat OTT messaging platform, you’ll struggle to reach their 1 billion monthly active users. Similarly, digital engagement in Japan, Thailand, and Taiwan are defined by Line, while in South Korea, 93% of the country’s residents are active on KakaoTalk. But while there’s plenty of messaging happening on these platforms, they’re more than that: in these countries, consumers use OTT messaging platforms to shop for products, pay bills, and much more, all in one place.
Are OTT messaging platforms a big deal outside of APAC?
Very much so—in fact, there’s a strong chance that, wherever you live, you use one yourself. Beyond Asia, OTT messaging platforms have seen a meteoric rise around the world, particularly in emerging economies, with nearly a dozen major platforms out there with regional dominance in one part of the globe or another. That growth has led many American-based technology companies to invest seriously in this space over the past decade, including Facebook, Apple, and more.
Who are the major US players in the OTT messaging space?
While it’s tempting to say “Facebook” and leave it at that, the truth is that a number of significant tech giants and other big telecom stakeholders have made OTT messaging a major priority over the past decade. The most notable?
Since its launch as a standalone app back in 2011, Facebook Messenger has grown into a major platform for consumer engagement and today can support group messaging, gaming, peer-to-peer payments, and business messaging, among many other features. Its support for business messaging is particularly robust, allowing Messenger users to initiate conversations with a wide variety of companies—from pinging Whole Foods for recipes and Victoria’s Secret for bra sizing assistance, to asking Fandango for local movie showtimes.
In the U.S., Messenger is the dominant OTT messaging platform and one of the early innovators when it came to business messaging in the region, recent data privacy and security-related scandals associated with Facebook could pave the way for other players. However, with 2.13 global monthly active users, Messenger remains one of the most impactful platforms for marketers looking to take advantage of OTT business messaging to engage their customers.
When Facebook purchased WhatsApp for $19 billion back in 2014, the deal brought international attention to the rising importance of OTT messaging platforms to the technology landscape and highlighted the value that Mark Zuckerberg and company saw in the future of OTT chat. Today, that purchase look prescient—the platform now has 1.5 billion monthly active users around the world and has become the second-largest chat application in the U.S., behind Facebook Messenger.
WhatsApp moved to support OTT business messaging with the launch of WhatsApp Business in January 2018 on Android devices. And over the past year, it’s captivated the small and midsize business (SMB) market, with more than 80% of business owners in markets from Brazil to India indicating that it’s essential for their customer communications. And on the anecdotal side, when I was recently trying to book a New Year’s Eve celebration in Bali, I found that all the hotels I called there asked to use WhatsApp to communicate instead. Why? Because WhatsApp allows them to gather analytics in connection with these customer interactions and coordinate similar responses, reducing the support burden and the among of time spent handling customer service requests by phone.
Apple Business Chat
Back at Apple’s 2017 Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC), the company announced a move into this space with Apple Business Chat. Since then, Apple has partnered with companies like hospitality giant Hilton and customer service platform LivePerson to test a beta version of the service. Because Apple Business Chat exists within their proprietary Messages platform—which supports both traditional SMS and OTT communications between users on iOS devices—the service straddles the line between text messaging and OTT messaging. And while Apple has recently seen slower than expected new device sales, the company still controls 24% of the global smartphone market and boasts an affluent customer base that spends more than the average Android user.
For brands, Apple Business Chat has a lot of potential advantages. It allows them to get closer to their customers—since their chats live inside the iPhone's’ Messages app, alongside conversations that their customers have with friends and family. Companies can brand their service as they live and can take advantage of integrations with other macOS and iOS apps and features, including Spotlight Search, Siri, Apple Maps, and Safari, and can add Business Chat to their website or app. Also, Apple’s reputation for safeguarding customer information and its decision to allow brands using Apple Business Chat to keep control over use data, instead of having to make it available to a third-party like Facebook, makes this OTT messaging platform less susceptible to privacy concerns from consumers.
Rich Communication Services (RCS)
This one is a bit of cheat—it’s OTT-like, but technically not OTT. Billed as the next generation of text messaging, RCS was first conceived in 2007 but it took until 2016 for mobile trade group GSMA to publish a universal RCS profile. RCS is intended to bring richer context to text messaging and was expected make it possible for brands to provide a more eye-catching, more involving business messaging experience to consumers.
RCS is now supported by Samsung and 10 other original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and more than 49 telecoms (including AT&T in the U.S.). However, because RCS runs over telecom lines, rather than the internet, full participation from a broader spectrum of telecommunications operators will be needed in order ensure that the majority of consumers can receive these sorts of messages. And while some had hoped that Google’s 2015 purchase of major RCS vendor Jibe would touch out a boom for this messaging format, global adoption has remained stubbornly low. (Additionally, the inability to offer end-to-end encryption for RCS messages may also stymie growth in the wake of the recent importance of privacy with respect to digital engagement.)
Why does the rise of OTT business messaging matter for customer engagement?
It’s simple. First, the number of global consumers that brands can reach via OTT messaging platforms is simply enormous—Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp alone have user bases that represent nearly half of the world’s population. Second, the use of OTT messaging platforms for chat-based business communications is poised for major growth. According to Gartner, only 4% of enterprises have current deployed conversational interfaces in connection with customer engagement, but a full 38% currently plan to, a potential increase of nearly 10x.
What does that look like? Well, in South Korea, we have a ridesharing platform using Braze webhooks to send transactional information to customers about their ride via KakaoTalk. We’re also seeing clients beta testing the use of WhatsApp Business in concert with Braze to send real-time updates on customer orders and other transactional communications.
The chat-like nature of OTT business messaging can do a lot to add a human element to your customer engagement efforts and provide valuable firsthand product feedback that can support call center costs reduction and inform other aspects of your business operations. And for brands that have high customer costs (for instance, most retailers), cater to a global audience (think eBay, for example) or sell high-touch product (like Home Depot), using business chat as an avenue to engage with customers is likely to be a valuable platform going forward.
OTT business messaging isn’t going to be a useful tool for every situation or every brand. Before you dive in, make sure you’re clear about how leveraging this channel can support better brand experiences. That said, if your brand wants to reach the billions of users already engaging with chat applications globally, this is a channel to continue to explore, test and learn.
One key consideration? Ensuring that the experience you’re providing to your customers via OTT business messaging ties into your overall cross-channel customer engagement strategy in a coherent way. After all, providing a brand experience that’s consistent and fits your customers’ needs is an essential part of building the kinds of user relationships that support long-term business success.