Unlike mobile messaging competitors like Line and WeChat, WhatsApp has taken a resolute stance against becoming a platform that distributes games and other apps.
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As WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum said in an interview last year, “We’re not interested in bombarding our users with ‘Hey, play this game, play this game, play this game.’ It gets annoying, it gets in the way of messaging, and it gets in the way of staying in touch with people who are important to you.”
But WhatsApp had quietly launched a different sort of platform tool late last year. It is a simple hook that other companies can include in their own apps to help users share content to WhatsApp.
This is just like the Facebook and Twitter buttons that are liberally sprinkled on content sites all over the Web. The difference is, sharing through WhatsApp is essentially private.
When users click on the share-to-WhatsApp button, they are presented with a list of their contacts and groups so they can message them directly. Especially when users are on their phones, this may be simpler or easier than emailing, texting or instant messaging an article or a photo.
Early testers of the WhatsApp share button included BuzzFeed and Shazam.
In fact, BuzzFeed is already seeing more shares to WhatsApp than to Twitter on iOS, the company told Re/code.
“Every time we looked at WhatsApp’s numbers, it blew us away,” said BuzzFeed president Jon Steinberg. “We knew last April this was a huge social network and have become increasingly obsessed with it.”
BuzzFeed integrated WhatsApp’s share button on iOS in October, and has seen shares double in the last few months, said BuzzFeed VP of business development Ashley McCollum.
But the WhatsApp tool is still very basic. “We only have click data, not referral data,” McCollum said. “So we know if you clicked the share button in mobile Web, but we don’t know (yet) if you shared in on a group text with 15 people and 15 people clicked it or if you shared it with one person.”
BuzzFeed is now working on Android and mobile Web integration for WhatsApp, McCollum said.
What’s going on isn’t some exclusive deal, but it has been under the radar until now. WhatsApp already made the share functionality publicly available to any developer through a “Document Interaction API” that supports images, video and audio.
And even without an officially supported integrated share button, WhatsApp had become a key way for people to share all sorts of media. As of December, WhatsApp users were sharing 500 million photos per day.
Late last year, the photo-editing startup Aviary said in a blog post that WhatsApp shares were already just a tick below the level of Facebook and Instagram. And at the time, Aviary didn’t have a WhatsApp share button.
“In November 2013, 8 percent of photos shared from Aviary’s apps were shared to Facebook and 8 percent to Instagram — reasonably consistent with percentages in 2012, but at massively larger volumes,” the post said. “However, in that same period, 7 percent of photos were also shared to WhatsApp — which barely registered with us this time last year. A picture is worth a thousand words, and apparently now almost as many messages.”
WhatsApp has also considered allowing app makers to plug into users’ address books, the company told Re/code recently, but said it was hesitant because it did not want to do anything that would encourage spam.
Please see the disclosure about Facebook in my ethics statement.