As the smartphoned world continues to go crazy for messaging apps, Anna Chapman, associate director in our business and strategy team, looks at how WhatsApp can power research...

At Crowd we’re always keen to work with new methodologies – and have a particular fascination with trying to appropriate the myriad, UX-lovely platforms and services that exist outside of the insight industry. Recently we’ve found ourselves using WhatsApp on a number of projects. So what’s so great about using a messaging app for qual?

Since we’re in the business of capturing natural responses, it’s a no-brainer to meet people in an environment where they feel at home. And people feel very comfortable using WhatsApp, because many of us are on it a lot of the time. The usage stats show that globally it’s trumping more conventional social platforms, with one third of WhatsApp’s 990 million users chatting on it daily and the average user sending 1,000 messages per month (42 billion per day, apparently). What’s more, WhatsApp is growing faster than its prodigious parent company Facebook did, even in its heyday.

WhatsApp is rather large...
WhatsApp is rather large...

Cost, or lack of it, is one of the reasons that WhatsApp is so popular. What’s not to love about an app that allows you to chat with your friends for free, wherever they are in the world, in a private space? And, the good news is that it’s also a free platform for research – at least for now.

WhatsApp beats using a community for a number of reasons, primarily because it’s far less hassle for everyone involved. Members don’t have to make an effort to register and recall a password, meaning dropout rates are much lower. Moderators can easily nudge people into action when they’re hanging out right there in the space (rather than having to prompt them with an email and redirect them to an unfamiliar community). One of our team admits to having a ‘chat’ from the gym on his phone. This accessibility is definitely a benefit for the client, if not for the time-poor researcher…

WhatsApp is highly adaptable and has worked for us across diverse projects, from celebrity futureproofing with 35-55 year-olds in the UK to a hefty global piece on childhood. Across the board, we’ve been impressed by the quality of responses. Communities can sometimes feel impersonal, causing nervous participants to hold back, wary of the strangers in the room. But people are used to sharing information with their friends on WhatsApp so they tend to be chattier and give bolder answers, smattered with emojis.

Increasingly we’re using images and video to communicate with our audience and it’s second nature for people to share short form media and links on WhatsApp. What’s more, screenshot conversations look great in presentations. Of course, much of the above can be applied to using social media in general for research and we’ve also had great results with Tumblr, Instagram and Pinterest. Suitability is uppermost – it’s important to use a platform that resonates with your target audience in each case.

When you’re planning a global project, you need to consider market and audience variations. In the US, for example, Facebook messenger dominates for adults and teens use Viber. But in Latin America and the Middle East, two thirds of internet users are WhatsApping. Of course, it makes sense to use native platforms wherever possible, so in China choose WeChat, or Kakao Talk in South Korea. It’s also easy to use different messaging apps in one project.

Naturally, there are downsides (and we’re not about to completely ditch the more research industry-specific online tools we also often use just yet) – it can be overwhelming trying to maintain conversations with numerous people across the world at once, so we recommend using WhatsApp as part of the project; in a smallish diary task, for example. We tend to use it as one element in our overall approach, supporting it with more in-depth interviews, expert opinion or workshops afterwards.

As messaging apps continue to flourish, WhatsApp – plus no doubt future offerings that will emerge – will become an important methodology, offering us an alternative to more conventional communities and other mobile research tools, and a fluid, credible way into the conversations that get us to the heart of contemporary culture.