That’s exactly what happened in 2019 with WhatsApp in Lebanon. A government plan to implement a $0.20 charge on calls made with WhatsApp (as well as other services that use a voice-over-internet protocol, like FaceTime) ignited mass protests and was hastily withdrawn by the administration. Of course, the so-called “WhatsApp tax” was not the only trigger — the protests were the culmination of growing Lebanese frustration about government mismanagement — but the fact that WhatsApp sparked the backlash shows just how important a role the app plays in peoples’ lives.
And it’s not just Lebanon. With more than 2 billion users across 180 countries, WhatsApp is the most popular messaging app in the world and the messaging market leader in all but 25 of the world's countries — outperforming competitors Facebook Messenger and WeChat.
People use WhatsApp to communicate with friends and family, get updates from community organizations, and — increasingly — to connect with brands and businesses. Since the launch of WhatsApp Business in January 2018, more than 5 million businesses have started using the platform “to support customers, grow their businesses, and serve their communities all over the world,” according to WhatsApp. The tool has taken off — especially in markets where WhatsApp is the communication platform of choice.
But just how popular is WhatsApp in your market? And should you be using it as a channel for customer support?
Should you provide customer service via WhatsApp?
The short answer: it depends. If you serve customers in EMEA, Latin America, the Philippines or India, offering support via WhatsApp is a no-brainer — it’s already a preferred channel for your base.
However, in other regions, it might be more of a toss-up, particularly if other messaging platforms are also prominent. In these cases, it’s just as important to consider who your customers are, as well as where they are. For instance, in the U.K., some studies have indicated that 80 percent of adults aged 18 to 24 use WhatsApp, a much higher proportion than the general population. If you’re a U.K.-based company and your niche is young adults, it may well be worth your while to provide support over WhatsApp.
WhatsApp’s market penetration, by country
According to the Global Web Index’s 2020 Social Media User Trends Report—a survey of consumer statistics for the biggest social media platforms—the following are the countries with the highest percentages of WhatsApp users.
Monthly WhatsApp users in 2021 as a percentage of total internet users aged 16-64:
|Position||Country||% of WhatsApp users|
Source: Global Web Index’s 2020 Social Media User Trends Report — a survey of consumer statistics for the biggest social media platforms.
Looking at these top countries, there are some key trends: For years, messaging apps like WhatsApp have been growing as an attractive cheaper alternative in countries where SMS messaging is expensive. This may help account for the app’s widespread popularity in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Additionally, as the world becomes more globalized, WhatsApp and other messaging platforms provide an easy and cheap way to stay connected with friends and relatives abroad — particularly in countries with prominent diasporas, such as the Philippines. Even the Philippine government has gotten in on the trend. At least one Philippine Consulate now operates a WhatsApp hotline in order to better serve their citizens abroad.
What seems clear is that WhatsApp is on the rise around the world. Even if your brand isn’t offering WhatsApp support right now, don’t write it off. You never know, your customers might one day adopt it as their platform of choice for staying in touch with friends, accessing government services, and even buying fish.
The world’s biggest WhatsApp user bases
But looking only at the countries where WhatsApp has high market penetration neglects the big picture. For instance, even though the app is ubiquitous among the Dutch, it's only an 87% share of the Netherlands' poulation (17.1 million) which makes up a fraction of WhatsApp’s user base. We need to look at the number of WhatsApp users in a given country, in addition to its share of total internet users, to understand who the world’s biggest WhatsApp users are.
By far, the biggest WhatsApp base in the world is India, with 400 million users. Even though it doesn’t make the top ten countries by market penetration — WhatsApp usage is widespread in urban areas but still catching up in rural ones — it’s nonetheless a huge area of opportunity for businesses. When new features are released on the platform, India is often the first area they are trialled in. In November 2020, a new feature allowing users to send money directly between bank accounts via the app was rolled out in the country.
In-app payments have also been trialled in WhatsApp's second largest market of 120 million people, Brazil, but hit a snag shortly after launch. when Brazil's central bank suspended the service, citing the need for further analysis. Further launches are expected in some of the most populous countries where WhatsApp has huge penetration, such as Mexico and Indonesia as well.
Despite its made-in-California status, WhatsApp’s user base has been relatively small in the United States in comparison to other countries. This could be attributed to the popularity of Apple Messages and Facebook Messenger. As of October 2018, only 12.1 percent of mobile users in the United States accessed WhatsApp, compared to 56.8 percent who accessed Facebook Messenger. However, WhatsApp usage does seem to be on the rise — so far in 2019, 68.1 million U.S. mobile phone users accessed WhatsApp to communicate and some forecasters project this figure to grow to 85.8 million users by 2023.