WhatsApp is to launch a service allowing businesses to offer customised chats to their customers.
The new WhatsApp Cloud Application Programming Interface (API) service complements the existing WhatsApp Business app and WhatsApp Business API, which allow WhatsApp users to message businesses via a specialised account.
The cloud-based service enables businesses to, for instance, create a “customer service” link on their website that launches a WhatsApp chat.
WhatsApp parent Meta, which owns Facebook, said it would charge businesses on a per-message basis for the service, while a limited version of it would be free for smaller firms.
The charging plan indicates a shift by Meta to try and begin generating significant income from WhatsApp, which has to date remained free while costing Meta hundreds of millions of dollars per year to operate.
Meta said the cloud-based API would allow businesses to create a more streamlined experience for users.
“The best business experiences meet people where they are,” said Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg at an event announcing the new service.
“Already more than one billion users connect with a business account across our messaging services every week.”
He added that users are looking for help in finding products and services ranging from big-ticket items to everyday goods.
Tens of thousands of businesses use the non-cloud business offering, including small vendors and large multinationals.
Businesses will be able to build a customised dashboard and more easily offer customer services. They will not be able to message users unless they have requested contact.
Meta said it was planning paid features as part of the Cloud API service, including the ability to manage chats across up to 10 devices and click-to-chat links that can be shared with customers.
Those features are still under development.
Meta has previously been reluctant to introduce monetisation features to the app since acquiring it for $19 billion (£15bn) in 2014, instead focusing on expanding the service.
A previous scheme would have had users pay $1 per year to use the service, but this was scrapped by Meta, which considered the scheme too difficult to manage and operate at a large scale.
WhatsApp has more than 1 billion users.
Unlike the rival Telegram service, WhatsApp has also refrained from displaying advertisements.
Meta last year began requiring users to share their data with the company for analytics purposes, although it claims this was not done for ad-tracking purposes.
The firm’s move to bring in income from WhatsApp comes as it faces new financial pressures, including a significant hit to its advertising business from privacy changes to Apple’s iPhone operating system that took effect last year.
The company lost a quarter of its market value, more than $230bn, after detailing the slowdown in advertising revenues in a February earnings report.
The same report also showed that the company’s flagship Facebook service had lost users for the first time ever.
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