WhatsApp Helps Brands Personalize Travel in India and Middle East

From being a quicker alternative to the short message service (SMS), the humble WhatsApp has now metamorphosed into what may be touted as a smart marketing service, even as privacy concerns continue to plague the Meta-owned app.

A Skift Megatrend for 2016 had noted that messaging platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and WeChat dominate much of how the modern world communicates and travel brands that continue to ignore this are missing out on the future of how people prefer to communicate.

For travel companies in India and the Middle East, WhatsApp continues to remain the most preferred messaging platform.

Today, six years later, WhatApp is distinguishing itself from the others by being able to cater to different markets having different histories of online engagement.

So, while it caters to those plagued by economic constraints and poor broadband infrastructure, offering a cheaper alternative to SMS and conventional voice calls, it is equally relevant for the urban middle class individuals with disposable income and fast internet connections.

Almost a third of the world’s population uses WhatsApp to send messages, images, video and make phone and video calls. Since February 2016, WhatsApp has actively increased its monthly active users from 1 billion to 2 billion.

In April, the messaging platform had approximately 2.44 billion unique active users worldwide, up 6.4 percent compared to the corresponding month in 2021.

The instant consumer engagement makes the platform especially helpful for travel businesses that need to keep customers informed at every leg of the journey.

“WhatsApp allows us to instantly communicate flight status changes, alerts or boarding gate information to our customers,” said Ashish Pratap Singh, chief marketing officer of Rehlat.com, Middle East’s leading online travel agency.

More than 100 billion messages are sent each day on WhatsApp with the average Android user spending 38 minutes per day on the messaging platform.

Being the most popular communication channel and widely used app in India, WhatsApp maximises reach for our business communication, said Amit Madhan, president and group head of information technology and e-business at Thomas Cook (India) and SOTC.

India also has the maximum number of monthly active users — 390 million.

The WhatsApp Dilemma

While companies may extol its benefits, it hasn’t been a smooth ride for the app. Last year, WhatsApp was fined $267 million by data watchdog — Ireland Data Protection Commission for breaching privacy regulations.

The messaging app had been under investigation over how it processes user data under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation.

While WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption may have been its biggest selling point, last year there had been concerns over data sharing with Facebook.

WhatsApp Business — a version of WhatsApp marketed towards small to medium-sized businesses — is considered a safer option, however, experts are still not sure, since it involves sensitive personal data.

To contact consumers, companies need an opt-in permission confirming that customers can be reached through WhatsApp.

Better Customer Support Outcome

Establishments looking to build a strong returning customers base, also look to the app for generating leads, accelerating sales and driving better customer support outcome.

A useful platform for engagement, WhatsApp comes in handy during post-sale requirements, said Manish Amin, co-founder and chief technology officer at India’s Yatra.com.

Yatra has also been using WhatsApp chatbots to solve consumer queries, wherein users can simply send a text highlighting their query through the chatbot. “Bookings can also be canceled on chat and refunds can be claimed,” Amin said.

This effective two-way interaction is more accessible than customer service calls. And quick turnaround time could translate into bookings as it helps travelers make instant decisions.

United Arab Emirates-based Musafir.com will be launching its WhatsApp chatbot later this year. “WhatsApp will become an important channel for holiday bookings and will allow customers to engage with us 24×7,” said Sachin Gadoya, co-founder and CEO of Musafir.com.

However, no matter how effective artificial intelligence may be, human interaction is equally important. It’s crucial for companies to understand when the interaction should move from chatbot to human.

“We continue to invest heavily in WhatsApp to provide services for human-to-human communication as well as communication through bots,” said Muzzammil Ahussain, executive vice president of travel at Seera Group.

Timely Dissemination of Relevant Information

WhatsApp has been one of the major focus areas for Saudi Arabia’s biggest online travel agency — Seera. In Saudi Arabia, where the penetration is probably more than one-to-one, with one person having more than one WhatsApp account, the messaging platform is a significant communication channel.

“We are looking to launch self-check-in through WhatsApp for our customers and are keen to proactively communicate changes to customers, rather than reactively,” Seera’s Ahussain said.

Rehlat also pushes out fare alerts to customers through WhatsApp helping them to make quick decisions and bag the best fares, while driving bookings for the travel portal.

“With a user base of over 25 million, and support for multiple languages, along with a user-friendly interface, WhatsApp’s reach and communication ability is ahead of other communication platforms. This allows us to optimally utilise the app to connect with our customers,” said Rehlat’s Singh.

Beyond the Company Website

WhatsApp has become a large part of the user experience that Indian online travel company Easemytrip, has curated for its customers.

Through tech innovations such as WhatsApp chatbots, Easemytrip aims to enhance the user’s end experience, even beyond the company’s main website. “This digital shift is one of the integral parts of Easemytrip’s move towards a more technologically-advanced domain,” the online travel company said.

With customers now willing to engage in these two-way conversations, Musfair also plans to make it more efficient by pushing customized travel offers based on travel history and feedback.

“WhatsApp will play an important role as Musafir looks to fundamentally transform the customer experience,” said Gadoya. The online travel agency plans to use the messaging platform to capture emerging patterns from ongoing customer conversations and act on them immediately to provide a superior experience.

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