WhatsApp is “bigger than everyone else” in the South African market, a spokesperson for the mobile instant messaging (IM) service has told MyBroadband.
This followed a recent article comparing the available statistics for the number of active users of various messaging services in South Africa.
Unfortunately, WhatsApp isn’t willing to disclose its active user statistics on a per-country basis, but there are a number of indicators of the platform’s popularity.
Firstly, WhatsApp is the most popular free app on the iTunes App Store, Google Play, and the Windows Phone Marketplace, outranking even Facebook.
World Wide Worx recently ranked Facebook as the largest social network in South Africa with 9.4-million active users in August 2013.
“WhatsApp has significantly more users on our network than any other IM platform and we’ve seen a pickup in growth in the last two months,” a Vodacom spokesperson told MyBroadband.
Cell C said that they have seen WhatsApp usage increase massively over the last two years.
Neither network operator was able to provide specific usage or growth figures, unfortunately.
Thirdly, and most surprisingly, was unofficial and unconfirmed information received from a knowledgeable source which suggested that WhatsApp is possibly double the size of Mxit in South Africa.
This means that the number active WhatsApp users in South Africa could be as high as 15-million, and feedback from World Wide Worx boss Arthur Goldstuck provided a lower amount of around 9.4-million users.
“Based on their trajectories over the past year, WhatsApp will have overtaken Mxit and will probably also overtake Facebook as the most popular social tool in SA,” Goldstuck told MyBroadband.
|Social service||2013 users||2012 users|
|Mxit||7.4-million||6.9-million (9.5-million using 90-day metric)|
|BBM *||4.7-million (94% of users)||3.3-million (97% of users)|
|WeChat *||(unofficial data place it ahead of 2go)||N/A|
|* Unofficial, or based on estimates|
WeChat: the dark horse mobile IM in South Africa?
Although WhatsApp appears to have become the social platform of choice in South Africa, Vodacom said that WeChat is the fastest growing platform, though it is coming off a low base.
Asked how WhatsApp and WeChat’s growth compares to other platforms, Vodacom said that the number of users on the other platforms has been relatively stable.
Cell C said that WeChat launched in February and on their network it is still small compared to WhatsApp and other platforms.
Similar to WhatsApp, WeChat did not wish to disclose their country-specific user numbers, but said that they had seen good growth in both text and voice messages.
“What is exciting is the number of people that use features like Moments to share with friends and the Shake functionality to meet new friends,” said Brett Loubser, MD of WeChat Africa.
Asked about the reports of a sudden swell in growth received from our sources, Loubser said that the South African market has responded well to the product and that specific features seem to be driving usage.
“The Voice Message functionality seems to be very popular and is very convenient especially when its not convenient to type a message,” Loubser said.
Questioned about the platforms showing them the greatest growth, Loubser said that they are seeing uniform growth across all phone platforms they support relative to the platform market share in South Africa.
Why the sudden surge?
Goldstuck offered a different explanation for the seemingly sudden ascent of both WeChat and WhatsApp, however.
He said that there are a number of factors pushing the popularity of the platforms, three of which he highlighted.
“Nokia continues to push WhatsApp heavily, and has even included a WhatsApp button in one of its new phones,” Goldstuck said. “WhatsApp is one of the big beneficiaries of the continued popularity of mid-level and low-end Nokias.”
Goldstuck explained that as people at the lower end of the market buy new phones, they are presented with WhatsApp as a core option.
“Secondly, there appears to be a mass migration from BBM to WhatsApp,” Goldstuck said.
He said that although BBM remains strong, practically every single BlackBerry user is now also installing WhatsApp “to ensure they can extend the BBM experience to contacts that have either moved away from BlackBerry or don’t have Blackberry.”
The third factor Goldstuck highlighted is the marketing campaign WeChat has embarked on in South Africa, targeting not only online eyeballs, but normal television viewers as well.
“The heavy marketing of WeChat occurred in the same period as this huge leap for WhatsApp, and I have a strong suspicion that, with WhatsApp already being a known brand, people confused the two,” Goldstuck said.
He said that there is a strong possibility that people picking up on the WeChat marketing downloaded WhatsApp.
“Not necessarily by mistake, but because they thought it was just another version of WhatsApp,” Goldstuck said. “The perils of naming conventions that try to stick to the mainstream.”
Social service see-saw
Speaking in his personal capacity, Jannie van Zyl, telecommunications industry expert and head of data at Vodacom, said that WeChat faces an uphill battle to become as ubiquitous as WhatsApp despite its rapid growth.
Van Zyl likened the online social service space, such as mobile instant messengers, to a seesaw.
“If [all the users] are on one side then the seesaw doesn’t swing,” van Zyl said, meaning that once a player is dominant it is difficult to unseat them.
He said that based on the usage figures he has seen, the seesaw point for WhatsApp happened at the start of 2013 in South Africa.
“It got to the region of BBM and Mxit numbers and then the seesaw swung, triggering a rapid rise in numbers as it gained critical mass,” van Zyl said.
For any other service to dislodge WhatsApp, van Zyl said they have to slowly build to the same size before they will be able to swing the seesaw.
Considering how long it took WhatsApp to unseat Mxit, van Zyl said that he believes it will take 3 years for the next platform to “drop the seesaw”, to extend his metaphor, on WhatsApp.