WhatsApp versus BBM: The Diffusion of Innovation

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An innovation theory analysis reveals how WhatsApp has won the battle against BBM. Now the challenge for WhatsApp would be to stay relevant against the “next generation” of apps – Viber, Snapchat, WeChat and the like.

With Facebook’s recent acquisition of WhatsApp for USD 19 billion, it is only fitting to examine the reasons behind the extensive reach & popularity of this messaging application. With just over 450 million users worldwide, WhatsApp clearly surpasses the 85 million user base of BlackBerry Messenger (BBM).

If we go back to 2009, however, things were slightly different; BBM was at its peak, and many of us can recall purchasing BlackBerry devices solely to stay connected on BBM.  The initial version of WhatsApp was released that same year, and the user base shifted drastically over the past 5 years.

What could have caused this rapid consumer shift to WhatsApp?

I believe Everett Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovation theory could serve as an explanatory tool. According to this theory, new ideas & innovations spread within a society through five distinct groups: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards.

Innovators are the first individuals to adopt a new innovation; they are typically from a higher social class with greater financial liquidity, and have significant access to technology and innovation centers. Early adopters are the next group of socially connected, tech-savvy influencers that spread the word to the early majority, after which the innovation scales organically through the late majority and laggards.

There are five factors that determine why, how, and at what rate a new idea or technology will move through this curve: relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability & observability.

A quick comparison of WhatsApp versus BBM on each of these attributes can serve to make the consumer shift a bit clearer.

Relative Advantage: the degree to which a new idea is perceived as superior to the idea that it replaces

The launch of BBM introduced consumers to a revolutionary new way of communicating with friends & family across the globe, instantly making basic SMS technology seem redundant. BBM was a cost-effective, simple way to stay connected with other BlackBerry users.

The launch of WhatsApp brought a new level of convenience to mobile messaging technology by being compatible across multiple platforms, and having an automatic way to add contacts without a PIN system. Timing also played a key role – with the release of the first iPhone in 2007, and the first Android phone in 2008, the compatibility across all devices proved to be an invaluable relative advantage for WhatsApp over BBM.

While BBM has recently introduced cross-platform applications, it has proven to be a bit too late – one can only imagine what could have happened if this was done a few years ago!

Compatibility: the degree to which a new idea is perceived as consistent with the existing values, experiences, and needs of potential adopters

BBM paved the way in this aspect, creating an ideal target base of smartphone customers familiar with mobile messaging applications. The advent of iPhones & Android devices led to a consumer base looking for similar alternatives, wherein WhatsApp was the clear winner.

The only compatibility issue WhatsApp could have is privacy concerns, since contacts are automatically added without prior permission.

Complexity: the degree to which an innovation is perceived as difficult to understand

Both applications are quite simple to access, use, and communicate with; however, WhatsApp is generally considered easier to use.

Trialability: the degree to which an innovation may be experimented with on a limited basis

WhatsApp has a $0.99 yearly charge, however, this seems insignificant in comparison to actually having to purchase a BlackBerry device to access BBM (up until recently, of course). In addition, WhatsApp offers a 1-year free trial, allowing consumers to easily try the product.

Observability: the degree to which the results of an innovation are visible to others. 

Word-of-mouth is an extremely strong component that can drive or deter innovations, whether this takes place through face-to-face interactions, news commentary or social media. The advent of WhatsApp, along with the evolution of the smartphone industry led innovators & early adopters within our social circles to endorse WhatsApp, thereby creating a social pressure to switch to WhatsApp – think of that person in your social group that convinced you to switch!

Overall, WhatsApp proved superior across all 5 factors, leading to its advent over BBM. The next challenge for the application would be to stay relevant against the “next generation” of apps – Viber, Snapchat, WeChat and the like. However, the battle against BBM has been won.

Let us know your thoughts! What do you think are the reasons behind WhatsApp’s success? Could BBM make a comeback? Which application do you prefer, and why? 

Dipika Mallya writes about the impact of psychology on brands, marketing strategy, and consumer trends. With a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of Illinois, and Master’s degree in Advertising from the University of Texas at Austin, she believes that the two fields are inextricably linked. Follow her on Twitter @AdPsych

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