They already made traditional text messaging via SMS obsolete. And now instant messaging apps on smartphones are ramping up serious pressure on established social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

Messaging apps have become an essential part of our private conversations. Apart from the rapidly growing install base of smartphones, their success can be attributed to one simple fact: Compared to SMS, the overall cost of usage is very low and in most cases even free. 75 per cent of all onliners worldwide use mobile messengers, according to Global Web Index. WhatsApp alone reaches more than 23 million users in Germany, and the average user sends over 1.000 messages per month.

But WhatsApp is not the only relevant player in a rapidly growing market. Among young target groups, a new generation of messenger apps is quickly gaining popularity. Snapchat, kik Messenger and Kakao Talk court the mobile generation with a strong focus on audiovisual communication and a wide range of additional features like games and photo albums.

According to the latest JIM study, an annual report on media and communication habits of 12 to 19 year olds in Germany, messenger apps have long surpassed social networks as the communication tool of choice for teens. The rate of success is not that surprising, considering how the apps cater towards central communication needs of their young audience. In times, where more and more parents are active on Facebook and potential employers are checking out the user profiles of future employees, younger users want to protect their privacy. At the same time, messengers act as a very informal way of meeting new people. And last but not least images, videos and emojis enable the users to express their thoughts and feelings a lot more individually, than texting ever could.

From SMS replacement to full-fledged communication- and service-platforms

Currently there are two major developments in the messaging world, that are highly relevant for brands and marketers: On the one hand, many apps try to foster growth by attracting new user groups and to monetize their often free services. Traditional display advertising is a very limited option, so many services try to make their profits with micro transactions, selling games, digital stickers or emojis to be used within the apps. Others focus on additional services beyond traditional communication like mobile payment solutions, music and video streaming, taxi services or grocery deliveries. Especially Line and WeChat, two very popular apps in Asia, are turning into central one stop solutions for every need.

On the other hand, the borders between messenger apps and social networks become blurry. Well-established social networking features such as user profiles, photo albums and friend finder tools start appearing in messengers. Snapchat enables media brands to publish their content in the discovery section within the app to reach new users and benefit from viral sharing.

CRM to branding: Messengers offer a wide range of marketing possibilities

Instant messengers also offer many interesting features for branding and advertising. Direct user access means messaging is an excellent channel for customer service, recommendations and promotions. Some retailers even go beyond that and have started to integrate messaging functionalities into their own apps. The Swedish retail platform TicTail enables users to contact customer support and ask questions directly from within the TicTail app.

Especially in Asia, messengers start to play an important role in e-commerce. McDonald’s uses the popular messenger WeChat for promotions, couponing and mobile payment in China. And the Britsh luxury brand Mulberry is running a virtual store within the WeChat app.

But messengers also are very useful for branding. H&M Poland utilized Snapchat to promote their new collection and Burberry let fans take part in a fashion show in Shanghai on WeChat.

On kik messenger, brands can run their own profile pages and use them for promotion activities. The British band One Direction shared exclusive photos and videos with fans on kik to promote their new album. Und Hellmann’s Mayonnaise enabled customers to chat with real chefs on WhatsApp to get cooking recipes in real time.

In comparison to those cases, developing branded assets in the form of digital stickers or emojis that can gain viral traction by being used in messages, is an easy and ideally very efficient branding activity. WeChat and Line already offer standardized interfaces for branded assets, on other platforms third party services are required, however.

Most marketing functionalities are still in earlier stages of development on many platforms, but the potential is significant as more and more digital communication, especially in young target groups, is going to continue to shift towards messaging platforms.