“I think I left the car unlocked, can you check?” reads a text message displayed on one of the billboards. The consequence, outlined next to the text bubble: “If your personal texts aren’t end-to-end encrypted, it’s not private.”
Data shared with CNN Business by research firm eMarketer indicates WhatsApp had less than 63 million users in the United States as of last year, or around 19% of the country’s population. That’s far behind its audience in countries such as India, Brazil and Indonesia where it is among the most popular modes of communication. India alone has nearly 500 million WhatsApp users according to eMarketer, which is more than a third of its population and over half its internet user base.
This is the first time WhatsApp, which declined to share stats on how many users it currently has in the United States, has run an ad campaign in the country.
“Over time, we’ve seen more people in the US turn to WhatsApp,” Eshan Ponnadurai, the platform’s head of marketing who spearheaded the ad campaign, said in an emailed statement to CNN Business, though he acknowledged the gap with the rest of the world. “We’re just introducing ourselves in the US in a way.”
Boosting WhatsApp in the United States could have positive ripple effects on its other platforms and create new monetization opportunities in a lucrative market. But to get there, WhatsApp must fight an uphill battle to change how Americans text and, perhaps, how they view WhatsApp’s parent company.
The fight to change how Americans text
With more than 2 billion users globally, WhatsApp has become the dominant messaging service in many parts of the world, including much of Asia, Europe and Latin America.
“The only common denominator is SMS, a 30-year-old technology,” said Inderpal Singh Mumick, CEO of New Jersey-based communications company Dotgo, which helps businesses communicate with customers through various messaging apps.
But the rollout has been slow, and SMS remains popular. Mumick estimates that there are around 40 million RCS users in the United States, out of 500 million globally.
WhatsApp, which works the same regardless of the device it is being used on, has seemingly settled on a strategy to convince Americans to make the switch — by appealing to their desire for data privacy.
The privacy playbook
Ponnadurai said WhatsApp saw the growing conversation around data privacy as “an opportunity to educate Americans that are missing out on having secure conversations because they’re still using SMS.”
There is merit to the argument that SMS is unsafe, according to some privacy experts.
“SMS is definitely insecure,” said Riana Pfefferkorn, a research scholar at the Stanford Internet Observatory who focuses on encryption and privacy issues. The telecom architecture that enables text messages to be transmitted, known as the SS7 protocol, has vulnerabilities that “leave Americans’ calls and text messages unprotected against malicious snoops,” she added.
“From an encryption policy standpoint, now is an important time to mount a public relations campaign touting the benefits of an encrypted chat app,” Pfefferkorn said. “Americans recognize that they need and deserve privacy and security for their communications, but they may not know that end-to-end encryption is a great way to achieve those needs, or realize that WhatsApp is [encrypted] by default.”
But the biggest challenge WhatsApp faces in convincing Americans to switch may come from its own parent company.
“The company’s many privacy screw-ups have bred a general atmosphere of distrust,” said Pfefferkorn. “People just don’t believe that Facebook actually respects their privacy, and many people don’t even believe that Facebook [and] WhatsApp truly can’t read their WhatsApp messages.”
But entrenched texting habits and its own parent company’s missteps will likely make that an uphill battle.
“Facebook has totally blown it on public trust, and so if the PR strategy in the US doesn’t work, Facebook will have themselves to blame,” Pfefferkorn said.