WhatsApp is testing verified business accounts

Messaging giant WhatsApp is experimenting with giving businesses verified accounts on its platform. In an FAQ on its website the company notes that some business accounts will be displayed with a green tick badge next to them — which denotes that WhatsApp has “confirmed” their phone number belongs to a business account, though it does not specify what kind of checks it’s carrying out to verify businesses.

“WhatsApp business verification is currently limited to a small number of businesses participating in a pilot program,” it further notes.

We’ve reached out to WhatsApp with questions about the verified business accounts and will update this story with any response.

Since ditching its $1 annual service fee under acquiring parent Facebook, WhatsApp has been testing business accounts, with a view to opening up a monetization pipe — even as CEO Jan Koum has claimed it will not be putting “ads in the product”.

In January 2016 Koum said a b2c play was in testing, focused on large corporate customers at that stage. By August 2016 WhatsApp said it would be letting businesses onto its platform by the end of the year, including allowing them to send marketing messages to users (um, ads anyone?) — at the same time as announcing a big shift in its privacy policy, pushing users to link their WhatsApp accounts with their Facebook identities.

The privacy policy u-turn included sharing information for ad-targeting purposes — positioning WhatsApp to be able to target relevant businesses at users based on shared and linked data about their Facebook likes, usage and so on. (Which is how an end-to-end encrypted messaging platform can still know everything its users care about — and thus take steps to monetize via targeted marketing.)

The controversial decision to link WhatsApp and Facebook user activity led to a $122M fine in Europe, earlier this year, after regulators judged Facebook had provided “incorrect or misleading” information at the time of the acquisition (although Facebook claimed this had been an “error”).

The social networking behemoth acquired its messaging rival for $19BN in 2014, and at the time told the EC it could not automatically match user accounts between its own platform and WhatsApp — something the company subsequently revealed itself doing.

(Although in Europe WhatsApp was quickly forced to suspend the data-sharing with Facebook, under pressure from national data protection watchdogs. It’s less clear whether it was required to delete any data already shared and account-links already forged.)

In the FAQ on verified business accounts, WhatsApp notes that users will be informed when they are talking to a business via “yellow messages inside a chat”.

While WhatsApp users who already have a business’ phone number saved in their address book will see whatever name they have saved for that contact.

However when a business’s phone number has not been saved in a user’s address book the name they will see is the name the business has chosen for themselves — suggesting WhatsApp might be intending to allow verified businesses to ‘cold-message’ users, i.e. even if they have not had any prior contact with a business.

Alternatively, it could mean WhatsApp intends to offer users a business search function so they could manually browse and search to locate relevant business accounts at the point of need.

WhatsApp adds that users can stop a business from contacting them by using the standard block account process.