Indian WhatsApp users are frustrated with increasing spam from brands like Tata Neu, Flipkart, Reliance’s Ajio and other e-commerce companies

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On July 18, Aishwarya Rao, a longtime WhatsApp user, was at her wits end when she decided to take to Twitter. “It was first an e-mail, then an SMS. Now it’s WhatsApp – I can’t escape spam,” Rao tweetedexpressing his frustration over his favorite messaging app turning into a spam box.

The first 10 messages on his WhatsApp that day were all boilerplate messages from businesses, promoting products, deals and discount coupons. Rao said Rest of the world that she started noticing business outreach messages on WhatsApp in late 2021, but, over the past six months, it has become incessant. Verified handles, bearing green checkmarks, from companies such as shopping app Flipkart, retail chain Croma, delivery app Zepto, fashion store Lifestyle, insurance provider BankBazaar and others flood his personal WhatsApp conversations.

“I don’t recall giving explicit permission to most of these companies [to reach out to me through WhatsApp]. Especially the ones in the store,” Rao said. Rest of the word, via Twitter direct messages. “As you usually have to provide a [mobile] number for billing purposes, they never ask if they can use it to contact you on WhatsApp.

Meta’s WhatsApp is hugely popular in India, with around 550 million users in the country. Over the past year, the company has significantly expanded its WhatsApp Business services in the country, enabling brands to contact customers, offer support, receive payments and even verify documents. Direct access to customers via WhatsApp is an attractive proposition for Indian businesses, as 80% of messages sent on the app are seen within five minutes, making the platform an incredibly more effective communication channel than emails. -emails or SMS.

The unchecked rise in spam, however, has meant that the messaging platform that was once seen as a private and intimate space to communicate with friends and family now resembles a busy main street clogged with peddlers, at least 10 said. regular app users. Rest of the world. “It’s honestly such a frustrating experience now that WhatsApp has its shopping section. It feels like harassment tbh,” Rao wrote at Rest of the world. “WhatsApp doesn’t really feel very personal anymore. I wish there was a legal way to combat this.

“Every fucking thing Zuck touches is forever ruined,” Deepak Mehta, who works in tech, shared his irritation on Twitter. “WhatsApp used to be so good. Now every second message is from a random business account, I never gave permission to spam my inbox. Fuck you, you crawling lizard.

WhatsApp did not respond to specific questions about the rise in spam. “As we continue to connect people with the businesses they value most on WhatsApp, it’s important that the messages sent through our service are useful and expected,” a WhatsApp spokesperson said in a statement by email. -email to Rest of the world. “We provide features and tools that allow users to control their conversations and intervene when companies send messages they do not want to receive. Our systems are constantly integrating the sentiments and feedback shared with us to ensure the best possible user experience. »


WhatsApp

The increase in WhatsApp spam can be attributed to the launch of WhatsApp Business in India and the opening of its commercial API, which from this year allowed businesses to access WhatsApp’s cloud API. and manage large volumes of chats on the app. . WhatsApp makes money by charging companies for every conversation they have with customers. Companies can access this service directly or use dozens of official business solution providers such as Haptik, Twilio and Gupshup.

Yash Bhanage, a Mumbai-based pastry chef, said Rest of the world that using WhatsApp for customer service has significantly improved their revenue. Sending personalized WhatsApp reminders helped Bhanage re-engage 20% of users who had added products to their cart but abandoned it without completing the purchase. Similar email reminders only caused about 8% of users to change their minds.

One rainy evening, Bhanage sent a well-timed personalized WhatsApp broadcast message to customers who had purchased salty snacks in the past year. “Rainy days and Chaat go together 🌧️☔?” read the message, as well as a greedy GIF. Within an hour, Bombay Sweet Shop received 100 orders via WhatsApp, Bhanage said, generating revenue of over 90,000 rupees ($1,090).

In 2020, WhatsApp said around 15 million people in India used the WhatsApp Business app every month. Since then, aggressive sales have attracted thousands more, making the free version of WhatsApp Business one of the top 30 most downloaded apps in India.
Asis Panda, who used to create WhatsApp chatbots as a former head of design at Haptik, said Rest of the world that at the start of 2020, the bar for companies to access the business API was incredibly high. “You would need a green tick without which you couldn’t send any notifications or transactions,” Panda recalled. Spam tolerance was quite low and violations were punished with account suspensions. Companies sending promotional messages had to get explicit consent from users signing up for WhatsApp updates, with a visual element like a checkbox and the option to opt out.

“WhatsApp used to be so good. Now every second message comes from a random business account that I never gave permission to spam my inbox.”

But, as WhatsApp aggressively seeks to monetize and scale its business solution, the guardrails have come down, and the biggest casualty has been user consent.

Early adopters in 2020 had checkboxes for explicit user opt-in. In July 2020, WhatsApp changed its policy and visual elements like checkboxes were no longer needed. Lately, fewer companies are embracing the opt-in design. “It feels like somewhere consent has become quite passive,” Panda said. In many cases, companies deliberately obfuscate the stipulation on WhatsApp awareness in long terms and conditions.

In September, this reporter received an unsolicited promotional WhatsApp message from online travel aggregator Pickyourtrail, offering a 40% discount on a resort in the Maldives. The journalist had neither heard of Pickyourtrail nor subscribed to their service. After investigation, it was found that Pickyourtrail had obtained the number when the journalist had booked a stay via the credit card payment application, Cred, which organizes travel offers by the platform. This is a classic example of a “dark model,” where users are signed up for things they didn’t want, and consumers struggle to discern how their data is collected, stored, or processed.
WhatsApp users Rest of the world spoken said that large companies such as Aunty Neu, Flipkartreliance Ajioand others are the most egregious spammers, especially ahead of the October online sales season.


WhatsApp

In 2021, when Bombay Sweet Shop requested a commercial API, WhatsApp “made us jump through hoops to get it,” Bhanage said. “Now it’s open to everyone.” He acknowledged that there had been an increase in commercial spam, which could erode user trust. Still, he said, promotional messages must be pre-approved by WhatsApp’s AI before going live. A few months ago, one of his marketing messages containing the words “chocolate bar” was not approved because the system associated “bar” with an alcohol company, which is not allowed on WhatsApp Business.

WhatsApp anticipated the spam problem and had built-in features allowing users to instantly block and report businesses, said Arjun V Paul, founder of Zoko, a startup that helps small businesses use WhatsApp Business. Rest of the world. When a business initiates a WhatsApp message, the recipient receives a pop-up with options to report, block, or continue. If many users start blocking or not engaging with the business, the quality rating of the phone number associated with the business drops and they will not be able to upgrade their daily messaging limit.

But, for some users, the exercise of reporting spammers seems futile.

“I don’t see any change happening,” said designer Panda, who has been blocking unsolicited WhatsApp Business messages for over a year now. “For me, telling WhatsApp that I didn’t sign up for this probably has no repercussions.” In September, Panda reported 15 WhatsApp Business accounts.

Chittaranjan, another Indian WhatsApp user, pointed out that although he replied “STOP” three times in the chat, he continued to receive promotional messages from the electronics chain Croma.

In September, Balvinder Singh blocked Domino’s Pizza’s WhatsApp account for constantly alerting him to sign up for their rewards program. “I believe WhatsApp is a private mode of communication, companies sending me unsolicited messages are an invasion of my privacy,” Singh said. Rest of the world, via Twitter posts. “Majority are companies where I have never shared my number or registered, secondly even though I have shared a number and mentioned adamantly not to send whatsapp yet they are spamming.” Singh has since flagged 14 other verified WhatsApp Business accounts as spam.

Part of the problem is that “WhatsApp[’s] the design hasn’t caught up as fast as the business direction they’re taking,” Panda said. Many users now require message categorization on WhatsApp – similar to Gmail – where business chats can be grouped under a promotions tab. “The trade-off that WhatsApp Business is making is that they want more businesses to transact on WhatsApp, [but] without being held responsible,” Panda said.

Users feel frustrated but stuck with WhatsApp. “In India, I can’t say I’ll stop using WhatsApp because of spam,” Panda said, adding that her mother couldn’t switch to a new app either.

Some users have reported having trouble maintaining WhatsApp as a private space and constantly feel the need to defend it from being taken over by spammers.

“WhatsApp is the Trump equivalent of a product,” Paul de Zoko said of users’ addiction to WhatsApp. “When Trump said, ‘I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose a voter,’ that’s the equivalent of WhatsApp. Retention is so high they can literally get away with it.

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