Mary Meeker recently released her annual treatise on the state of the Internet, “Internet Trends 2015.” Almost immediately after its release, I received messages from many tech industry friends, all remarking on the language she used to summarize the role messaging plays in apps:

“Internet Trends,” 2015

We agree wholeheartedly. Here at Layer, we feel messaging isn’t a feature of an application that is just “tacked on” after the fact. Instead, it’s a crucial layer of successful apps that powers engagement and growth. As Mary’s deck shows, a pure messaging app such as WhatsApp, with 800 million MAU and 30 billion messages sent per day, exemplifies the massive reach and engagement that is possible with messaging alone. Our goal is to help developers unlock this engagement and growth within their own messaging-based apps.

So how can your own apps benefit from taking advantage of this trend? First and foremost, it’s important to understand exactly why these apps are successful.

Why messaging apps so often succeed

The key to understanding why messaging apps are successful is to understand why we as users enjoy using them. These apps fit within our busy lives, so we know that we can trust them with our time. They’re also intrinsically viral, in that your experience is improved if you convince others to use the app. This, in turn, fosters personal connections, including a unique bond between you and the app.

With so many demands on our limited attention, many people prefer the asynchronicity of text-based messages to the synchronicity of a phone call. This same effect is witnessed in apps: we have limited amounts of time to spend with them, so we want bite-sized information that we can asynchronously share with others, in a way that suits everyone’s schedule and engagement level.

From a growth perspective, asynchronous messaging is inherently viral, and the popularity of modern messaging clients mirrors this perfectly. If your friends are using Snapchat to send fun, ephemeral messages to each other, you get the app just to make sure you’re part of the conversation. No app, no fun. The result? Snapchat is a worldwide phenomenon with 100 million highly-engaged users, all of which is built atop a messaging network.

Finally, messaging is personal. It allows for the creation of spaces outside of the noisy social networks, where like-minded people can build bonds around the content and topics they care about. These bonds also help to build an important connection between the user and your app.

The benefits of native messaging

By leveraging messaging in your app, you’re supporting your users’ desire to share content while also capturing the conversations around that content. You’re also taking advantage of a growing trend: people want to have conversations outside of the large networks. Finally, and most importantly, you’re maintaining control over one of your most important assets: your user graph.

Your users are conditioned to share and discuss content from applications. If your app neglects this reality, and acts as nothing more than a content creation tool, you’re effectively pushing your users to other networks to share their experiences — which they will do. This degrades the experience of your content, lowers the engagement rates for your app, and subsequently the growth of your app as users are not using your app to discuss your content.

Creating your own in-app messaging is also an effective means to capitalize on a growing trend for users: the large social networks have become overwhelming and quite often completely unrelated to the topics and content about which they care the most. At any given moment, there’s a small network of people who care about something that’s just seen as noise to the larger conversations occurring in others’ Timelines or Newsfeeds.

An example of this in recent memory is the finale of Serial, the NPR podcast that smashed iTunes download records. A group of highly-engaged listeners wanted to discuss the finale with others, but the content they created was interspersed with the usual cacophony of unrelated Tweets and posts. The result is that those who wanted to share their experience with others felt alone, and those who had no interest in the discussion were annoyed at references that were off-topic to their own on-going conversations. Had NPR directly catered to these users with in-app messaging, they could have gained directly from the engagement, by upselling other podcasts directly to their audience or by seeing a concentration of what people liked and disliked about the podcast. This is just one example of a scenario that happens thousands of times a day.

Finally, and most importantly, a side effect of incorporating messaging into your app is that you maintain control over your own users and user graph. This doesn’t mean that you should ignore the massive distribution available via the large networks. Instead, the savvy developer will use the social networks as what they are: identity providers and marketing channels. Their simple auth mechanisms enable your users to identify themselves to you quickly, and their massive networks of users should allow others to discover your content. Your job is to then capture that conversation and bring it into your app.

The future of messaging

We’re just now seeing the power messaging can have in apps. As devices and networks continue to evolve, we’ll see many more advancements in network speed and the content types that people want to interact with in real time. If your application is built on a layer of messaging, it will be perfectly positioned to respond to whatever the future holds. And, if you’ve not yet transitioned your app, it’s never too late to change that.

To easily create your own messaging-based app, Layer provides Atlas, our open source UI framework that gets you up and running in minutes.

For those of you who are interested in transitioning your existing app to support messaging, come back for Part 2 of this series, where we’ll show an in-depth transition. In the meantime, the team at Layer is always here to help.