Getting the message out there
Industry veteran James Williams, MEF’s director of programmes, discusses how major players can spread awareness about business messaging with Saf Malik.
The word “trend” implies something fleeting, that’s only around for a short period of time, so discussing major trends in the business messaging industry would be a mistake, “because what’s happening in the world of business messaging right now is here to stay”.
That is according to James Williams, director of programmes at the Mobile Ecosystem Forum (MEF). Williams says the days of businesses communicating with us through email, voice and one-way SMS messages should be behind us, given the vast array of richer channels now available.
“Think chat apps such as Rakuten Viber, WhatsApp, Telegram and so much more,” he says. “All provide genuine opportunities for organisations of any size to be able to communicate with stakeholders of all types in a truly conversational manner.”
This, Williams believes, is something that people feel inherently comfortable with, given how chat apps, in particular, pervade the everyday existence of billions of people globally.
“It’s all about the two-way aspect of communication. But it’s not all cocktails and flowers,” he says.
Despite being a prominent voice in the industry, Williams says he never expected to get into the world of telecoms. He began his career by securing a placement with a Siemens associate company, where he returned during his third year at Nottingham Trent University. After working at Siemens’ headquarters in Munich, Germany, following the completion of his degree Williams secured a graduate trainee role with the company in the UK.
Practically all of Williams’ time during these placements and his traineeship was spent within telecoms, and this provided him with a “solid grounding”.
In 1998, Williams joined Comverse Technology, then the “global leader” in voicemail platforms, and he helped to set up its customer training operation.
“Little did I know at the time, but Comverse was one of the founding members of the Mobile Entertainment Forum – now the Mobile Ecosystem Forum,” he says.
Fast forward 20 years, and Williams was approached about the role he has held with MEF since 2020.
“You could say I’ve come full circle now, with my role as director of programmes at the organisation. It’s been a challenge. I’m now two years in and very much enjoying it,” he says.
As the business messaging industry has grown rapidly, the sum of money it attracts has also risen exponentially. And with that comes bad actors, many of whom are exceedingly sophisticated and highly motivated, Williams says.
“Trying to keep one step ahead of them is something the good guys are really working hard on each day,” says Williams, “and neutral platforms, such as the one MEF provides its members with, are perfect forums for organisations striving to protect mobile subscribers globally, to meet and collaborate.”
But he says that challenges in the commercial models employed across business messaging have provided headwinds, which has slowed down its adoption by many parties and attracted bad actors.
“Higher cost structures mean potentially more money and provide for a juicier target too,” he says.
While opportunities remain plentiful in the business messaging space, is the industry as a whole meeting its potential?
“I’ve asked this exact question to numerous people on panels over the past couple of years myself, rated out of 10, and most speakers respond with a six out of 10,” says Williams. But he is not as generous and gives the industry a four.
Williams believes that much of business messaging’s growth has come from the industry playing it safe with email, even though people forget that email is the single largest channel in transaction volumes globally.
“Truly getting to grips with how we collectively get the message out there that are channels such as A2P SMS, business versions of well-known chat apps, and rich business messaging that can be used to amazing effect by the 300+ million businesses out there globally is something else entirely,” he says.
Williams believes the industry has not done well at this, particularly regarding small and medium-sized companies (SMEs).
A number of the big business messaging players are coming out with solutions aimed at SMEs that have the potential to bring the likes of A2P SMS and WhatsApp to much bigger audiences and at scale.
According to Williams, for many, logic dictates that if they need a messaging solution for their business then their first port of call should be their local mobile network operators (MNOs).
“But in most countries, try to search for business messaging solutions on the websites of MNOs, and you won’t find much joy at all,” he says. “That’s because the market is dominated by aggregators. Few MNOs having really picked up on how positively a business messaging line of business could influence their bottom lines.”
Williams sees a shift moving forward as more MNOs forge partnerships with the likes of Infobip, Twilio, Sinch and GTS to access their white label communications platform as a service (CPaaS) solutions.
“Partnerships are the key to unlocking the industry’s true potential,” Williams maintains.
Return of RCS
Last year it was revealed by Juniper Research that rich communication services (RCS) subscribers will grow from 1.2 billion in 2022 to 3.8 billion by 2026. That will account for more than 40% of global mobile subscriptions, representing growth in excess of 216%.
RCS is a protocol for rich media messaging over operator networks that provides advanced business messaging services such as chatbots and payments.
Yet Williams says, despite the vast potential of the business messaging space, it is important to get one thing straight: “RCS is not new. It has been around for over a decade now, but it has had many false starts for a variety of reasons.”
The three main factors, according to Williams, are “the fact that Apple does not subscribe to it in any way, shape or form; technological difficulties integrating it; and the commercial models for it have been disparate and too complicated for the enterprises ultimately paying for the messaging to understand”.
Williams believes that for anything to be truly successful, it has to offer consistency, clarity and a level of simplicity. And this is only now being seen in rich business messaging (RBM). “Mobile operators are really getting together to discuss how to make RBM a reality,” he says. “So I do think RCS/RBM has finally launched now.”
But the acid test for Williams is whether RBM can be monetised. Today few players are making money from RBM, but Williams says this will change in the future.
“RBM will never become mainstream in the way WhatsApp has become where business chat is concerned, but it offers some fantastic opportunities for specific use cases,” he says. “I’m personally thinking of customer support and higher-end marketing, where RBM can be great if done properly.”
The challenges to the widespread RCS/RBM adoption have not changed much in recent years and still exist, but Williams maintains that RBM will have its day. But whether it reaches the heady heights it is capable of is something else entirely.
RBM will remain niche, Williams believes, and much of the real growth in richer messaging as a whole will come from chat apps like WhatsApp and Rakuten Viber.
Growth is possible
Despite the obstacles it is facing, Williams remains optimistic about the business messaging industry, believing there is plenty of room for growth in coming years.
“With hundreds of millions of businesses out there not even using the humble SMS to communicate with their client base, we’re really just scratching the surface today,” he says.
Williams points to the effectiveness of adverts used by Meta’s companies and their peers. While they are spending billions of dollars on digital ads, conversion rates for SMS have always been higher.
“Then look at richer messaging options, such as WhatsApp and RBM, and that, in turn, jumps again,” says Williams. “So, if digital ads – while looking cool and appearing to be on trend – don’t actually bring great results at all, why are so many organisations using them and spending so much on them?”
The answer to that is clarity, consistency and simplicity.
Williams says it is easy for organisations to set up digital ads but moving to SMS can take several weeks, depending on the rules and regulations where they operate.
He adds that any company considering using RBM in the likes of WhatsApp would require the help of an established expert messaging partner, as it is challenging process “that can’t be done overnight, no matter where you are”.
“If we, as an industry, truly pull together in a way that makes A2P SMS and the richer business messaging channels in particular super-easy to understand, then the headroom for growth is practically limitless,” Williams says. “This can only happen though if we collectively accelerate our fight against the bad actors destabilising the market and cashing in.
“And we need to ensure the commercial model for anything business messaging-related we sell is pure simplicity and set at a point which does not make enterprises think twice about using it.”