There are several types of communication channels available today to enable your business to reach its target audience. And it's important to explore all of them to form relationships with customers and prospects, not to mention internal colleagues.
Instant messaging is one of the most popular ways to communicate with anyone, anywhere in the world. As of January 2023, the top six messaging apps had a combined user base of over 6 billion people globally! Hence, this form of communication offers masses of potential for reaching expansive audiences. This, among other reasons, is why you should consider instant messaging for business.
Read on to discover how instant messaging works, why adding this channel to your comms strategy is essential and get an overview of the top 11 business instant messaging apps. (Bonus: you'll also learn about four other apps designed specifically for internal comms.)
How instant messaging works
Instant messaging uses third-party apps to send and receive messages. These are transmitted over the internet or via mobile data (unlike SMS, which uses cellular connections). Instant messaging platforms enable real-time back-and-forth conversations – you can see when someone is replying via a typing indicator.
It was early messaging apps like AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), MSN Messenger (later known as Windows Live Messenger) and Blackberry Messenger (BBM) that catapulted the trend for this type of communication. People adopted them for personal use to have fast online chats with friends and family. But nowadays, businesses are tapping into instant messaging too.
How is instant messaging used in a business?
Companies can use instant messaging apps for marketing – to spread awareness, drive sales and nurture customers. They can also be used for transactional messaging in response to user interaction. And they're ideal for conversational messaging in a customer service environment or internally within an organisation.
Pros and cons of instant messaging for businesses
There are several advantages, but also a few disadvantages, of using instant messaging tools for business communication. Let's jump into them now...
Instant messaging pros
With a business messaging app, you can effectively streamline your external and internal communications, keeping all messages under one roof. All recipients benefit from real-time messages – this can help improve the customer experience, for example, as queries or complaints can be dealt with promptly. Other advantages include:
Being able to share a variety of content – special deals, loyalty incentives, new product information, engagement campaigns (e.g. contests or quizzes), order confirmations, delivery updates, 2FA PIN codes, appointment reminders – the list goes on.
Helping drive customer engagement – instant messaging apps are free for personal use, meaning customers can engage with you at no cost to them.
No dependency on mobile network signals – (since it works over WiFi).
Being platform-independent – instant messaging apps run on a range of software. For example, you could use a business messaging platform and integrate various instant messaging apps into this one application to streamline management.
Content flexibility – unlike SMS, which has a limited character length per text, instant messaging gives you much more space to get your point across. And you can send media files (images, videos, GIFs, stickers and documents) as well as simple text-based content.
Instant messaging cons
Instant messaging, although used by billions, does have some restrictions. It can't reach areas where WiFi isn't available, either if the signal is patchy or the user doesn't have it. And it doesn't work for people with basic feature phones – these only utilise SMS. So instant messaging may not be accessible to every single member of your target audience, and it can mean that time-sensitive information doesn't reach all recipients at the correct time. Other disadvantages of instant messaging platforms include:
Possibly being distracting for team members – instant messages evoke that feeling of needing to reply quickly. For staff deeply concentrating on their work, this might be counter-productive.
Impacts on resources – the more available you make your business, the more resources you must invest in responding to enquiries quickly.
Security and privacy – this is handled by a third party rather than your business, which may be a concern.
- Not suitable for every communication – an email, for instance, is a better way to convey complex ideas and long-form content.
11 of the best instant messaging apps for business
Here are some of the best instant messaging tools around – some you've probably heard of while others are lesser known.
1. Viber Business Messages
Viber is an encrypted messaging platform that lets people send text and media messages, and make phone calls, to other Viber users for free. It's used by around 1 billion people worldwide. Businesses can engage customers through Viber's messaging solutions, targeted ads, branded stickers and chatbots.
Key features and pros:
Ideal for conversational, promotional and transactional notifications.
Can send rich-content messages like how-to guides and video demos.
Lets you send mass messages through Viber's 'Broadcast Lists' feature.
Supports group chats.
Fun features like stickers can increase brand awareness.
Easy to upsell products and services by showing related items.
Integrates with CRM systems to help you keep track of customer interactions.
Native advertising solutions, e.g., within the 'Chats' and 'Calls' tabs.
Can contact people outside Viber using the 'Viber Out' feature.
Cons: It's not the most widely used messaging app around, although the number of users is far from shabby. There is a country-specific minimum monthly commitment for messaging volumes.
Pricing: The cost depends on whether you're sending promotional or transactional messages, and it also varies by country.
2. WhatsApp Business Platform or App
WhatsApp has more than 2 billion users and offers features like group chatting, voice notes, video and voice calls, and text messages. Two options are available for businesses – the WhatsApp Business App, which is best suited for small companies – and the WhatsApp Business Platform, which is more for larger enterprises looking to communicate at scale.
Key features and pros:
Rich messaging experience for your target audience.
The app's been around since 2009, so many people are familiar with it.
Lets you create group chats with up to 1024 members.
Recipients can use WhatsApp on their desktop devices as well as mobile.
Uses 'Session Messages', which give you a 24-hour window to converse with customers once they've interacted with you.
Branded business profile to increase awareness.
Trustworthy among users thanks to WhatsApp's strict anti-spam and quality content policies.
Includes end-to-end encryption for enhanced security.
Can use automated messages to save time.
Cons: You can't send mass messages with WhatsApp. And you can only initiate messages with customers using a pre-approved message template.
Pricing: WhatsApp gives you 1,000 conversations for free each month. After that, you'll be charged per 24-hour conversation session.
* Related: Compare Viber vs WhatsApp.
3. Facebook Messenger
Facebook Messenger is the messaging app originally built into the Facebook social media platform – it's now a dedicated app used by about 931 million people. Messenger lets Facebook users connect with each other and send texts, photos and videos, set up a group chat and more. As a business, you can leverage Messenger to generate leads, provide customer service and build brand awareness.
Key features and pros:
Works with Facebook ads as a call-to-action, e.g. the 'Send Message' button.
Streamlines customer transactions as you can set up payments in Messenger.
Easy to set up automated responses and saved replies for FAQs that come via your Facebook business page.
Useful analytics that show metrics about messaging connections.
Easy to switch accounts between your Business Inbox and personal profile.
Messenger advertising solutions available.
Responsiveness badge for businesses with a response rate of 90% or over.
Cons: Conversations can't be initiated by you – people have to contact you first.
Pricing: Messenger is free for business communication.
WeChat is a Chinese social media messaging app with over a billion users, many of which are from China or are in Chinese-speaking communities around the world. It's something of a super-app in that it lets users do every from messaging and calling to browsing friends' social posts, shopping online, sending money and more. Businesses need to create a WeChat official account to chat with customers.
Key features and pros:
Two types of business accounts – a subscription account for marketing and a service account for customer support.
Can attract conversations with a QR code, and your business will also be 'searchable' within the app.
Like WhatsApp, you'll get a messaging window to chat with customers after they've interacted with your brand (48 hours, not 24).
Cons: More suited to the Chinese market than anywhere else. Brands can't send the first message; the user must initiate this.
Pricing: WeChat is free to set up but charges an annual verification fee.
Line is Japan's biggest instant messaging software solution which includes over 100 other services, like gaming, news, music, job boards, shopping, trading NFTS, healthcare access, payment services, and so much more. It has 92 million users and is also heavily used in Asian countries like Indonesia, Taiwan and Thailand.
Key features and pros:
Wide user demographic - people young and old use Line.
Rich media messaging available.
Variety of ad services to increase brand awareness and drive web traffic.
People can interact with your brand through Line's chat links or QR codes.
Users are encouraged to 'befriend' an account before starting a chat.
The Line 'Broadcasts' feature lets you send messages to users who've added your account as a friend. You can filter these users by demographic for better targeting.
Cons: Only suitable if your audience base is in Japan or the Asian countries mentioned above. Users need to contact you first before you can have a conversation.
Pricing: Creating an account is free, but you must pay a subscription to send large messaging volumes.
With more than 700 million monthly active users, Telegram is one of the ten most downloaded apps worldwide. It's most popular in Eastern Europe, South America and Africa. A bit like SMS and email combined, Telegram lets you send rich messaging content and attach files of any type. Its main USP is speed and security, but there are also some very useful features for businesses.
Key features and pros:
Create groups for up to 200,000 members and allow voice chats in groups.
Groups have organisational tools like hashtags, replies and mentions.
Setting up a channel means you can broadcast messages to unlimited audiences.
End-to-end encryption for video and voice calls.
Write to your phone contacts and search for people by username.
Telegram syncs seamlessly across any number of phones, tablets or computers.
Powerful file-sharing options.
Built-in photo editor and open sticker platform.
Excellent security – Telegram messages can self-destruct and are heavily encrypted.
Cons: Telegram doesn't provide an API, so to use it for business, you'll need to create a Telegram bot, which you can do through a third-party messaging platform. Customers also need to initiate the conversation.
Pricing: Telegram is free, although you may need to pay to use a third-party business messaging app.
Discord is an app that hosts conversations between private and public groups and communities of members with common interests. Within groups, you can create text channels or voice channels to organise conversations into different categories. Discord is used by tens of millions of people and is particularly popular among teens and young people interested in gaming.
As a business, you can create your own communities - i.e. a large, public one for customers and a private group for your team. In Discord lingo, groups and communities are known as 'Servers'.
Great for building a following and increasing customer loyalty.
By verifying your business, you can access Server insights to see where new members are coming from and how they're engaging.
Can segment audiences creatively by assigning custom icons and coloured usernames.
Ideal for holding live, virtual events.
Cons: There are no paid-advertising options available on Discord. Also, this app's user base is quite niche.
Pricing: It's free to join and create Servers, but you'll need to pay to upgrade your account and make the most of what Discord has to offer.
Snapchat is one of the top social media platforms in the world with 383 million daily active users as of Q1, 2023. It's primarily used by Gen Z and millennials for sending pictures and videos, posting stories and having fun with filters and lenses. Most Snapchat messages are automatically deleted from the recipient's phone once they've been viewed, which increases trust for users.
Key features and pros:
Can create a public profile for your business to help your target audience find you.
Paid advertising solutions available, and can also sponsor creative tools like lenses and geofilters to help with brand awareness.
Snapchat Spotlight lets you create short reels which are posted in a public thread.
Helpful for promoting a local business as users can tag their location when visiting your premises.
Cons: Snapchat videos can only be up to 10 seconds long, so you may need to post multiple videos if you can't get your message across in that time. Also, if you do send individual messages to customers on Snapchat, they won't stick around for very long.
Pricing: It's free to download, send messages and create a public profile. You'll need to pay for Snapchat's advertising options.
TikTok is a social media app with a focus on entertaining short-form, music-based videos. It's used mainly by young people (and celebrities!) who like to get creative with their content, using voiceovers, stickers, sound effects and filters. TikTok has a worldwide audience of about 1 billion monthly active users.
Key features and pros:
Videos need to be between 15 to 60 seconds long.
Multiple ad choices – top-view ads, in-feed ads and brand takeover ads, to name a few.
Offers high brand engagement – 92% of users take action after seeing a TikTok video.
Provides plenty of creative opportunities to show off your brand and you have the option to partner with creators.
Business account available where you can use lead generation and customer conversion tools like link-in-bio and display your business contact details on your profile.
Cons: Almost 70% of TikTok users are younger than 40, so if your audience is older, this might not be the best platform.
Pricing: Registering for a business account is free, and you'll need to pay to use TikTok's advertising solutions (there's a minimum daily budget and total budget of $50 for campaigns).
Founded in 2006, Twitter lets users broadcast short messages or status updates to followers (called Tweets). These can contain text, photos, videos and links, and stay on the user's profile unless deleted. Tweets are also searchable within Twitter. Approximately 353.9 million people use this app; a mixed audience of friends, family, businesses and co-workers.
Key features and pros:
Helps with building a community around your business.
Good for sending quick updates about services and products.
Easy to run contests and competitions to boost engagement.
Enables customers to provide feedback quickly (albeit very publicly).
Useful analytics where you can see the reach of your top tweets and mentions.
Paid advertising options and Twitter Blue (a premium subscription service) available.
Cons: To get the most out of Twitter for business, you'll need a Twitter Blue subscription which is expensive. This gives you the sought-after blue verification badge and many perks like the ability to edit and undo tweets, bookmark tweets, find top articles, longer video uploads, increased visibility and prioritised rankings in conversations.
Pricing: Setting up a basic Twitter account for business is free. Twitter Blue varies per country and the device you're using. For example, it costs US users $114.99 per year on iOS.
11. Apple Messages for Business
Apple Messages for Business lets you contact customers (who are Apple users) directly through the Messages app. In addition to messaging, this app can schedule appointments and take customer payments.
Key features and pros:
Customers and prospects can find you and start conversations using Safari, Maps, Siri etc., on any Apple device.
Your business information is available as a contact card.
Excellent data security.
Cons: To qualify for a business account, you must use an asynchronous (Apple-approved) messaging service provider, staffed with live agents during business hours. Also, you can only reach Apple users with this app.
Pricing: Creating an Apple Messages for Business account is free. But you'll need to pay to use a messaging service provider. This might involve a monthly subscription or a fee per message sent.
Bonus: 4 instant messaging apps for internal communication
Strong internal communication keeps staff informed and engaged, helping to improve morale and boost productivity throughout the management/employee chain. It's used for delivering business strategy and is all about keeping everyone in the loop. While you can use some of the above apps for internal comms, there are some alternatives designed especially for team communication. Here are four to check out...
Slack helps organisations and teams connect and work together in a flexible, inclusive way. You can message anyone inside or outside the business and work in dedicated channels. So you might have a channel for product development and another for marketing, and assign certain staff to these channels. You can share files, search for information, see mentions and reactions, record audio and video clips, and integrate other apps into the platform, such as Google Drive and Office 365.
Pricing: Four plans are available – Free, Pro (£5.75 monthly), Business (£9.75 monthly) and Enterprise Grid (custom pricing).
2. Microsoft Teams
A workspace for real-time communication, MS Teams is part of the 365 product family. It lets you bring groups of people together with tools like instant messaging, online meetings, video conferencing, and voice and video calls. Through channels, you can organise projects and discussions based on specific topics. And you can share files and have multiple people working on the same document at once. Microsoft Teams is replacing Skype for Business (a similar product but not as advanced.)
Pricing: Business plans start at $4.00 to $12.50 per user, per month.
3. Zoho Cliq
Zoho Cliq has some useful tools for simplifying team communication. Like MS Teams, groups can collaborate in channels and make voice and video calls. You can also perform task management, view calendar schedules and build custom bots to centralise and automate workflows.
Pricing: You can start for free and upgrade to a paid plan for more features. The cost varies depending on the number of users. For example, for up to 500 users, it costs £2.16 per user, per month (billed annually).
4. Google Chat
Google Chat (formerly Google Hangouts) helps teams collaborate effortlessly from anywhere. It's part of Google Workspace, which includes a ton of other Google products like Gmail, Drive, Meet, Docs, Sheets, etc. Google Chat brings all your group and direct messages together and offers a place for topic-based discussions through its 'Spaces' feature.
Pricing: Google Workspace costs between £5 to £15 per user, per month. There's a free 14-day trial available, plus an Enterprise plan for custom pricing.
Which platform should you choose?
With all these instant messaging apps and collaboration tools at your fingertips, which should you go for? Here are some key factors to help you decide.
Reach – consider your target audience demographic and their location. Not every app is available or used widely in all countries.
Purpose and pricing – what do you primarily need the app for? Compare the features and functions and shortlist the top five that fit within your budget.
Security – does it offer end-to-end encryption? Check whether the app stores user data and has had a data breach in the past. What steps have been taken to secure systems and mitigate risks?
Reliability – research whether the app is prone to downtime and crashes often. You can usually find this information online as users will complain. It's an important consideration because if you have something urgent to communicate, such as an announcement or one-time password, an unreliable service will reflect poorly on your business.
Integrations – do you want to automate certain parts of the instant messaging experience? If so, look for an app where you can set up automation mechanisms which will integrate with other applications for functions such as bulk messaging and text scheduling.
Use instant messaging platforms to meet customers where they are
If you arrived at this article wondering, "Should businesses use instant messaging apps?", you now have your answer: yes, absolutely. Instant messaging is one of the most used digital communication channels in the world.
Most apps mentioned here have millions, if not billions, of active users. So it's a no-brainer to tap into them, especially those that are free with a user base that aligns with your target audience. The information we've provided on the most popular instant messaging platforms should help you get started with selecting the ones that best suit your external and internal communication needs.
Wondering what to read next? Browse our blog for more tips on business messaging.