WhatsApp’s new location sharing feature has been a long time coming for people who use the app to meet up with friends.
In the coming weeks, its users on iPhones and Android phones will be able to temporarily share their live locations on a map with WhatsApp contacts one-on-one, or as part of a group.
The feature isn’t terribly new. Apple has enabled location sharing in iMessage for some time, and in April Google made it possible to do the same, by sending a real-time link via the messaging app of your choice.
But it would make sense if WhatsApp is exploring ways of bringing this feature over to a new set of users too: businesses.
WhatsApp’s location sharing feature comes at a time when the app is laying the groundwork for businesses to use the platform to connect with potential customers, and finally generate some revenue.
In September, WhatsApp said it was testing features with businesses that would verify and distinguish them from other contacts, and make it easier for them to communicate with people on the app.
WhatsApp is testing the features in two ways: on a free “WhatsApp Business” app for small enterprises, and via an enterprise solution for larger companies. WhatsApp says banks and airlines who have customers all over the world could ping them with “useful” notifications about things like deliveries and flight times.
These notifications are where location tracking could come in handy.
If a WhatsApp user connects with a local shop on WhatsApp and agrees to let the shop track their location, for instance, that business might ping the user with a voucher next time they pass by.
WhatsApp did not mention businesses in its blog post about live location sharing.
But if it does test the feature with business users, it could take a leaf out of Twitter’s book.
In April Twitter announced it would allow a business to send Twitter users a direct message, requesting or sharing locations.
“People have complete control over the location information they share with a business,” Twitter said, clarifying an obvious privacy concern from the get-go.
“Businesses must first ask a person to share a location. That person can then choose to ignore the request, share a precise location, or pick a place name from a list – regardless of whether or not they are physically there.”
In one example, a bot for TGI Fridays sends someone a DM on Twitter saying, “Hi,” before inviting the customer to place an order to search for a restaurant.
The customer responds, “order to go.” TGI Fridays then finds the customer on a map, before offering them a list of nearby restaurants to order from.
This scenario could fit in pretty well with WhatsApp’s insistence over the past year that when businesses eventually begin talking to users on the app, they’ll only do so in “useful” ways – not for advertising.
Reminder: WhatsApp has historically been anti-advertising.
When Facebook bought WhatsApp in February 2014 for $22 billion, it did so on the premise that the messaging app would remain independent and Mark Zuckerberg would not put pressure on founders Jan Koum and Brian Acton to monetize the platform.
Since then, WhatsApp has reached 1 billion daily active users and hired a senior executive in marketing and advertising from Facebook, Matthew Idema. And just last month WhatsApp’s Acton — who once signed a note saying, “No Ads! No Games! No Gimmicks!” which was kept on his co-founder’s desk — left the company to start a non-profit.
The vacuum left by Acton doesn’t necessarily mean WhatsApp will betray its founding principles and open the floodgates to location-based advertising. But it might make it easier for parent company Facebook to push for location-based services, particularly if businesses on the platform can argue that they’re useful for customers.
One shouldn’t underestimate Facebook’s ability to spin here. If you’ve ever contemplated its definition of “meaningful” when debating if its Newsfeed truly helps users or advertisers, you’ll know there is probably room for stretching the word “useful” too.