SINGAPORE: Chat apps are the future of social in Asia, but brands are caught between the scale of opportunity and a lack of revenue-generating capability, according to a leading social media expert.

Simon Kemp, managing partner at digital agency We Are Social in Asia, revealed at the recent Digital Marketing World Forum (DMWF) that the number of unique users of chat apps will overtake the number using Facebook within the next 18 months.

He explained that chat apps provide an alternative to algorithm-based platforms and resemble the natural social environment much more closely than "traditional" social platforms, such as Facebook, while providing a vehicle for more authentic communications.

While Facebook and WhatsApp lead globally, China and Asia's developing markets are driving the fastest uptake of chat apps. Two Chinese chat apps – Qzone and QQ are in the top five for usage globally.

Kemp believes that a social media world where Facebook is no longer dominant will see many rules change in the game of social engagement for marketers.

Although chat apps are being used by small businesses across the region for one-on-one customer service, a lack of revenue-generating options for chat apps has seen brands largely unable to convert the opportunities.

China's WeChat is the only chat app to currently offer direct opportunities for brands to connect with potential customers.

WeChat, which includes payment functionality, social media and booking capabilities, has an estimated 650m monthly active users. Usage is soaring, and is expected to crack the top five globally on updated numbers. However, the platform remains almost entirely China-centric at this stage.

Also, Asia's surging mobile uptake, which significantly outpaces uptake in Western markets, is a major factor in the uptake of chat apps across the region.

While internet and social usage is lower than the global average, Asia leads when it comes to mobile connections with penetration at 94%. By comparison, global penetration of mobile users is at 63%.

"Mobile social activity is where the key growth is coming from," Kemp said. "Mobile is a critical part of everything that we do now."

Data sourced from Warc