RIO DE JANEIRO: WhatsApp, the messaging app owned by Facebook, is a hugely popular method of communication in Brazil where brands, both large and small, have successfully used the channel to improve consumer engagement.

Indeed, according to Fernanda Saboia, a Rio-based senior strategist at digital agency Huge, a full 96% of Brazilian smartphone users are reported to use WhatsApp as their first choice of communication.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Saboia said that WhatsApp "has become something much bigger than a chat app" in Brazil, where it has emerged as a "one-stop solution for everyone".

"It has changed how users expect to interact with companies and brands online, and it is forcing firms to use messaging to fulfil customer expectations," she said, as she outlined five key ways in which brands can make the best use of direct messaging.

She said one of the most important aspects of instant and direct messaging is that consumers expect immediate answers to their queries, so businesses would be making a mistake by taking too long to answer.

While the average response time for email is 90 minutes, the average response time for messaging is 90 seconds, Saboia explained as she advised brands to have a text-ready number that customers can use to get in touch with them as well as a team that can respond to questions in real time.

Brands should also think creatively about how to use messaging apps to provide a good service. For example, Hellmann's Brasil, the mayonnaise brand owned by FMCG giant Unilever, used messaging in a campaign in 2014 to provide recipe ideas to customers based on what food they had in their fridge.

Another advantage of WhatsApp and other messaging apps is to alert customers to new products, such as a new line of clothing, although Saboia cautioned against sending unsolicited promotional material that customers didn't ask for.

"The day that messaging apps have to incorporate a spam folder is the day that messaging stops being an opportunity for businesses," she warned.

Instead, brands stand to gain from building a community of loyal customers who are happy to communicate their shared interests, and by meeting this demand through the creation of original content.

"The key is to focus on creating quality content where your brand is trying to be not the centre of the discussion but rather a memorable element in the background," she said.

Data sourced from Harvard Business Review; additional content by Warc staff