How to Build a Strong Community: In-App Chat vs. Third-Party Messaging

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The lost food delivery driver. The “Hi 😍” that started it all. The doctor’s appointment that’s taken from the couch. It seems that all of our real-world experiences these days are interwoven with a digital element. Whatever your industry or audience, providing users the ability to communicate with one another is an essential part of any app.

When we compare an app with a social environment to one without, the latter sees lower user engagement rates, a higher cost-per-install (CPI), and more frequent churn.

Enabling users to chat amongst themselves creates a sense of community that doubles as a powerful acquisition and retention tool you’ll want in your arsenal.

A tight community will keep users returning to your app time and time again.

The benefits of integrating chat in your app are clear, but your development team might be fuzzy on which solution will work best. In this article, we’ll bring two of the main chat functionality options into focus and take a closer look at their unique pros and cons.

What is In-App Chat?

In-app messaging allows users to communicate in real-time either 1:1 or in a group setting without leaving your app. It is the most powerful community builder because it gives users a reason to return to the app. In-app chat is free for the user and typically requires them to use mobile data or connect to WiFi, although some apps support offline messaging, too.

The Benefits of In-App Chat

Improved User Experience (UX)

While it is an extra development step, in-app chat is quickly gaining favor within the developer community because of its flexibility, seamless UX, and ability to replace additional touchpoints, like email. It’s also favored by users for its low adoption time. Chat interfaces are familiar and easier for users to leverage than forums or email.

In-app chat allows developers to maintain total control over their app’s UX and tailor it to best support their specific goals and use cases. Users will appreciate the ability to send media like videos, audio files, and GIFs to one another, customize their profiles with nicknames and avatars, and add structure to their exchanges by threading messages.

In-app messaging happens in real-time, making the interaction seem more “human,” positively contributing to a more profound sense of community. Additional features that evoke a personal touch are digital conversational signals like user presence and typing indicators. These allow users to maintain a natural rhythm to their text exchanges, just as they would have conversing face-to-face.

Insightful Analytics

By opting to include chat as an in-app feature, you can easily collect and analyze user data. There are many ways to leverage this data, like moderating abusive chatter, gaining context around app friction points, and better understanding your user community. And if users can transact over in-app chat, you can even gain insight into your sales funnel. Given the sensitive nature of this data, developers should consider adding end-to-end encryption (E2EE) to their in-app chat to secure it and build a trustworthy reputation with their users.

Protect User Contact Details

Some users prefer to take a more incremental approach when joining a community-minded setting. In-app chat places the power of sharing personal contact details, like a phone number or email, in the user’s hands. The ability for users to toggle between anonymity and community is particularly useful in the context of dating apps and marketplaces— forums where communication is essential.

Improved Retention & Engagement Rates

In-app chat not only drives traffic to your app but also accelerates user adoption and spikes metrics like engagement, conversions, and retention, solving some of the biggest challenges facing apps in today’s saturated app marketplace. When paired with Android and iOS push notifications, you can influence these key metrics even more. Push notifications alert users when they’ve received a message and encourage them to open your app and respond.

Perfectly Positioned to Outsource

By investing in a ready-made chat SDK, your team can reap all of the benefits of in-app chat without having to monopolize your organization’s valuable engineering resources. These integrations offer supreme scalability, customization, security, and multi-tenancy so your developers can spend their time focused on other areas of your app.

The Drawbacks of In-App Chat

The primary challenge facing in-app chat is its complex development process. Even a basic chat functionality can take months or even years to build in-house. Luckily, there are ready-made chat APIs and SDKs your team can lean on to expedite it. Challenges of in-app chat for users might include needing an internet connection to send and receive messages. The absence of push notifications can also present a challenge. If users opt-out of them, they might not see their messages or have reason to open your app.

What are Third-Party Messaging Apps?

To remedy one of the main challenges of short message service (SMS) text (the varied costs to the end-user), third-party messaging apps were created specifically with international users in mind. They are free because they rely on internet connection rather than cellular data to send texts. A number of these messaging platforms have risen in popularity over the years. A prime example of one is WhatsApp, the most used mobile messenger app with over 100 billion messages sent each day.

The Benefits of Third-Party Messaging

No Cost to Users

As previously mentioned, international SMS data rates users paid to receive text messages sparked the idea for third-party messaging apps. These tools are free to all users with a WiFi connection.

Optimal UX with Minimal Development

Third-party messengers more closely resemble in-app chat than SMS. They allow the user to reach a higher degree of customization and feature group chat functionality, media sharing capabilities, and make video calls and send audio file messages. These are all community-crafting features that would require a significant lift from an app development team to build a messaging app from scratch.

Omnichannel Messaging

Most third-party messengers sync with other devices. Meaning, users can download the application onto their Macbooks and PCs, cellphone, or log in via web browser. More accessibility options for users enable them to stay connected to the communities they’ve built regardless of device.

The Drawbacks of Third-Party Messaging

Absence of Analytics

Similar to SMS, third-party messengers do not provide an analytical look at customer engagement and interactions. There is no way to monitor abusive chatter or apply learnings from customer conversation to the app experience.

Security Concerns

Security protocols vary from third-party messenger to messenger. Some do not feature E2EE and have been subject to data breaches. But bringing the issue to the forefront of industry news, most popular platforms are taking the protection of customer data more seriously to retain security-savvy users.

Less Brand Awareness

While third-party messaging platforms include more bells and whistles than SMS, developers will not be able to reiterate the chat component of their app alongside any improvements made to the overall program. Developers can brand in-app chat to match the company’s colors, logo, and fonts – third-party messengers can not. In-app chat keeps users in your app whenever they’d like to send, view, or respond to messages, reinforcing your brand presence.

As You Weigh Your Options...

As you weigh your options for a chat solution, consider your ideal development costs, desired user experience, and how valuable an asset a strong community within a chat environment can be.

A third-party chat tool will allow you to maintain a media-rich messaging functionality but won’t contribute to overall app engagement and retention metrics like in-app chat will.

In-app chat will boost your app’s retention and engagement rates while making it easier for users to bond and communicate. It will also allow you to collect valuable data from your users that you can leverage to improve your app and the safety of your chat community.

Whether it’s protecting privacy, having tight integration into your app, or just providing a more human UX, in-app chat offers more options and flexibility than third-party messaging.

Even industries that aren’t traditionally built on user communities find in-app chat an essential functionality. For delivery and marketplaces apps, in-app chat helps users communicate effectively within the live context of a transaction rather than outside of it. Education and healthcare apps can leverage in-app chat to provide a richer experience than SMS text or a third-party messaging solution, even seamlessly expanding the experience to video, all within the app. Whichever solution your team decides is suitable for your app, remember to put the user first, leverage proprietary data for the good of your app, and continuously look for ways to integrate community into your overall user experience.

Ready to see how your product team can seamlessly integrate in-app chat? Activate your free Chat trial to tinker with Stream’s Chat API and SDKs.