Why encryption is a double-edged sword for the messaging app Telegram

The messaging app Telegram, now with 100 million active monthly users worldwide, is still small compared to the likes of WhatsApp, with a billion active monthly users, or Facebook Messenger, with 800 million.

Still, some think its potential is greater than its numbers would suggest.

A product of the Edward Snowden fallout, Telegram became popular because of its message encryption: Messages can only be read by the intended recipient. “It was a watershed moment, culturally,” said Rob Scotland, business strategy director at Leo Burnett. “Users are gravitating toward Telegram because it at least professes some element of control at a time when it appears we don’t have as much.”

But, if the Investigatory Powers Bill comes to pass in U.K. (which would require Internet service providers and telephone companies to keep records of browser history), encryption services like Telegram will become more attractive. And where there are audiences, brands are sure to follow.

“The notion of locked or encrypted content only available and accessible to certain people is actually a whole treasure trove of possibilities for marketing,” said James Kirkham, founder of social media agency Holler and now head of Copa90, a YouTube-based football community. “Consider the idea of product treasure hunts, with clues and codes to lucky individuals, or sneak-peek, limited-view glimpses of content, messaging or product for only those in the know.”

Telegram’s better-known users include the Pope, who uses Telegram channels to share daily messages throughout Lent, and the BBC, which broadcasts its Russian content to subscribers.

Telegram lets users create bots, similar to Facebook Messenger, that companies can automate to respond to customers. The Economist is experimenting with bots to automatically deliver certain types of content from The Economist’s site in response to the user’s request.

But Telegram needs to establish a solid revenue model, and soon. Its creators, Nikolai and Pavel Durov, have been burning through cash while staying committed to keeping the service free for users.

If brands become part of that revenue model, they will be calling out for sounder measurement capabilities, which could be problematic for a messaging app whose key appeal is its encryption.

“How they handle that will be crucial,” said Scotland. “A lack of analytics are often the main criticisms for platforms reaching the next level of maturity. It must be communicated to its users very well and clearly.”