Catching up with coworkers, friends, and family members across the globe has never been easier: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, WeChat, GroupMe, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Skype…even the old-fashioned telephone for those who feel nostalgic. Social media platforms have incredible global reach – 1.96 billion users – but one-to-one messaging platforms are closing the gap. In February 2016, market leader WhatsApp reached 1 billion active users.

So what do one-to-one messaging platforms do? They let users send individual or group messages directly to other users, an alternative to public posts on social networking sites. It may sound shockingly simple, but these apps are not a passing fad. They’re not only growing fast, but also have a significantly higher retention rate than other apps. Businesses are, naturally, now taking a look. Messaging app SOMA, for example, focuses on providing free global, encrypted group voice and video chats for up to 500 people – perfect for conference calls or town halls at global corporations.

For marketers, the ubiquity of messaging apps has obvious implications. Namely, how do you reach people there without violating the experience of the app? While this is an age-old marketing challenge, messaging apps represent a particular dilemma. They have no room for banner ads, and sponsored posts can’t simply blend into a stream of updates. In short, traditional online advertising has nowhere to hide. And then there’s the bigger issue: Will people tolerate – let alone accept – brand campaigns in their texts? No brand wants to succeed in reaching customers, only to alienate them by intruding in sacred personal space.

Messaging Marketing Hall of Fame

Yet some brands have and are succeeding. Absolut Vodka’s funny, interactive WhatsApp campaign in Argentina is a standout. Absolut encouraged its customers to chat with a virtual bouncer named “Sven,” an account run by their community manager, to secure an invitation to an exclusive party. The stunt still relied on campaigns outside of the app itself, but the buzz shows that messaging apps have the capability to buoy interactive marketing campaigns.

Messaging apps can also enhance customer experience. Dutch Airline KLM uses WhatsApp to let travelers rebook cancelled flights. Other apps, like WeChat, a popular messaging app in China, and Facebook Messenger, have begun integrating features such as mobile pay and car hailing services as additional brand tie-ins. WeChat continues to lead the multi-app integration, pioneering services to allow its users to make doctor’s appointments and hear from their favorite celebrities.

Modern Word of Mouth

What can other brands do to achieve similar success? They need to realize it’s all about how you enter the conversation. Remember: Users aren’t following brands or publicly sharing content within these apps, unlike on social media platforms.

One place to start: emojis. Coca-Cola and Starbucks each paid a cool million to launch emoji campaigns on Twitter during this year’s NFL championship. Other brands are getting in on the act, too. Wafflemaker Eggo debuted its “Eggojis” just in time for International Waffle Day. It was a great way to let people send tongue-in-cheek messages and embrace the brand.

Of course, messaging apps are still in their early days. But it’s good to remember that entering a person’s living room through his television set or her personal life via a social media feed was once an act that required great finesse. No doubt intruding in messaging apps will one day become commonplace, too. But in the meantime, to connect with consumers on apps, smart brands will need to strike the right balance, bringing a light touch and a healthy sense of humor.