How To Develop a Messaging App: Key Features, Costs, and Considerations

Hannah Solovey
Market Researcher

Today, it’s hard to imagine an active internet user without a messaging app or four installed on their device. These apps have changed the way we communicate online, become part of our daily routines, and are increasingly relevant each year.

The tricky question is how to build a competitive chat app, such as WhatsApp, in 2021. And are there still opportunities to enter the market given the stiff competition?

In short, yes. Here we answer key questions related to chat app development, including market analysis, cost estimations, and the key technologies behind any messaging application.

Types of Chat Apps

Why create a messaging app in the first place and who will use it? Messaging apps can be divided into two broad categories: apps for in-house company use, and commercial apps for the general public. Let’s look at each in more detail.

Apps for business use 

Messaging apps are used in internal company communications to make business processes smoother, allow employees to chat with ease, and improve overall communications within a team.

Example: Slack 

Created in 2013 and publicly launched in 2014, Slack is a highly popular invite-only messaging app. Employers can create a ‘desk’ and invite teammates via email. There are separate messaging ‘rooms’ and channels, and personal messages are supported too. In 2019, Slack’s active audience was 12 million people per day. Around 156,000 organizations use Slack’s PC and mobile app including Starbacks, Trivago, Lyft, and many news outlets such as BBC and The New York Times.

Example: StrongBox (MVP)

As an example from our practice, we created a minimal viable product (MVP), an early version of an app, for StrongBox. Not yet-released, this messaging app is designed for business communication. It was built with Signal protocol, which is also used in the chat app of the same name.

Apps for commercial use 

Most messaging apps we know are built for public, commercial use. Their creators, and those who work in the development team, earn money as we use their frameworks in our everyday lives. Sure, these apps can be used for business communications as well, but most of the time, they’re used in peoples’ private lives with no work context.

Example: Telegram 

Founded in 2013, this cloud-based service has in-house encryption protocols and even supports self-destructing ‘secret’ chats for users who are particular about their security. Unlike WhatsApp, which lets you link another device in a complicated way, Telegram is easier in terms of logging in. It allows users to access their messages from several devices simultaneously.

Example of Telegram's multiple log-in

Now that we’ve established the basic categories of messaging apps for investors, let’s talk about the main players in the chat app game.

Market Leaders: Do New Messaging Apps Have a Chance?

Every minute, over 41 million messages are sent via messaging apps. For sure, it’s hard to develop a chat app like WhatsApp in today’s competitive marketplace, but there are always opportunities for apps that are niche and/or fill a gap in the market. The key is finding that gap. With that in mind, it pays to know the leaders of the chat app field.

WhatsApp 

Example of WhatsApp functionality

WhatsApp is one of today’s ubiquitous chat apps, and has around two billion users. Now, it belongs to Facebook, but initially it was a simple, subscription-based app that was free for a year and just $1 for the next year. WhatsApp offers calls, video calls, voice messages, texting, and file sharing. The service’s popularity is largely based on its security credentials and its excellent connections.

WeChat

Example of WeChat functionality

A Chinese messaging app, WeChat has seen a huge wave of popularity among users worldwide and now has more than 1.2 billion active users. It’s quite different from other messengers because of its many functionalities. WeChat’s ‘all-in-one’ approach supports everything from chatting to paying bills and even ordering a table in a restaurant.

Skype 

Example of Skype functionality

Skype is a veteran among messaging apps and has been in the game for the longest, as early as in 2003, in fact. While its interface is quite simple by today's standards, its main selling point is that it supports calls to phone numbers without an internet connection, which users pay for, and this is how the app is monetized. Today, it has around 1.5 billion users worldwide.

Facebook Messenger 

Example of Facebook Messenger functionality

Facebook Messenger is another popular chat app which has its own cool feature, chatbots. With its help, users can talk directly to businesses, and businesses are able to set a certain pattern of replies, including replies based on keywords. As of now, its audience is around 1.5 billion users.

Viber 

Example of Viber functionality

Created in 2010, Viber has belonged to Japanese company Rakuten since 2014. With around 1.2 billion users globally, Viber is known for its ‘Viber Out’ voice-call tool. It lets users call family and friends who don’t have a mobile connection. ‘Viber Out’ users need to pay and Viber also offers other in-app purchases, such as special stickers. This strategy means Vibers has an ongoing (and quite successful) monetization method.

After that quick analysis of the titans, here’s a guide to what you need to know about developing a messaging app.

How To Build a Messaging App

Messaging app development is best understood by breaking the process down into four categories for consideration: 

  • The features chat app developers will include in the service (basic and more advanced ones) 
  • The technology stack behind a messaging app 
  • Monetization models
  • Chat app development costs.

For now though, let’s chat about features.

Features to include in a chat app

Must-have features

Are the features no messaging app can survive without. To build a competitive service, pay attention to these first and foremost, because first impressions matter immensely in today’s competitive chat app market.

  • Authentication: Registration can be via phone numbers, email addresses, or social media profiles. Popular messengers, like WhatsApp and Telegram, use phone numbers.
  • Contact integration and sharing: After authentication, a user needs to find their friends on the app with the help of contact-integration features. Without this, they may not use the application at all. The opportunity to share a contact in a message is also a must-have.
  • User profiles: It’s crucial that an app allows users to change their profile picture, name, and other customizable settings. In addition, being able to personalise the background and internal ‘looks’ is a big plus.
  • Messaging: This goes without saying, but quick, secure, and seamless messaging is central to live chat app development for mobile devices.
  • File exchanging: GIFs and stickers, photos, and media files are essential in any chat; you can’t overlook this feature and simply offer text messages.
  • Notifications: Your users need to receive notifications each time someone sends them messages.

Extra features to make your app stand out

If you want something ‘more’, consider implementing these additional features. True, these are more time-consuming and expensive, especially voice chat app development (we’ll get to the costs later), but it’s worth it if you want your app to stand out — and for people to remember it for longer than a month after its release.

  • Voice calls, video calls: Just like in WhatsApp, an advanced chat app supports voice and video calls. Note that group chat app development is more complicated, and hence costly.
  • Audio messages: Today, many people prefer to record audio messages over texting as it’s quicker and more intimate. Consider adding this function to your app to keep users happy.
  • Games: In-app games make a service more interactive, plus they’re an excellent monetization opportunity.
  • Chatbots: Chatbots and other e-commercial features can attract businesses to your app. What’s more, people find it convenient to have a direct line to a company or service.
  • Location tracking and sharing: Sometimes users need to quickly share their location with friends to track and reach them with ease.
  • Extra security features: If you value apps like Telegram, think about adding security features such as secret chats, self-destructing timers, or temporary messages.

Technology Stack in iOS and Android Messaging App Development

When it comes to chat app development, note that these applications deal with a lot of personal information that cannot be leaked. For that reason, among others, there are some complex technicalities involved when developing chat apps.

The technologies behind chat app features

To let users authorise their log-ins, you need a third-party API to keep everything safe and secure. The Nexmo API is used for authentication via phone numbers, while social media account authentications are safe with Facebook SDK and Twitter Kit tools.

Voice calling and video calling are made possible with the help of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) technology. WebSockets are the technology used for communicating between servers and the mobile app to send and secure data from messages. Other data is stored with a variety of databases.

Type of app: Hybrid or native?

Android messaging app development is completed with Java and Kotlin programming languages, while iOS chat app development uses Swift and Objective C. For native apps, at least.

We recommend working with native apps from the very beginning as you will get more secure, ‘civilized’ versions of the service, something that’s crucial to chat app development. However, cross-platform (hybrid) apps are quicker and easier to develop.

For more on the topic, read our analysis of commercial app development which includes a consideration of  app types, including the pros and cons.

Monetization Models For Chat Apps

How can you make money with a messaging app? Not with a paid subscription model as very few users are willing to pay to download a chat app (users in general at least, we’re not talking about business apps). Let’s take a look at how you can monetize apps for messaging.

We would not recommend direct advertising as it’s quite annoying in a chat app. It’s better to organise activities with businesses that users can participate in and win something, such as a cool sticker pack. For users, it would be free, but businesses would share a part with you. 

Games are the best way to monetize your messaging app. Another surefire way is to implement chatbots — let companies participate in your app and it has e-commerce activity and potential.

On the contrary, you could offer in-app purchases. They are always worth a try, but you need to offer something really good that users will appreciate.

Last but definitely not least, let’s estimate the cost of building a chat app.

How Much Does It Cost To Develop a Messaging App?

Messaging app development costs mostly depend on the features. Basic features are easier to work with, and advanced features take more time to build. It’s safe to say that a good MVP costs at least $50,000, and a fully developed project could be $300,000.

Note that apart from the level of difficulty a chat app development company faces when building your app, there are other specialists who participate in the process, including web interface designers and project managers. Each has their own hourly rate. Location also matters, you can find a mid-level developer for $100 per hour in the US and Australia, but by outsourcing to Eastern Europe, it’s almost half as much.

We have an article on the topic of cost estimations and developers’ hourly rates. It includes information on salaries of various specialists in app development, from Java developers to QA experts.

Wish To Work On a Chat App?

That rounds up our dive into messaging app development. As we've seen, chat apps require certain functionality and technicalities. And while the market may be dominated by just a few apps, there's always a room for a unique, niche product.

For more information, click on the links above and read more of our research. And if you're ready to share your idea, just contact us and we’ll discuss each and every of your thoughts on the messaging app of your dreams.

26 April 2021 messaging app development