WhatsApp, the popular free instant messaging app owned by Facebook, is finally opening itself up for businesses to communicate directly with users, with the announcement of its closed pilot programme this week.

WhatsApp laid the groundwork for this feature back in August 2016 with its new privacy policy, with a blog post saying the move forms "part of our plans to test ways for people to communicate with businesses in the months ahead".

Yoox Net-A-Porter on WhatsApp
Yoox Net-A-Porter on WhatsApp

Read next: What does WhatsApp's new privacy policy mean for you?

In its announcement yesterday, WhatsApp noted that it had seen communication already happening on a rudimentary level between shoppers and local bakeries or clothing stores.

This is why they see the new feature as a natural next step; perhaps failing to mention that its main competitors -- Snapchat and Instagram, namely -- have shown little progress in this area to date.

This small, yet prominent new commerce component is a sign of a coming revamp, as WhatsApp is openly identifying new monetisation opportunities.

Business accounts are open only to a small group of companies for now, as part of a closed pilot, and are denoted by a green tick icon next to a contact's name. WhatsApp is targeting both small businesses and the enterprise -- such as airlines, banks and larger e-commerce retailers -- through a two tier system. Pricing is unclear at this point.

WhatsApp boasts over one billion active users every day, making them one of the most popular communication networks on the planet, just edged out by Facebook itself, which averages 1.3 billion daily active users.

So, who's to gain?

One of the first pilot partners for WhatsApp business is the luxury e-commerce giant Yoox Net-A-Porter (YNAP).

Director of research and development at Yooz Net-A-Porter Gabriele Tazzari said at the time of the announcement that her team had been using WhatsApp informally with EIPs (extremely important people) for over a year, and was looking for better ways to communicate directly with customers through digital channels.

By formalising this through WhatsApp’s new enterprise solution the e-commerce site has been able to integrate its Order Management System (OMS) with WhatsApp, allowing it to use the messaging service as a notification system for order and shipping confirmations.

The retailer says that just 3 percent of its users so far have asked to unsubscribe from notifications via WhatsApp, but the overall number of customers wasn't specified.