Telegram channels will start getting ads next year

With nearly 500 million users, the company says it's time to monetize.

Brett Putman for Engadget

Nearly eight years after its initial launch and with almost 500 million users to its name, encrypted chat app Telegram finds itself at an inflection point: it either needs to monetize its platform or find a buyer. In a post over on his Telegram channel, founder Pavel Durov says you won’t see the startup sell to a company like Facebook, but starting in 2021, the company will begin serving ads to cover some of its costs.

But don’t worry, if you use Telegram to message your friends and family, you won’t see ads start appearing in your conversations. Moreover, all of the features that you can currently use for free will stay that way. “We think that displaying ads in private one-to-one chats or group chats is a bad idea,” said Durov. “Communication between people should be free of advertising of any sort.”

Where you will see ads are in Telegram’s public and sometimes problematic “one-to-many” channels. These can be easy to overlook if you exclusively use Telegram as a chat app. They’re typically run by one person or organization and can have millions of individual followers. They act more like a Twitter feed than an SMS conversation, and like Twitter, they’ll be getting the ad-serving treatment. Durov points out that some popular channels already display ads through third-party platforms to monetize their followers. “The ads they post look like regular messages, and are often intrusive,” said Durov, and added that the Telegram’s incoming first-party ads will respect your privacy and not harm the app’s user experience.

Additionally, the company plans to introduce various premium features aimed at its enterprise and power users. Durov didn’t provide any details on what these may look like but said they’ll be paid for by those same users.

It might seem like an oxymoron for a startup that claims it’s focused on privacy to suggest it can monetize its platform with ads while still protecting its users’ data, but a handful of companies have managed to do just that. For instance, privacy-focused browser Brave allows its users to opt into pre-packaged ads, and rewards them for doing so with tokens that they can exchange for real-world currency.

It seems Telegram plans to take a similar approach. “If Telegram starts earning money, the community should also benefit,” says Durov. As one example of such an approach, he said the company could sell premium stickers, with the artists who created them getting a cut of the sales. Ultimately, he claims the company’s monetization plans won’t change the Telegram experience too much. “Thanks to our current scale, we will be able to do it in a non-intrusive way. Most users will hardly notice any change.”