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How Facebook is gearing up its Messenger service to combat the eastern invasion

The Doors’ Jim Morrison once sang "the west is the best". Whatever he was talking about, I can assure you it doesn’t apply to instant messaging. Here in the UK, we’re fixated by WhatsApp, the little green giant and, to be honest, it’s a pretty basic product.

While WhatsApp has upped its game recently with voice calling and Facebook integration, if you look to the east, there has been an arms race of creativity and functionality. Platforms such as WeChat, Kik, Viber and Line are so far removed from WhatsApp that it’s hard to compare them as like-for-like IM platforms. It’s almost like lining up a chrome browser with a black and white TV.

In stark contrast to WhatsApp’s deliberately fuss-free provision, Tencent-owned, China-based WeChat is a colourful experience. It’s not as big as WhatsApp, with around 460m monthly active users to WhatApp’s 700m, but there’s a lot more to it. It feels more like a social network than a messaging app.

Chatting with friends, gaming, banking – even ordering a taxi or paying for a burger... WeChat offers multiple possibilities. Its 'Moments' feature is similar to Facebook's news feed, allowing users to share posts with their contacts, along with a number of other Facebook-like features. Businesses are all over it too, with global brands like adidas and Burberry and McDonald's using it within their marketing.

But perhaps we need to stop comparing WeChat and WhatsApp. WhatsApp has a very specific selling point – the fact it is (currently) ad free and straightforward, and many consumers will want to keep it that way. However, there is clearly huge potential for an all-singing, all-dancing IM platform, if adoption in the east is anything to go by. WhatsApp doesn’t fit the bill and perhaps never will. WeChat is making some traction but is not yet instilled in mainstream social media use here. And it looks like a certain social media giant is determined not to make it an easy ride for them.

Enter, Facebook Messenger. Starting with a 500m-strong user base, Messenger is in a strong position to become the west’s creative messaging platform of choice. Last month, Facebook opened up its Messenger API to developers so that instead of building their own user base, which is difficult and expensive, they can just jump on Facebook’s platform. To me, this has a lot of symmetry with Apple releasing the iPhone followed by the app store, allowing developers to create uses of the Operating System. Zuckerberg will be hoping that same thing happens on Messenger.

Cue an influx of animated gifs, apps that turn personal messages into songs, and more. Opening out to third party developers is a tactic that’s worked for Facebook before – as anyone who’s been invited to play a spot of Farmville (hasn’t everyone?) on the platform can attest to. A payment button has now been added that allows users to send money to friends. And last week, Facebook launched a dedicated web interface for Messenger – something WeChat did over a year ago.

My prediction is that we’ll continue to see the best ideas that currently exist on WeChat and its eastern IM counterparts crop up on Facebook Messenger. It’s an intelligent play from Facebook and it stands a good chance of succeeding and if it does they will be able to fend off plays in this market from KIK, Line, WeChat and so on, none of whom have sales divisions in the UK. And of course, as Facebook already owns WhatsApp, pitching Messenger as the more creative alternative means the platform is able to diversity its IM product range, increasing its likelihood of dominance in the sector.

What should brands be doing about Facebook Messenger right now? In the near future, I’d recommend keeping a very close eye on what content is being shared by their target audiences in the apps that already integrate with Messenger. Facebook has 40 Messenger partners, including ESPN, who will be vying for consumers’ attention and undoubtedly not all of them will fare well in the notoriously personal space that is messaging. I’d also recommend getting clued up on what brands are doing on WeChat, Line and others.

Messaging is evolving fast, and while the east may rule the IM landscape at the moment, it’s only a matter of time before it becomes equally as important in the west, too.

Tom Ollerton is marketing director at We Are Social

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