Facebook Messenger has this week joined the illustrious billion users club. Given that Facebook’s 1.65 billion users are only ever about one click away from sending a message, this perhaps shouldn't be a surprise. However, it's still a weighty number for a platform that Facebook is increasingly building out in its own right.
It celebrated the occasion by rolling out an Easter Egg that floods the screens with balloons any time the balloon emoji is used. On the face of it that's a small gimmick following on from other similar tricks (the basketball emoji kicks off a simple dunking game that's been played 1.2 billion times), but it's a hint at a bigger reality: despite the name, Messenger is far from just a messenger platform.
The meteoric rise of messaging is a much wider phenomenon, with sister app WhatsApp already crossing the billion user mark, and platforms like WeChat and Line (itself going through a successful IPO this week) leading the way in many Asian markets.
It's the latter two which give the glimpse of what an evolved messaging ecosystem can look like. While the early promise of free messaging may have drawn people in, they now use these platforms to book taxis, check into hotel rooms and arrange their Chinese passports. In-built micro-payment systems mean your messages are a wallet in themselves, and Line users don't blink at the prospect of handing over real cash for virtual stickers and collectables. Current industry darling Snapchat is itself a specific take on messaging, though it’s rapidly building out a wider media ecosystem around that.
When Facebook hired PayPal executive David Marcus to lead its Messenger team, it wasn't a new direction for his career, rather it was a sign of the new direction Facebook was going in to build out a new transactional platform of its own. Through its early trial partners, you can now manage flight bookings, order a new pair of trainers, or have the news explained to you all within a messenger thread.
If this written approach feels like a return to the graphic-free 'command line interfaces' of old, it's worth noting a few changes: Messenger has functionality beyond just text, including carousel units and simple choices it can offer you to click on. The killer feature is arguably the continuity (and mobility) of threads which means you can jump back into a conversation with all your context intact anytime or anywhere you want. The AI trying to respond to your queries has come a long way too.
As with anything that grabs the headlines, marketers have been asking what it means for them, and Facebook reps have been extolling the opportunities of Messenger for many months now. Having a billion users on the platform doesn't necessarily mean marketers can reach a billion people however, and at present there aren't any 'Promoted Post' tools to allow you to do that. Line's IPO comes partly on the back of its proven ability to monetise itself for marketers, notably offering brands premium sticker packs or an opportunity to reward users who watch their videos.
Whatever noises Facebook may make, it can only be a matter of time before some such push options land on the platform, as only they truly bring the mass scale it’s spent the last four years telling marketers is key. Any story that a small number of conversations outweighs that is sharply at odds with its wider anti-engagement and mass reach stance.
Those thinking about investing time and resources into trying to build up a large number of active conversations with consumers should also think long and hard; brands have long since found that Snapchat's paid opportunities are a much more efficient way of having an impact on the platform.
That hasn't stopped many marketers trying to build up a following, and for those with physical assets, 'Snapcodes' (scannable QR style codes) are an interesting way of getting the word out. Facebook has introduced its own take on these for Messenger and whilst they currently lack anything like the same level of visibility and awareness, it's only a matter of time before you see them on packs and in stores.
The longer-term question is what conversations brands will want to have with consumers IF they do find ways of doing so at scale. Facebook's team is proposing four broad categories:
1. Transactional & ecommerce (e.g. Spring)
2. Customer Service (e.g. KLM)
3. Subject Matter (e.g. CNN)
4. Entertainment (e.g. The Muppets)
Brands who play heavily in the first couple of areas are likely the ones who'll be able to benefit first. Those without an obvious utility role may migrate to the entertainment space; expect to see a number of big names try in this space including Oreo-maker Mondelez (which Carat works closely with), which announced a Messenger Bots Lab as part of its renewed global Facebook partnership
Only time will tell which brands can crack the sorts of ideas that consumers will genuinely want to lean in and engage with for the long-term – and the early adopters will have to do a big education job as few people have any idea what a 'chat bot' even is.
Jerry Daykin is global digital partner at Carat