Interest in Facebook might be dwindling, but Facebook Messenger is now one of the most powerful digital tools for marketers and customer service professionals out there. Let us see what Messenger and Facebook are doing to help businesses increase engagement.
Few could argue that Facebook basically wrote the network effects playbook. It has come a long way since it began life as a university student connection platform that one Mark Zuckerberg programmed in his Harvard dorm back in 2004.
However, fast forward to 2018 and despite Facebook’s massive global success; data hacks, algorithm changes, and fake news are impacting the platform’s engagement numbers. But all is not lost. Facebook refused to put all of its eggs in one proverbial basket. It innovated, diversified, and acquired other companies – Instagram and WhatsApp probably being the most famous – and spun out its own creations too.
But Facebook’s biggest homegrown success stories is without a doubt its Messenger app – which continues to thrive. Though initially intended as a chat tool for users, its potential was quickly realized by businesses, and in just a few short years it has evolved into a viable customer engagement tool. However, innovation never sleeps. The opportunities for engagement are evolving as new technologies – such as voice assistants, Virtual Reality, and Augmented Reality – become more mainstream. Can a platform like Messenger keep up? Can Facebook remain just as relevant to businesses as user confidence wanes?
According to recent reports, there has been a 24% decline in the time spent per person on Facebook. Founder, Mark Zuckerberg has even admitted that he expected a decline. But the social network is still 2.2 billion users strong, and in the last quarter of 2017 Facebook saw a 48% increase in advertising revenue (year-on-year).
So what is going on exactly? Why the inconsistency? Well, it could be that Facebook’s continued efforts to monetize content have been unaffected by the decline in user numbers – the costs simply increase in line with the fall; making remaining users more expensive to target. But this is not a sustainable business model long-term. Facebook’s revenue might be safe for now, but marketers will not continue to tolerate over-priced inventory.
Instead, they will look to other platforms and media where they are assured of better user numbers and a higher return on investment. And that is where Facebook’s most obvious threat comes from – not from negative PR stories, fake news, and data breaches – but from a different form of communication: messaging services.
Social networks have been the primary method of communication for many years, but messaging services continue to gain in popularity, and according to Gartner, could soon eclipse them. Luckily, Facebook has both Messenger and WhatsApp in its messaging arsenal – which remain the most used mobile messaging apps in US and UK. While the likes of WeChat, Line Viber, and Telegram are popular too, the sheer scale and reach of Facebook’s footprint gives Messenger a head start on the competition (save for WeChat, which has no less than 95% of China’s active users).
Launching in 2011, today Facebook Messenger stands at 1.3 billion users strong (at last count). While its initial remit was to connect Facebook’s growing number of users – simply a way to chat with friends and family – savvy businesses sought to build on their new social media presences with a customer outreach tool. This functionality empowered businesses to communicate directly with their customers, and in turn, gave them more opportunity to build out and support their e-commerce activities.
This has only been bolstered by the arrival of WhatsApp, which Facebook acquired back in 2014; a move that allowed the social network to gain access to an even bigger audience and experiment further with the power of conversation. Since then, messaging has continued to grow, with developers rushing to enhance these platforms with more and more features – games, emojis, photo sharing, calendar integrations – as well as the ability to send payments. Overall, the greater the chances of engagement, from a business perspective, the more opportunity there is to connect with customers.
But demand is not just being driven by companies; customers are only too happy to converse with brands. In fact, research shows that messaging is the second-most popular form of communication for customers when interacting with brands, with consumers sending around 1 billion messages to businesses every month.
Ultimately the combination of Facebook + Messenger has evolved into a one-stop-shop for businesses who can now create an online profile; engage new prospects; create, deliver, and promote ads; share brand-focused and related content; and chat with customers.
But where can the online giant go from here – in order to ensure Messenger continues to complement Facebook and drive its objectives and remain relevant to both users and businesses?
So what exactly does Facebook Messenger offer businesses over and above other messaging services (and 1.3 billion users)?
As you would expect, Facebook is already ahead of the game when it comes to innovation. In fact, chatbots - Artificial Intelligence interfaces created to simulate human conversation – have been a core feature of Facebook Messenger for the past two years now. And since launching in 2016, they have quickly become an integral part of the platform’s business offering. Earlier this year, the number of Messenger bots passed 300,000.
But what can chatbots do and how do they help businesses and customers? Well, in addition to being 24/7 customer support agents – able to answer customer queries and deliver answers like an on-demand FAQ sections. When Messenger 2.2 launched back in November 2017 (which we discussed in a previous article) one of its best features was the customer chat plug-in; which effectively gave businesses the ability to integrate Messenger into their websites.
But all of this is just the very start of Facebook’s mission for Messenger. Much bigger plans are already underway. While services like Augmented Reality for Messenger have been talked about for a while now, a good deal of practical features may yet prove more beneficial for user and businesses. Case in point? Chatbot payments. Users can already make payments in Messenger, and send money to friends and family, but until now the process has been largely manual. However, a new Facebook patent called Processing Payment Transactions Using Artificial Intelligence Messaging Services which was published this summer will soon mean that users can pay for goods through chatbots. This means that instead of using a third party app to browse and make purchases, users never have to leave the Facebook ecosystem. They can now simply visit the company’s Facebook page, engage a messaging bot, and place orders within the chat.
For businesses, this is hugely advantageous – mostly because these developments ensure that the whole purchase process will soon be completely automated. However, those concerned that the use of a chatbot might not reflect the personal touch they pride their customer service on, can rest assured that developments in Natural Language Processing (NLP) to interact with the user and analyze their messages. It understands customers’ product requests, confirms the purchase, and initiates payment based on the context of the exchange.
Understanding that conversation is better than communication is as much as mindset shift as it is a digital marketing trend. Facebook is doing more to actively promote Messenger to businesses, helping them get set up – and even going as far as recommending ways for companies to build their own chatbots.
Looking at other digital trends for a moment, could it be that Facebook is missing a trick when you consider the rise another technology trend – voice assistants - ? Apple has Siri, Microsoft has Cortana, Amazon has Alexa, and Google has… Google (!). Could a similar phenomenon begin to take shape within Facebook Messenger? Well, considering all of the above mentioned brands have their own hardware in which their voice assistants ‘live’, it is unlikely that will be welcoming a Facebook-based voice service anytime soon.
But maybe they don’t need to. Perhaps Messenger will develop a platform-specific voice, or it will enable individual businesses to create their own: a vocalized chatbot? Or maybe both scenarios are likely. While there are no certainties, recent news gives us some indication. Apparently Facebook has been hard at work behind the scenes creating a smart home device called 'Portal'. Billed as a ‘video speaker’ that integrates an AI camera, Portal will apparently make Messenger calls feel more like ‘hanging out’. Time will tell how popular this becomes, but given ongoing marketer interest in the voice assistant space, innovation is assured; and both consumers and businesses could benefit.
Considering there are 80 million small businesses already on Facebook, a more advanced social conversation-based and streamlined e-commerce experience were always inevitable. But, as all good businesses understand, the customer is always right. Facebook and Messenger’s runaway successes have been user-led. Without such phenomenal user numbers, their business offerings would not have been so popular.
While commercial needs will no doubt continue to drive innovation, let us hope that both platforms keep the needs of their users in front of mind when forging ahead with their next exciting ideas.