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The Missing ‘M’ In Facebook Messenger

Some of our most important innovations have happened by accident.

In 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming left his lab for vacation without cleaning up. He returned to find a lab filled with gross petri dishes that had to be thrown away — except for one that he noticed looked different. That one was home to the staphylococcus virus, plus a small patch of mold which the virus had not penetrated. The petri dish led Fleming to the discovery of penicillin, a scientific breakthrough that won him the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1945. That mistake has saved countless lives since.

In 1883, a printer in Wyoming was about to print the Cheyenne telephone directory and discovered that he had run out of white paper. He kept on printing using the yellow paper he had on hand, instead. Reuben H. Donnelly turned this mistake into a new business idea three years later when he launched the first directory with white pages for residential listings and yellow ones for businesses. Years later, the Yellow Pages became its own stand-alone volume.

Those printed tomes that landed with a thud once a year on the porches of consumers everywhere in the world assembled a list of businesses by category (electricians, plumbers, restaurants, lawyers, dentists, doctors, stores, etc.) and was the primary way that people used to find and contact those businesses. Back in the day, the Yellow Pages were so thick that they did double duty as booster seats for kids at the dinner table (at home and in restaurants), and they were what mothers gave their young daughters to balance on their heads to ensure that they had perfect posture while walking. Yours truly used to sit on them in the back seat of my grandmother’s Cadillac so I could see out the windows — a clear violation of every conceivable automotive passenger safety standard, if only they had existed at the time.

As a platform, the Yellow Pages were free to consumers. In the days of only landline phones, the local phone companies had a record of all phone numbers connected to businesses, and all businesses were given a free listing. But to stand out in a sea of thousands of pages and hundreds of entries for any one category, businesses would work with Yellow Pages ad reps to create ads — once only black and white and later, color.

The Yellow Pages has evolved to keep up with the digital times, and today is actually (and maybe a bit unbelievably) one of the most searched-for sites on the internet. Their website reports that 60 million visitors a day (down from 70 million in 2012) visit yp.com, that they have 500,000 advertisers on their digital platform and drove $1 billion in ad revenue last year.

The print edition, also more unbelievably, still exists — although its shape and size has diminished considerably. Here’s the last one that arrived at my home in Beacon Hill in Boston last year, which as you can see is now even smaller than my seven pound, 13-week-old Scotty puppy named Charlie.

13-week-old Scotty puppy named Charlie

I found this stuffed away in the kitchen pantry on the very top shelf underneath a few other things that I also never use. Charlie, on the other hand, is thrilled to have been introduced to a thick stack of paper to sink his very sharp baby teeth into.

Aside from using it as a way to show you my new pup (yes, I still have Annie the Border Collie), why the history lesson on the Yellow Pages? Well, it has to do with Facebook’s earnings last week and, in particular, what was said and not said about its Messenger app.

Facebook Messenger, as you know, is led by David Marcus, who left PayPal as its CEO in June 2014 to take this new gig. At the time, he said the move was prompted by his reports of not having any fun being the head of a publicly traded company and his desire to join one where he could apply his mobile experience to bring a bigger impact to more people with a smaller team.

And to position Messenger to become, as Marcus articulated just a few weeks ago, just like “the Yellow Pages,” where people and businesses can search and find each other “without a phone number” and do business.

And just like the Yellow Pages, Messenger’s future is one punctuated with a number of question marks.

Messenger — the Topic of Conversation

On Facebook’s earnings call last week, there were high fives all around for the social media giant’s Q2 results: active users that topped two billion, daily active users of 1.3 billion, revenue up 45 percent, profits up 71 percent and mobile driving a stunning 87 percent of ad revenue, just to highlight a few. Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, also mentioned as part of his prepared remarks that Facebook was planning to accelerate its investment in Messenger so that it could “move faster” to drive activation and acquisition — and monetization, which he emphasized was in “early days.”

Not surprisingly, Facebook Messenger then became a key topic of conversation in the analyst Q&A. If ad revenue growth on Facebook was likely to slow down because there were no more places to stuff ads in the News Feed, analysts wanted to better understand Messenger’s role in potentially filling that hole. One analyst even remarked how rare it was for any company with an active user base of a billion not to have both a monetization strategy and the associated revenue that goes along with it.

Mark Zuckerberg’s response to that and the many other questions that day was consistent: Messenger is not a “near-term overall Facebook growth driver,” adding that because other messaging platforms had succeeded in creating a robust ecosystem — and social media website had succeeded in monetizing Facebook and Instagram — Facebook was confident that “over the long term [Messenger] will get there too.”

The analyst’s questions followed several media roundtables held in the weeks prior. During those sessions, Marcus provided an update on Messenger’s progress, including new features that had been launched and the impact of bots on consumer engagement on Messenger. It was in one of those interviews that David Marcus made the Yellow Pages (for businesses) and White Pages (for people) analogy, saying that if the phone were invented today, people wouldn’t want to use phone numbers to make contact. Instead, he said, people would use digital contact pages that they’d find in one convenient, searchable place.

A place that he and his team would like for Messenger to become.

[Let’s set aside for a minute the fact that back in the ancient days of landline-only phones and the White Pages, Ma Bell didn’t decided on its own to publish everyone’s name, address and telephone number. People paid extra to have an unlisted number. Nowadays, given a choice, most people don’t want to be easily contacted outside of any shared/permissioned network or relevant context.]

So, making Messenger “that one place” will be tough since it will require a shift in how consumers think of and use Facebook, think of and use Messenger, think of and use their messaging platforms — not to mention Messenger’s ability to devise a plan that aligns with all of that.

Bragging and Broadcasting

It wasn’t long after being a place online where college kids could find and meet other college kids on campus, that Facebook became a big megaphone for broadcasting all of the stuff that people wanted to brag about to their social media network. It also didn’t take long for News Feeds to be flooded with pictures of kids’ graduations, family vacations, class reunions, Dad finishing the marathon, Mom celebrating a birthday or friends getting married.

Stuff that was personal but not stuff that was private.

Facebook’s big megaphone added another layer almost out of the gate: the ability for brands to serve ads. Today, that means to the 1.3 billion people who tune in daily to check their News Feed. So, now, in between seeing pictures of your friend’s summer pool party, Facebook users can get the lowdown on J.Lo and A-Rod from People magazine, heart-tugging animal rescue stories from dodo.com, videos of Gwyneth Paltrow giving herself a facial using her Goop products, ads from a host of retailers and recipes being made from the Food Network.

Messaging platforms are very different.

People use them to exchange more private information between two people or small groups who know each other and want to communicate away from the mongrel hoards online. Texting someone is more immediate but it’s also more appropriate when sensitive things are being communicated between friends or family members, regardless of how time-sensitive they are.

Brands have started using text messages, with the permission of their customer, to communicate the status of a delivery, confirm orders, remind them of doctor’s appointments and refill prescriptions. Friends use messaging platforms to send links to their friends to buy things that they think they might like, or give directions on where to meet for drinks. OS-based messaging platforms now also make it possible for consumers who are talking about dinner plans to make a reservation on OpenTable, hail an Uber or even order a pizza while having that conversation.

Unlike email or even the Facebook News Feed, it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll get bombarded with solicitations from brands you haven’t given permission to contact you, since regulators don’t take too kindly to those who do. Messaging ecosystems, as a result, are cleaner because they have a ton less spam — and a ton more content user-relevant.

But that separation of personal but public/private hasn’t stopped many, including Marcus and Messenger to set their sights on creating that “one place” where existing friends can chat with each other, and people and brands who aren’t can find and reach out to make friends.

Just like Tencent has done successfully with WeChat.

There’s only one problem in trying to replicate that model outside of China today: WeChat started in a very different place. China is culturally quite unique, and consumers everywhere have a lot of other options.

Tencent started life as QQ — an instant messaging and gaming platform — on the desktop. Its base was an established network of people who interacted with each other there. When Tencent made the move to mobile and the WeChat app, it had to persuade QQ users to download the WeChat app and use it. But they did — because that network of friends in China had no other alternative if they wanted to enjoy all of the benefits they had when using QQ. Over time, more features and functions were added to that ecosystem to create “that one place” where Chinese consumers could talk to their friends and make new ones, talk to brands they like and find new ones and buy from them on and offline.

Like Tencent and QQ, Messenger’s challenge when it separated from Facebook was also getting consumers to download the Messenger app — and hoping that their friend’s network would too. When Messenger was on Facebook, it was pretty easy to punch out to chat with those Facebook friends while staying inside Facebook’s ecosystem. Friends could see who was active and start a conversation.

But Facebook friends who were also close enough friends to interact with each other on a regular basis also had other ways to reach those friends: phone-based messaging apps, LinkedIn, email and the many other competitors that had popped up to pull people off Facebook — like Instagram, WhatsApp and Snapchat.  It was a tough sell for Facebook users — at least in the developed markets that Messenger has said are quite important to them: the U.S. and the U.K. — to make the switch. Not downloading the app didn’t mean losing touch with people with whom they wanted to stay in touch, it just meant using one of the other channels they already had in place more often. Messenger then became one less thing for people to have to manage and check.

Yet Messenger had another hurdle to clear.

Consumers in developed markets also view their “one place” to do all of those things as the ecosystem of apps that they access on their mobile phones. It’s true that consumers don’t download a lot of new apps, but they do download the ones they want to use — Uber, Amazon, walmart.com, Chrome, PayPal, Yelp, their banking app, OpenTable, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp and, yes, Messenger to name but a few. And they use them in the context in which they feel best suits their needs — to talk to friends, broadcast what they’re doing to big groups of people they haven’t seen in years, discover new products and places and interact with brands and buy from them.

Changing that behavior and expecting people to shift to Messenger as that starting point for the discovery of people and brands and the conduct of commerce seems like a tough hill to climb — regardless of how many bots are enabled there for eCommerce.

And, I think, regardless of how long Facebook says it is willing to invest for that to happen. Time, in this day and age, is a currency that innovators — even established platforms like Facebook — must manage wisely.

Now, that’s not to say that there won’t be an intermediary that consumers will use as “that one place” to simplify the many activities that today they use many apps and their phones to do for them. That’s because they do that now. They often use Amazon as the starting point for commerce. Google as the starting point for search. And native messaging apps, Instagram and WhatsApp to talk to their friends. Conversational interfaces like Alexa and Allo and Bixby and Cortana that connect people with people and brands and businesses with people seem to be the interface that consumers want to use to access all of those various brands and apps and websites. Because that’s what consumers not only say they want, but are actually using.

That also happens to be where businesses are allocating their development budgets as well. The bot bubble (for commerce in this instance) seems to have burst — something that I predicted last year.

All that said, since 2014, when Marcus joined, the number of active Messenger users has more than doubled, and it is one of the most widely used apps worldwide, although it faces a lot of competition everywhere in the world. Moreover, many of the people that I have talked to who use it do so for specific reasons: to communicate with international friends or to communicate with a network of friends with whom they only interact with on Facebook.

Messenger’s recent efforts seem to replicate what other platforms have already done, Snap-like filters, for example. And efforts to make it easier for brands on Facebook to have a place for their customers to conduct commerce seems more like something that is in the best interest of Facebook and not the consumer, who’s just trying to get a question answered or a product purchased. And putting ad efforts like with its mothership, Facebook, inside an app that people use for talking, and not being advertised to. It’s a risk, but one that Messenger seems willing to take, since monetization by any other name seems quite illusive.

What’s interesting now, three years later, is the decision that Facebook made to make Messenger a separate app and to make it impossible for users on Facebook to access it unless they downloaded Messenger. Marcus has said that if they didn’t take that step, they’d never establish Messenger as a separate platform. A platform that, I suspect, Facebook decided to make their bridge to commerce.

WeChat’s roots in being a social network — and the lack of other options for its users — made it easier for them to make the leap from sending messages and playing games to buying stuff and ordering taxis. Facebook was never able to cross that chasm, despite many efforts. I wrote a couple of years ago that the reasons people in developed countries, at least, came to Facebook (at least then) was to stalk their friends, not to buy from the brands they might have liked way back when.

And further, that consumers didn’t trust Facebook to be “that one place” for commerce — a data point that our connected commerce study confirmed in May. Only 8 percent of consumers view Facebook as the place that they trust to enable a connected commerce experience for them.

Will the prospect of toggling off Facebook to transact on Messenger change any of that? Color me dubious. I don’t think that Messenger is going to become like WeChat or anchor a commerce ecosystem for Facebook or become a huge advertising engine on its own. There just doesn’t seem to be that one thing that will make Messenger that one place consumers will decide to make their own.

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