Can Facebook Messenger Become an Effective Local Marketing Platform?

By Greg Sterling, Street Fight Magazine

You’re well aware of Facebook’s Messenger-as-platform strategy by now. It was formally announced at Facebook’s developer conference, F8, earlier this month. The company also announced AI-powered chatbots for Messenger at the same time.

A range of brands and enterprises has integrated with Messenger and are now using bots to communicate automatically with customers on Messenger. Among them are 1-800-Flowers, Bank of America, Spring, Burger King, Staples, CNN, StubHub, the Wall Street Journal, KLM, Fandango and a variety of others — including Philz Coffee, a local San Francisco Bay Area coffee chain.

Messenger currently has 900 million users around the world. There are also 50 million active business Pages on Facebook. Thus the company already has the foundations of a new global marketplace in theory. Beyond this, Facebook reported that between Messenger and its other messaging app, WhatsApp, the company is seeing 60 billion messages a day. That’s apparently three times global SMS messaging volume.

The pieces are in place for Messenger to become a major new marketing platform. Indeed, the various (mostly mobile) use cases range from customer service to e-commerce. So far, however, none of my experiences, with Spring, CNN, Poncho or 1-800-Flowers, has been great. But there’s huge potential over time.

While KLM and a few others say they’ve had great early success with Messenger and bots, it’s very early and a number of user-experience challenges must be overcome. Enterprises will need to generate awareness and get people to opt-in to use Messenger as a communication platform. That will have to be done through other channels given that search on Messenger (and Facebook) is still fairly limited.

As with push notifications, businesses and brands will also need to create useful, and not too frequent or annoying, experiences for Messenger. And they’ll have to find a way to integrate payments to avoid the need to bounce out to the mobile web for payment card entry.

Facebook audaciously envisions Messenger as an alternative to the mobile web and even to apps, for marketers. Laugh, but the numbers and installed user base supports that vision.

Among the 50 million active Facebook Pages are roughly 45 million small business Pages. These are mostly independent local businesses. The big question is whether and how they can utilize Messenger (and possibly bots) to provide improved customer service or better market themselves.

Chat bots aren’t new, and have long been used with varying degrees of effectiveness as customer service tools. The difference is that now AI is coming into play, making bots more intelligent and better able to understand and respond to user queries.

A recent survey of 500 Millennials from OpenMarket found that 75% would choose texting over voice calls if they had to pick only one form of communication. While billions of calls are generated to local businesses from mobile devices, texting is a powerful alternative channel that many consumers prefer. That’s another argument for Messenger; most consumers aren’t going to use SMS to communicate with local businesses.

One could make the argument that, among other things, Facebook is trying to position itself as a lightweight CRM tool for SMBs. The new strategy further supports the idea of Messenger as a customer communication platform. Where many small businesses are often slow to respond (or unresponsive) to customer inquiries, bots can bridge that gap and provide relevant information immediately, which could then lead to conversions or better retention.

Once connected via Messenger marketers can push messages to consumers, which becomes a new channel. Those could include offers, new product information, menu specials and so on. As indicated, marketers will have to be careful and respectful of their customers’ time and attention. But the immediacy and intimacy of messaging makes it a potentially more effective channel than email.

All this is speculative. But at least the potential is there for Messenger and bots — third parties will need to develop them for SMBs — to improve customer service and create a powerful marketing vehicle for a new era of “conversational commerce.”