By Matthew Klein

November 17th, 2015

Facebook recently had a billion users in a day, it’s dominating the mobile ad market, and people are spending more time there than ever. In other words, they’re in solid shape.

Still, though they might have hundreds of millions of users, certain Facebook products continue to draw questions, in terms of monetization and how they fit with Facebook’s strategy.

In particular, people like to speculate about Messenger and WhatsApp, with their seven hundred million and nine hundred million users, respectively—about how they are going to make money, what brand presences there will look like, and whether or not Facebook will introduce ads in the apps.

Perhaps that is the plan. But the things people at Facebook are saying indicate that they’re thinking about the money question a little differently. The company’s head of ads, Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, recently gave an interview that makes the company’s idea of how it will work a little clearer.

A direction for brand presences on the app

It’s not as though the company has been completely mum about what role brands might play on these apps; Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg talked about the business use of Messenger during Facebook’s Q2 earnings call.

He discussed customer service as a use case for brands on messenger, saying that “the long-term bet is that by enabling people to have good organic interactions with businesses, that will end up being a massive multiplier on the value of the monetization down the road, when we really work on that, and really focus on that in a bigger way.”

At TechCrunch’s recent Disrupt conference, Bosworth elaborated on how brands might use Messenger to build value, not necessarily via ads.

He pointed out that Facebook is already becoming a major channel for customer service. He said that ”there’s a bunch of marketers saying that Facebook is the number one channel where they’re getting (customer service) requests.”

He also mentioned, impressively, that instances of people messaging brands has doubled year over year. (Also interesting for businesses on Facebook, and probably related, visits to pages have increased 40 percent year over year).

The company has already introduced some tools that allow brands to handle support via Messenger.

If you think about it, customer service makes a lot of sense in the context of a Messenger app. Customer service usually still comes down to a one to one interaction, and customers want to have that interaction where it’s convenient for them. As more and more people spend a greater share of their time on messenger apps, it will make sense for them to approach businesses with their issues here.

But if brands can build better customer experiences in a service context, there’s no reason that couldn’t extend to other interactions, ones which are normally considered outside the scope of customer service. In some cases, as “Boz” pointed out, it already is:

“In Spain, instead of calling the restaurant to get a reservation, you Whatsapp the restaurant to get a reservation.”

And Messenger payments exist already. It would be technically possible to message a brand to buy a product.

In a lot of ways, things are moving towards messenger apps acting as a portal for your interactions with businesses.

If they’re moving that way slowly in U.S. or European markets, in some Asian countries, they’re pretty much already there. Chat apps like Line or WeChat have not just payments, but also things like taxi services and mini stores. The messenger part, and connecting with your friends through it, is still central, but the apps go further, basically bridging the gap between an app and an OS.

Social meets AI?

“Boz” discussed another Facebook project that could prove relevant in terms of Messenger’s monetization, and its ability to serve as a ‘portal’ for more interactions.

Facebook began testing M to a fair amount of fanfare recently. It was billed as basically a hybrid robot/human concierge service. You can simply message M that you want, say, a dozen roses. There’s a team of trained customer service agents at Facebook who are helping M get you the roses, and at the same time, M is learning from them, so that it will be able to get you the roses on its own soon.


Today we’re beginning to test a new service called M. M is a personal digital assistant inside of Messenger that…

Posted by David Marcus on Wednesday, August 26, 2015


At Disrupt, “Boz” strongly implied that companies would be working directly with Facebook to make M more effective at both supporting and selling to their customers.

The idea is that, as he put it, “it would be even more efficient for us as people to be able to have a trusted agent that’s able to work on our behalf to coordinate across businesses.”

Other virtual assistants, particularly Siri, are getting better and better. Now that Siri is listening all the time, waiting patiently for you to ask something, things are creeping closer to the future we were promised: The one where you can ask for something out loud, seemingly to no one, and it appears.

Maybe they’re just keeping quiet about it, but there hasn’t been any news about Apple—or, for that matter, Amazon Echo or Microsoft Cortana—working directly with businesses with the aim of enabling Siri to solve your customer support issues.

Facebook, as it’s not an operating system, has a major task ahead of it if it wants to be the go-to for people looking to get something done.

Wired’s Jessi Hempl summarized the challenge very nicely here:

“Facebook’s goal is to make Messenger the first stop for mobile discovery. Google has long had search locked up on the desktop: Right now, if I’m looking to treat my summer cold, and I’m in front of my laptop, I begin by googling “cold meds Upper West Side.” On mobile, however, I may pull up any number of apps—Google, Google Maps, Twitter—to find that out, or I may just ask Siri. Facebook starts at a disadvantage on mobile because it doesn’t have its own operating system, and therefore users must download an app, and then open it.”





I’m inspired by this video about our artificial intelligence research at Facebook.Our AI can now look at a photo, figure out what’s in it and help explain it to you. This is especially helpful if you’re blind or can’t see the photo. We see AI as helping computers better understand the world — so they can be more helpful to people.We’re still early with this technology, and you can already start to imagine how helpful it will be in the future.

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A video chronicling Facebook’s AI efforts

Both the human-AI hybrid format and the possibility that Facebook appears to be opening M up to some extent, allowing businesses to feed into it to make it more useful, might significantly improve Facebook’s odds of pulling this off.

And for brands, it could prove to be the source of some very valuable customer interactions.

In a customer service context, M, with the input of brands who want to reach their customers through it, could conceivably handle a significant proportion of support interactions. Customers could wait passively to have problems solved, and only have to deal with it if that didn’t work. It could have the lower costs of automated support, but it would stand a much better chance of actually working, and wouldn’t require customers to endure the experience of repeating information to a series of robots.

Purchasing could work similarly. If the logistics of texting an order to a brand are daunting unless there’s a human on the other end to understand it, having a way of coordinating though AI stands a chance of improving customer satisfaction and reducing costs.

As “Boz” pointed out, this is all in very early stages. If, however, it were to become viable, it would be extremely valuable for Facebook, and probably for many of the brands on it.

Customer service, particularly via social media, is a perennial challenge for a lot of brands. And selling, at least on mobile, often leaves a lot to be desired.

Besides being a bit strange at first, as the future can be, an AI assistant with the capability to learn from you and the business you’re interacting with could potentially make these interactions a lot smoother. Whether or not it will happen, and how good it will be, is in Facebook’s hands.

Cover image credit: Flickr user Kārlis Dambrāns

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