Mobile First -> Messaging First? A Chat with Stan Chudnovsky, Head of Product at Facebook Messenger

It’s not investor hyperbole to say that new platforms create huge markets, redefine industry structures, and disrupt existing value chains. The browser brought the Internet to the masses. Google Search empowered many categories of e-commerce and helped unlock offline ad dollars to flow online. And Mobile is in mid- process of changing the economics of advertising, travel, gaming, among other verticals. So, it’s no surprise that investors, founders, and marketers are all looking for the next big consumer platform as a way to change the game and as a road to greatness.

Messaging might be that next big platform. With WeChat and Line as strong precedents in Asia, and Facebook Messenger announcing 1 billion users and 3x the global peak SMS volume, messaging is where the consumers are. And with the shift from gold rush to app fatigue in mobile, it’s logical to think that some portion of consumer engagement could consolidate around a few anchor apps such as messaging.

As a result, interest is sky high, but messaging remains a bit of an enigma to most people I know. Like with any new channel, companies seem to be stumbling trying to port old language and paradigms or in creating new ones that better leverage the advantages inherent to messaging.

To help sort through the noise, Stan Chudnovsky, head of product at Facebook Messenger, was kind enough to share his thoughts on this emerging channel. Besides being a product guy, Stan has been an engineer and serial entrepreneur since 1999. He was CEO of Tickle, which was acquired by Monster in 2004. At WonderHill, Stan designed and built Dragons of Atlantis, one of the most successful strategy games ever. He served as a board member at Goodreads which was acquired by Amazon. And he co-founded IronPerl which was picked up by PayPal.

I sat down with Stan with three things on my mind:

  • Messenger’s potential as a channel for business-to-consumer reach and native engagement;
  • Examples of early success and investment on the platform; and
  • Top considerations for brands for user experience on Messenger.

[Dave]: Why should Facebook Messenger matter for marketers? What makes this the new big consumer platform?

[Stan]: Messenger is a powerful channel to let the humanity of your brand shine through. Messages are two-way conversations, and so Messenger enables developers, businesses and brands to build personal relationships. Brands can use this channel to communicate with their existing or new customers by using AI or live support (customer service), to humanize their brand and offer practical ways to deliver your products/values/brand in a new way. Over 1 billion people are using Messenger every month and if history is any guide, the winning strategy for brands and marketers is to be where all the people are.

[Dave]: Do you see business-to-consumer engagement patterns starting to emerge organically on Messenger? If so, which verticals or companies are seeing the most engagement, and which are investing most aggressively?

[Stan]: Yes, customers are starting to expect that a messaging channel is a part of the mix of ways they have access to the businesses and brands they want to communicate with. Because of the prevalence of these technologies, fewer people are inclined to use the phone or even email — and often want an instant interaction, but without dialing a number. Messaging also allows people to be anywhere, in any circumstance and still get their needs met. Think of a moment when you get an update from the furniture delivery company that they’ve changed the window of your delivery, and you are on a conference call and need to change that time window, but NOW…messaging allows you to have that interaction, resolve your issue, without disrupting the moment you’re in.

Regarding verticals, honestly, every vertical is finding benefit, and many are investing into their presence from technology companies to financial services, travel, transportation, media and entertainment, etc. I don’t think there’s a limit to how messaging can support any business that needs to have a relationship with its customers. It’s very early days, and we are learning all the time, but our focus clearly remains on putting people first and firmly in control of the experiences they have with businesses and brands.

[Dave]: Do you have a favorite example you think pushes the Messenger platform further than others?

[Stan]: I love all of them the same! There is so much creativity on the platform right now, and we’re so proud of the work that our partners are doing across the board. You see silly, you see practical, you see simple, and you see whimsical. Most brands are doing a nice job of meeting the needs of their customers while retaining the voice of their brand.

[Dave]: We had some teams in from Asia recently, and startups are starting to build products on WeChat first. Rather than mobile-first, start-ups are becoming messaging-first. What can we learn from some of the app ecosystems on messaging in Asia?

[Stan]: Asia has definitely been the first to leverage messaging as a platform to reach customers, and they’ve done it very well. What can we learn? We can clearly learn that the strategy of building for the messaging platforms has been working for brands and marketers in Asia. However, I think there are some limitations in the common tools they use, while we like to think that Messenger is feature-rich, and allows for a deeper connection to all who interact with it. What we’ve learned from Asia is that there is an appetite from customers to interact with brands via these platforms. They want the 1:1 interaction and they want the immediate access to information and answers. This translates across borders, and the rest are catching up quickly.

[Dave]: What are the most important elements of successful user experience on messenger? Are there any particular aspects to keep in mind about discoverability, multi-purpose vs. single-purpose bots, hybrid, fully AI, how conversations get initiated?

[Stan]: A successful user experience is different for everyone and every brand, but there are a few key pillars to keep in mind:

  1. Create positive experiences for people through Messenger
    Messenger is feature rich and offers so many ways to reach and extend your relationships with customers. Don’t be shy about testing and learning. Check out different ways that reflect what your business believes in.
  2. Make Messenger an ongoing part of your customer communication
    Make sure your messaging strategy delivers value over time. The best Messenger activations are helpful to people. That might mean practical help with products or services or entertaining content. Either way, it should be long-lasting and bring something to your audience that they want to read.
  3. Messages should reflect your brand voice
    When creating outgoing messages from your page, whether through Live Chat or a bot, keep the tone of your brand in mind. All interactions should reinforce your brand positioning while also being friendly.
  4. Use advanced/newer technology within the messaging framework with care
    For example, bots for Messenger are helpful when it comes to quick replies and scalability, and they can be designed to be surprisingly personal, but they should not be relied upon to be the sole communication tactic with your customer.

[Dave]: How are the best bots dealing with latency — especially hybrid bots that switch from bot to human?

[Stan]: This is a great question and a question we’re going to be addressing very soon. We just opened the platform three months ago, so issues like latency are something we quickly learned needed to be figured out. Some developers don’t have the bandwidth or scalability to be as responsive as the customer may expect, but that suggests the style and behavior of the bot needs to change, and we work with partners who come to us with these concerns and provide best practices and tips to improve the engagement with the customer. But when the model works, it works very well! When the bots and the humans behind them work together to craft a unique and delightful experience, we see significant improvement in customer satisfaction ratings for these brands. It’s something we need to work through, but the potential for this to be very powerful is there.

[Dave]: Are there emerging standards around trust and transparency, privacy and user history management?

[Stan]: Facebook is the gold standard for what consumers expect from companies in respecting their boundaries on privacy. We, of course, take this extremely seriously — I can’t stress that enough — and are very careful with the way we offer functionality and control to the people who use Messenger. We put people first in everything we do at Messenger, and just recently started to roll out a new option to better support conversations about sensitive topics. Messages and calls on Messenger already benefit from strong security systems. Messenger uses secure communications channels (just like banking and shopping websites) as well as Facebook’s powerful tools to help block spam and malware. But there are times when people want additional safeguards — perhaps when discussing private information like an illness or a health issue with trusted friends and family, or sending financial information to an accountant. This option enables end-to-end encryption, which can only be read on one device of the person you’re communicating with. That means the messages are intended just for you and the other person — not anyone else, including us.

[Dave]: I know you can’t give us the full road map, but what big future Messenger platform step functions can marketers expect over time?

[Stan]: We quite literally are releasing something every week. Of course, these releases vary in scope, but we’re always optimizing the experience. You’ll see us expand our video capabilities, do more fun things like we do with stickers and emojis, and you’ll see a ton coming from the way we work with developers and the way partners are leveraging the platform. We’re lucky in that our platform enables innovation to come from both our partners and us.

[Dave]: How do you see this playing out? Do you envision a world where messaging is a distinct platform on par with desktop and mobile for marketers?

[Stan]: Sure, of course. I already think it’s in that bucket today. Messaging has been a part of the fabric of what we do since the invention of the Internet — from the early days of user chat forums, to now with text and standalone messaging apps. People want conversation in the digital world. Messanging enables them to connect with people all over the world, experience brands as ‘people’ and enriches their lives in the digital and physical world. Messaging is here to stay, and will continue to be a platform for growth and opportunity.

[Dave]: Any last words for marketers looking to take the plunge?

[Stan]: Don’t think, just do! Honestly, it’s so easy to turn on these tools and just start testing and learning. Once you start to build the muscle you can add more pieces like video chatting or bots, of course. But those who are “waiting and seeing” will find themselves very far behind if they don’t act.