Fast Forward: Facebook F8 Refresh Event Recap
Facebook enhances business messaging tools and rekindles platform ambitions with low-key virtual developer event
Editor’s note: This is an abridged edition of our Fast Forward newsletter. For the full version, please contact our VP of Client Services, Josh Mallalieu (firstname.lastname@example.org) to send a request.
The big tech conference season continues this week with Facebook’s annual F8 developer event. Compared to the Google and Snap events that took place two weeks ago, this virtual event was relatively low-key and understated both in terms of its production value and Facebook’s announcements. Aptly named “Facebook F8 Refresh,” this single-day event offered a refresher on Facebook’s developer tools and business-friendly features, with a particular focus on its messaging platforms and AI toolkits. Here’s what brand marketers should know about Facebook’s latest announcements.
Ramping Up Social Commerce via Messaging Apps
At the beginning of the opening keynote, CEO Mark Zuckerberg gave a short speech to praise the important work that software developers have done in helping small businesses transition online during the pandemic. This set the tone for much of the 90-minute-long keynote, the majority of which Facebook spent on talking about the new developer tools across its messaging apps that businesses can now use to better serve their customers.
First up was WhatsApp, which introduced two new messaging features designed to ease communication between businesses and users. First is the List Messages, which now provides a menu of up to 10 options so that users can simply choose from an expanded list instead of typing out lengthy responses themselves. There’s also a new Reply Button, which enables users to select a reply from three pre-set options with just one tap. It will also support more types of messages, including periodic reminders and back-in-stock alerts that users can opt in for follow-ups.
Businesses can set all of those options via their WhatsApp Business API accounts, to which they can now onboard in just five minutes. Previously, it could take weeks for businesses to set up a business account on WhatsApp and start using its business API. The WhatsApp Vehicle Assistant account created by GM Brazil was featured as one of the success pilots of these new features, as they saw a 30% boost in lead generation via WhatsApp and an increase of 20% of sales generated with said leads.
Besides WhatsApp, Facebook’s original messaging platform, Messenger, and Instagram Direct Messaging also received some updates. The Messenger API for Instagram, which was first launched as a closed beta in October, is now available to all developers, allowing key automation tools on Instagram for the first time. This means businesses can now build tools that, for example, integrate Instagram DM with their order management systems to let customer service reps instantly look up a person’s order history in real time. In addition, new customer feedback templates are now available on Messenger as well.
To sync up user profiles (and data) beyond its own proprietary messaging platforms and help brands better serve customers via their own apps and websites, Facebook also announced a new way for people to opt into messaging with businesses. With Login Connect with Messenger, users can now opt into messaging with businesses by simply logging in with their Facebook credentials to carry out their conversations in Messenger. Facebook said Login Connect is still in the testing phase but will be made widely available in the coming months.
There is something almost retro for Facebook to focus so heavily on messaging tools in 2021. Facebook has been striving to make its messaging apps more business-friendly since 2016 when it launched chatbots on Messenger. Five years later, Facebook can still find room for improvements, not just for the sake of getting more people to use its messaging apps, but also for taking a cut of the global retail transformation by solidifying its chat platforms as the infrastructure for communications. To be fair, it’s not like Facebook hasn’t considered more “modern” solutions — just last week, it started testing a new “Drop” tab on Instagram which features shoppable posts of trendy items as determined by its algorithm.
Of course, Facebook is still invested in improving its business messaging tools because they work. Facebook claimed that 75% of global consumers say they want the capability to message a business for information, and 64% of them say they prefer messaging over emails or phone calls to reach businesses. During the pandemic, Facebook saw a sharp 40% increase in brand-customer conversation on Messenger. Interestingly, most of the successful testing examples showcased during the keynote were businesses located in non-U.S. markets, particularly those in Latin America, Southeast Asia and South Asia — all regions where Facebook’s messaging apps dominate in usage and consumer attention.
Rekindling Platform Ambitions with Business Apps and Spark AR
Mark Zuckerberg has always wanted Facebook to be a large platform a la the mobile OS duopoly — iOS or Android. Instead, the company missed the boat in the early days of mobile and ended up becoming a very successful aggregator. Yet, this platform ambition has always been a chip on Facebook’s shoulder, which drove it to acquire Oculus in 2014 and start building a VR platform when most of its competitors took a “wait-and-see” approach. Although we’ll have to wait until the Facebook Connect event in the fall to hear more about the company’s VR developments, there were two products featured in Wednesday’s event that points to Facebook’s undying aspiration to becoming a platform company.
First, there are the Business Apps, which are third-party tools made by developers that businesses on Facebook can use to better serve their audiences and optimize their marketing efforts on Facebook properties. Brands can access them as part of the Facebook Business Suite, a standalone app that was introduced in September as a centralized dashboard for small businesses to manage their activities on Facebook, Instagram, and Messengers with first-party tools made by Facebook. Besides, there’s also a set of new Creative Business Apps, which aims to help small businesses punch up their creative campaigns.
The introduction of Business Apps opens Facebook Business Suite to third-party developers and turns the app into a B2B service platform where small businesses may access the tools they need to grow on Facebook. B2B financial service brands should certainly consider developing some presence on Facebook Business Suite as a potential user acquisition channel.
Then there’s Facebook’s Spark AR platform, which has amassed over 600,000 developers and 2 million AR effects on Facebook and Instagram. (Facebook claims this makes it the “largest mobile AR platform,” although one would imagine Apple’s ARKit, Google’s ARCore, or even Snapchat, may have some strong objections to that claim. For comparison, Snap shared at its Partner Summit event that over 200,000 creators have made nearly 2 million Lenses on Snapchat, which have been viewed by users more than 2 trillion times.) Soon, these AR effects will be available for video calling on Messenger, Instagram, and Portal with the introduction of a Multipeer API. Creators can develop effects that bring call participants together by using a shared AR effect.
Due to its somewhat misplaced bet on VR, Facebook has been comparatively lagging in the AR space. Granted, it did manage to become the market leader in the VR space at the moment, but that is a much smaller market compared to AR. So naturally, Facebook is playing catch-up here. Integrating group AR experiences into video calls is an interesting way to test out new AR capabilities, and Facebook should gain some traction for that. In addition, there’s also a new body tracker feature that will help AR developers create AR effects that interact with the full-body movements. The data that Facebook collects from all the cutesy Instagram filters and fun video call effects will be valuable for its AR glasses project announced last year, further preparing the company to make the post-mobile paradigm shift. After all, it is no coincidence that Mark Zuckerberg name-checked “the metaverse” while talking about the Spark AR platform in his short opening remark.
Enhancing Existing Tools with Machine Learning and AI
It wouldn’t be a tech conference in 2021 without the obligatory mentions of AI and machine learning, and this Facebook event is no exception. One machine learning tool that Facebook highlighted was the open-source PyTorch framework created by Facebook’s AI Research unit. Examples of PyTorch AI models include the personalization of user’s feeds and stories on Instagram, and those that identify and delete hate speech on Facebook. During the keynote, Facebook said it has migrated most of its AI tools to PyTorch and will use it as the default framework from now on. Facebook stated that this move will allow it to tweak its machine learning algorithms more quickly while ensuring an optimized user experience for all.
Besides the move to PyTorch, one of the developer sessions following the event was devoted to Wit.ai, a natural language processing (NLP) API that is built into the Messenger platform. Developers can leverage it for free to power their chatbots on Facebook Messenger and add voice support to enhance customer messaging. Compared to other big tech companies, Facebook is far behind on voice-enabled services, so it has a lot of catching up to do to fully build out the voice-enabled part of conversational interfaces, if only to complement the text-based interfaces it has been polishing.
Overall, this Facebook F8 event confirmed Facebook’s commitment to making its messaging platforms more business-friendly and more useful to customers, reiterated the company’s long-held platform ambitions, and moderately advanced its general development in AR and AI technologies. If your brand is thinking about exploring social commerce via conversational interfaces, now is the time to seize the opportunity and get on Instagram or WhatsApp, depending on which global market you’re targeting.
Want to Learn More?
If you’d like to learn more about Facebook’s announcements and their marketing implications, or simply to chat broadly about how to future-proof your social commerce strategies, the Lab is here to help. You can start a conversation by reaching out to Josh Mallalieu (email@example.com).