Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) is evolving its messenger app, first by enabling peer-to-peer payments and now by creating a way for merchants to communicate directly with shoppers.
Messenger users can now send money to friends. Each party must register a Visa or MasterCard, or a bank-issued debit card on first use, then it just takes a simple tap to send or accept a payment. Users create a four-digit ID for accessing stored payment card information or, alternatively, utilize Touch ID on iOS devices. Users can add another layer of security if they choose, according to the announcement.
And while this may be the first step for Facebook in mobile payments, it's paired with something far more compelling to retailers: a new direct communication feature that lets merchants reach customers via Messenger.
Businesses can offer website visitors an option to connect on Messenger.
"Commerce is conversational," David Marcus, VP of messaging products, told attendees at a developer conference, according to Fortune. The initiative isn't about push messaging discounts or ads, it's about conversing with shoppers.
Facebook partnered with retailers Everlane and Zuilly to demonstrate the feature. Shoppers can opt to receive status and updates on orders via Messenger instead of email. From there, it's easy for a store to send messages regarding things like inventory alerts or product suggestions. Rather than being parceled to a junk or promotions folder in an email client, the messages appear on the smartphone screen, just as a message from a Facebook friend would.
It's a means to create a more personalized experience and interaction, said Marcus.
"It's reintroducing personal back to shopping," he said. "This is about creating rich content and interactions between people and businesses. You could imagine that in the future a customer could have multiple threads open with businesses that you care about, and you could transact and buy things."
Messenger is used by 600 million people worldwide, according to Facebook, and it's clearly positioning Messenger as a standalone service separate from the social site's ecosystem. Last year Facebook hired Marcus, the former CEO of PayPal, to build out Messenger as a business.
But retailers might do well to be skeptical, said Alex Lirtsman, founding partner and chief strategist of digital agency Ready Set Rocket. Facebook isn't just looking to foster communication, but to create revenue streams.
Retailers need only look back a couple of years to a time when Facebook encouraged them to collect "likes" and grow followers—and then demanded they pay for them.
What happens when Messenger's utility for brands reaches critical mass and then Facebook tries to shut it off? "They have to monetize this somehow," said Lirtsman. "The brand doesn't own the last mile. There has to be a little bit of caution. "
Still, Messenger for business offers brands a new way to reach consumers. "The revolutionary part is the push notifications," Lirtsman said. "Messenger is a disruption mechanism." Not only can friends interrupt on a smartphone welcome screen, but now a brand can, too.
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