Arif Durrani
Nov 18, 2010

Facebook Messages hits the right note with experts

GLOBAL - The arrival of Facebook Messages this week has been widely welcomed as a timely, one-stop shop for social communications by media and digital specialists, with one noting "it's what Google Wave should have been".

Facebook Messages
Facebook Messages

It didn’t take long for Mark Zuckerberg’s unveiling of the "seamless messaging" service in San Francisco on Monday (15 November) to kick start speculation around the world.

Early headlines about it being a "Gmail killer" appeared to owe more to the desire of journalists to pit the networking giant Facebook against internet giant Google, than any outright challenge.

Zuckerberg said, "This is not an email killer. This is a messaging system that includes email as one part of it."

Yet the India Times was among those wondering whether it could be a game changer, citing research group Gartner’s prediction that 20 per cent of workers will use social networks as their primary vehicle for business communications by 2014.

Facebook Messages: The future of communication?

The 26-year-old Zuckerberg and co were certainly in no mood to downplay its significance, describing it as "the way the future should work".

Facebook Messages will enable people to combine multiple forms of communication - email, chat, SMS and messages – that can in turn be received through whatever medium or device is most convenient for the recipient - and all in real time.

One thing Messages will undoubtedly do, as it is rolled out globally by invitation to all of the site’s 500 million plus accounts, is increase the amount of time people spend with the site. This should be a sobering thought for all media owners.

John Willshire, head of innovation at PHD. said, "It's no secret, but Facebook want to spend more time with you.

"Either on site, so you'll see more advertising and thus up their inventory, or on mobile devices, so the system can keep learning more about you.

"They've clearly looked at where people spend time with devices and thought 'how can we eat into that?

"What better way than to offer a one-stop shop to consolidate all those conversations they have with people. Perhaps instead of trying to replace Gmail or Hotmail specifically, Facebook have email client programs like Outlook Express in their sights."

Despite claims to the contrary, Zuckerberg did appear to sound the death knell for email as we now know it, calling it "too slow" and "too formal". He said, "We don't think modern messaging system will be email."

Instead, the Facebook founder identified seven characteristics that will come to define "next generation" messaging - seamless, informal, immediate, personal, simple, minimal, and short."

Adam Field, head of social at Havas Media’s MPG, is sold on the timing and its premise, calling it "brilliant".

A Facebook Messages mobile app for 2011?

Field said, "If you look at the official video it screams rip-off of Google Wave [Google's vision for the ‘future-of-email’ that Google ended up pulling the plug on after less than a year after opening the beta to new users].

"Facebook has cottoned on to the benefits of stripping communications back to basics. It’s not about technology it’s about communicating with people."

However, the MPG specialist warned Facebook Messages had "a long way to go" before it can own the messaging space, noting it is entering an already crowded marketplace served for many years by the likes of Hotmail, Yahoo and AOL, and more recently Google’s own "highly sophisticated and integrated interface" Gmail.

He said, "It will be interesting to see how people start to adapt and adopt the service. It’s a good first step and that will probably be driven by mobile. I think a Facebook Messages mobile app is coming and that will create a product that stands out and could potentially own its own space."

Tom Poynter, managing director of digital for Iris UK, agreed that the battle had only just begun. He said, "It’s another nice feature from Facebook that continues to look at providing a value exchange to its mammoth user base by continuing to integrate its products and services, but it won’t be a killer to Gmail – well at least not overnight.

"Google have been five plus years in the making with Gmail, so Facebook are not going to get there from the off. They do have some lovely integration options with chat, messages, images etc, but also some way to go with email management functionality."

What do the oldies know anyway?

Poynter also noted that forms of communication today have innate age biases anyway. He said, "The youth of today don’t even use email so are not predisposed as to how oldies like me need to anally file every email ever sent since the days of Netscape 1.01."

This point was also picked up on by Jean-Paul Edwards, executive director, futures at Manning Gottlieb OMD. He said, "This unified messaging service is a generational thing, which could see email becoming subservient to Facebook.

"It is what Google Wave should have been, but Google Wave was too technical and this is simpler to use and has mass market appeal. 

Expect ads, sponsored links and more

Despite Facebook Messages being just hours old, it’s been some 15 months in development, and most agency specialists foresee commercial opportunities opening up in the future, on top of the expected increase in users’ site time.

"In much the same way that Facebook and Gmail already do, ads and sponsored links could be served in and around the message based upon contextual analysis of its contents," said Adam Graham, managing partner, Saint@RKCR/YR.

He said, "If you then layer this with the location information and the semantic data that Facebook has, it could provide a very sophisticated and truly valuable promotional experience for users and businesses alike."

Charlie McGee, managing director of Carat Digital, expects "consumers will take to it really well", but sounded a note of caution for the future. He said,  "From a social perspective, I imagine that people’s lives will be organised even more through Facebook. But I wonder how aware they are that they will be giving even more data to a company that is already very rich in information.

"There will be a commercial angle to this, inevitably. Agencies and publishers are collecting this new data and it’s not being done for fun. It can all help build and develop new products.

"We use Facebook’s API already and Messages will provide another string to the bow when it comes to targeting individuals with particular products at particular times."

Martin McNulty, general manager of digital agency Forward3d, called it "yet another land-grab by Facebook". He said the site already pings messages across to email but "smoothes over the rough edges".

"From a commercial point of view the more page impressions it creates make it more attractive to advertisers," he said. "It may see a payment service coming into action too."

Will it work? Time will tell, but as PHD’s Willshire noted "it's got a better chance of 'reinventing email' than Google's Wave did, because it's going to be the way Facebook works in the future... there's no 'opt-in' issue."

He said, "But I wonder if all the email features they've stripped away in the name of simplicity, which are the ones people have grown used to having in email over the past 15 years, means they're taking a swiss army knife and turning it into a screwdriver."

Campaign Asia

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