Facebook Messenger wants to be buddy and business: but can it really be both?

Facebook Messenger is in an interesting stage of its existence, in the same week it launched a collection of fun Snapchat-style video add-ons, and Discover, where you can find and communicate with businesses, often through chatbots.

It makes sense for Messenger to be integrating businesses, as currently there doesn’t seem to be a way for Facebook to monetize the platform. 

Our question is: is there room for both things to exist on the same platform? We were invited to a roundtable with David Marcus, head of Messenger for Facebook where we were able to discuss this with him.

“The experience [of talking to chatbots] works, it’s just the term is not compelling to consumers. You’d be hard pressed, even in the Discover surface of Messenger to find the term ‘bot’ because people want to interact with brands, with services, but not with bots, because they don’t know what that is.”

But we’re not sure we agree. We don’t think that people don’t want to talk to bots because they don’t know what they are; we think people don’t want to talk to bots because they aren’t yet developed enough that you can communicate with them naturally. Which makes the hiding of all references to bots feel a little suspect. 

Who are you talking to?

Marcus was reticent to discuss exact numbers of users that are interacting with bots on Messenger, but he did tell us: “There are about 2 billion messages a month exchanged between businesses/services on Messenger. That number has doubled in a year, and that includes automation and human interaction.”

Clearly with the amount of interaction increasing at that rapid pace, there is a demand for someone (or something) to be handling that demand. And possibly a chatbot is the best way to go about it.

The problem is, we’re a long way from your standard brand bot in Messenger passing the Turing test. And what this means is that Messenger is in a place where you have dry, unnatural conversations with an corporate chatbot at the same time as a frivolous video chat with your friends wearing a digital rabbit mask. 

Marcus thinks that this disparity is not a problem: “I think this notion that people want to be serious on some platforms and fun on other platforms is pretty antiquated. You want to communicate. And of course, when you want to communicate with your bank, you’re not going to send them a pic of yourself with a rabbit mask.”

Digital Jekyll and Hyde

“The same way that you as a person can walk in a bank branch and be very serious and have a conversation,” Marcus continued, “and then go to the pub and goof around with friends. You’re still the same person, you just interact differently in different situations. We think the same is true in your digital life.”

And to a certain extent he’s right. In a browser window you can go from online banking to trawling Reddit with the click of a button, but that feels different somehow. Perhaps it’s to do with branding. 

Messenger feels like a tool, and if you can’t tell if a tool is a hammer or a whisk, are you going to use it for either function? 

This isn’t the first time that a company has tried to bridge the gap between fun and financial; Blackberry’s Messenger BBM tries to tread this line, and it has never fully managed to make it work while gaining the popularity of Messenger of WhatsApp.

Facebook does manage to be sprawling enough as a platform that it can handle a diverse range of content, so perhaps it is the best company to try and make this diverse Messenger work. 

Discover has only just launched in the US, and will be launching worldwide in the not-too distant future, so we probably have a little while to wait before we can get an accurate gauge of how successful it is. 

Andrew London

Andrew London is a writer at Velocity Partners. Prior to Velocity Partners, he was a staff writer at Future plc.