Facebook Messenger has a billion users, but now there's a new problem

Chatbots will save Messenger, as long as we learn to love them and are OK with seeing ads to support them.


Holy smokes, Facebook Messenger now has a billion users. It reminds me of the comment in the movie The Social Network about going for a billion dollars instead of a million. Now, the biggest social network by far has an even bigger problem, however.

There’s a little issue with messaging. It’s really hard to monetize. Users don’t like getting ads that disrupt the flow of conversation. (We’ve since learned to mostly put up with them on websites and in other places.) The company has said before that they would have to look at monetization once they hit a billion users.

It’s much more annoying to have Facebook insert a little jingle for Pizza Hut when you are chatting with grandma about her health. And, it feels much more intrusive to have the overlords of all social media hit you up for a pair of shoes.

What works? A few companies like Yahoo and Whole Foods Market are experimenting with chatbots, and we already expect this conversation to be highly commercialized.

I’m not privy to how these chatbots share revenue with Facebook, maybe they do or maybe they don’t, but it would not surprise me if Facebook took a slice of your pepperoni pizza somehow. 

That said, there are some obvious ways Facebook is making money from Messenger, even if people are not going to the main Facebook site and seeing ads.

First, the companies that make chatbots and do live support on Facebook are trying to get your attention, so they are paying Facebook to run ads (some that appear in your feed, some in a banner) that are meant to steer you to their Messenger bot. This is one of the reason chatbots are so popular. They link you to a brand.

Companies also pay incredibly amounts to convince you to come to their Facebook page, which might have a prominent link to chat with them. Chat is incredibly sticky. Once you get value from it, and once you find the answer you need, or once you get over the clunky A.I., you’re likely to come back. When I tested a Whole Foods Market chatbot recently, I found a few recipes and even make them that week. It made me want to keep using the chatbot, which in turn feeds the Messenger machine.

The only thing almost as important to Facebook financial success as a company than clicking “like” (which means every future post appears in that user’s feed, which means you’ll come back for more) is clicking on the link to start chatting with a bot. For example, the new Yahoo Weather chatbot only requires one click to “get started” and then will forever feed you forecasts until you tell it to stop. Yahoo is motivated to get you to click and they’re trying to draw in new users. When you want more information about a forecast from the chatbot, you click -- and that means you go to Yahoo to see their ads, their content, and become more loyal to their brand.

Yet, there must be a better way to monetize, and the secret is still with chatbots. Once you start interacting with a bot, you’ll start seeing images, links, and more text. Guess what? For now, all of that content is sent directly from the bot. (I’ve tested an A.I. bot called Ozlo that helps you find a place and sends flashy banners that look suspiciously like ads.) Facebook is going to work with the chatbot companies to insert ads into the conversation. In fact, there’s a really good chance the entire concept of chatbots became “a thing” when Facebook realized, long-term, it’s going to be the best way to monetize Messenger.

You can image how it works. Ozlo would do a revenue sharing deal with Facebook to insert ads into the chat that either look like real content or are obviously “sponsored” and look like ads. We’re not quite there yet, because it will seem way too obvious at first, but we’ll slowly accept it once we get hooked on these chatbots and keep using them on a daily basis.

I’m curious to see if this is what happens in the near future.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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