What Facebook’s Privacy Pivot & Cryptocurrency Might Mean For Your Business

What Facebook’s Privacy Pivot & Cryptocurrency Might Mean For Your Business

I wrote this article for the July 5th 2019 issue of Khaleej Times newspaper

Facebook has had a pretty tough couple of years. Maybe not from a money-making point of view (revenue is continuing to rise, albeit at a slower speed), but certainly in the court of public opinion. From the Cambridge Analytica user privacy scandal last April, to a data breach in September that affected 50 million accounts, as well as ongoing struggles with moderating hate speech and graphic content, the company has taken a battering in the media.

Despite this controversy, Facebook is still the largest social network in the world. It’s 2.4 Billion monthly active users make up almost a third of the global population. But while the amount of users is still slowly increasing according to Facebook’s own statistics, actions such as likes, shares and posts in the News Feed have plummeted over the last year. Such a decline in engagement is a worrying thought for the company. The News Feed has traditionally been where most of the action on Facebook happens, and subsequently where it makes most of its revenue from ads.

As more and more social media usage moves away from public sharing towards private messaging, the company knows that it can’t rely on the News Feed for continued growth. It acknowledged as much back in March when Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was pivoting away from relying on public posts in the News Feed for engagement, and focusing more towards person-to-person and group messaging. In it’s grand vision, the company wants to link and encrypt all three of its messaging platforms; Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram, and offer a more broad range of private services to this total user base of almost 4 Billion accounts. But with a slow death of the News Feed, which has traditionally been the primary home for ads, how might this affect how brands use the platform to communicate and interact with their customers?

Ads within messages

When it comes to simply serving ads, the Messenger app has been running ads in a limited capacity for a couple of years, but in a clunky and invasive way. These ads appear within the feed of messages but look and feel just like News Feed ads, albeit without the context of the feed or the intent of a search results page. While WhatsApp and Instagram have avoided this type of ad so far, Facebook would be wise to keep it this way. Cramming ads in between users’ messages with friends and family is not likely to go down well, and this could risk driving users away.

Ads within Stories

While the News Feed is being put out to pasture, the Stories format of ephemeral vertical content is alive and well, and has become a core element of the big messaging apps. Facebook Chief Product Officer, Chris Cox has predicted that Stories will surpass feed posts as the top way to share sometime this year. As user attention moves to Stories, ads are following, and this will remain an increasingly attractive place for brands to advertise on messaging apps in the future. Ads in WhatsApp’s Stories product, ‘Status’, will be rolling out in 2020, hoping to emulate the success of ads in Stories on Instagram.

Messaging services

Aside from simply serving ads, the most interesting possibilities lie in the messaging services that are expected to be launched on this integrated network of messaging apps. In a blog post announcing the move, Mark Zuckerberg suggested that private, encrypted messaging will facilitate new business tools involving payments and commerce, which will ultimately create a platform for many other kinds of private services. What exactly these services might be remains to be seen, but we can get a glimpse of the possibilities by looking East to gigantic messaging apps like China’s WeChat.

In addition to simply messaging, WeChat facilitates a huge range of services that allow users to shop, play games, pay utility bills and order taxis or meal deliveries all from within the app. Think of all the types of services that users currently book or manage via their smartphone: buying tickets to a show, arranging a car servicing, scheduling a maid. Expect these soon to be facilitated through Facebook’s network of messaging apps, with the company taking a cut of each transaction along the way. Facebook ultimately wants its messaging platform to be a one-stop-shop for any functional utility a user might want to use their smartphone to manage.

In a related strategic move, the company has also just announced the launch of a cryptocurrency, called Libra, that will enable payments on its platform and across the web. A digital wallet will live inside its apps allowing users to easily use Libra to send money to friends and businesses anywhere in the world, with almost zero fees. This move is a strong indicator of Facebook’s intent to become a transactional platform, rather than relying on advertising for its revenue. If the plan works, WhatsApp and Messenger are well-placed to become new payments and commerce hubs.

Facebook has already exhibited great foresight in anticipating this trend towards messaging. In 2014, it removed the messaging feature from its main app and forced users to download the standalone Messenger app if they wanted to use the service on mobile. Shortly afterwards, the company purchased WhatsApp for a staggering $19 Billion. The company is clearly aware of how important messaging will be going forward and, while Facebook as we know it might soon be a thing of the past, with change comes opportunity. But as messaging is more of a private space than an environment dedicated to public sharing, businesses must tread carefully so as not to abuse this relationship.

Posted by Rob in Facebook, Social Media, WhatsApp

Chatbot 101 – Serviceplan Middle East talk

I gave this talk a few weeks back at the Serviceplan Middle East office on the rise of Chatbots in 2017 but am only getting around to putting it up here now because I’m super lazy.

With mobile messaging app usage overtaking regular social media usage as far back as 2015, coupled with the fact that people have basically stopped downloading standalone branded apps, the opportunity for Chatbots to provide an alternative communication channel has never been more obvious.

Since Facebook opened the floodgates to developers on it’s Messenger app platform last April, tens of thousands of Chatbots have been launched. Some haven’t lived up to expectations, but the future potential of Chatbots when paired with more concrete mobile functions like location-based services, push notifications and payments mean that our definition of what a Chatbot actually is could change drastically over the coming years.

Keep an eye out for WhatsApp inevitably getting in on the action at some stage over the next 12 months too.

Posted by Rob in Apps, Facebook, Mobile, WhatsApp

Mobile messaging, and what it means for brands

For the last 6 or 7 years, the growth of social media has been a phenomenon that’s affected everything from the way we communicate with one another to the way we consume media and entertainment. But as Social Networks make the move to being de-facto media distribution channels, users have overwhelmingly started migrating to messaging apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat, LINE etc. to engage in more meaningful communication with friends and family.

It may come as a surprise, but in 2015, the Big Four mobile messaging apps (WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, WeChat and Viber) overtook the Big Four Social Networks (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn) in monthly active user numbers. So it’s official; mobile messaging is where it’s at.


From a publisher’s point of view, some media outlets are already using messaging apps to connect with their audience in interesting ways. The Huffington Post are using Viber’s Public Chats to publicly share real-time conversations between their journalists. BBC News are using WhatsApp for user-generated content, gathering reader photos, videos, and first-hand accounts that it later repurposes on its live news blog, and The Washington Post are using Kik’s Promoted Chats to attract readers through quizzes and game-like experiences.

Either way, it’s clear that where users go, ultimately, brands want to go too, thus providing the incentive to technology platforms to facilitate this connection.

Much has been made of Facebook’s desire to turn it’s Messenger app into a much broader platform, enabling users to do more than just communicate with each other. Plans include everything from facilitating customer service, to ordering an Uber directly within a conversation, and even allowing P2P micro payments, all within the context of messaging. This is much like the most popular Asian apps such as WeChat and LINE already offer. In a way, the messaging aspect is a commodity service used to build a broad user base to offer a wider range of add-ons to.

WhatsApp is looking to get in on the action too. At last month’s DLD conference in Munich, founder Jan Koum spoke about the plan to remove the annual subscription fee to use the service and eventually cater to businesses (he gave American Airlines and Bank of America as examples), offering them ways to deal with customer servicing directly through the messaging app.

How might brands utilise messaging apps?

But all of this just poses the question of how exactly brands might use messaging apps to connect with consumers. Perhaps it’s not too crazy to think of WhatsApp customer call centres springing up in the developing world in the not-too-distant future, but surely there are possibilities far more interesting than this. AI responses to customer queries have been touted, but aside from a responding to customer complaints, how else might brands utilize messaging platforms to enhance customer relationships?

Perhaps ‘conversations’ with brands can be used to maintain customer loyalty and rewards programs, a friction free way of opting-in and continuing to use them.  Mobile loyalty apps have been sold as the answer to the problem of having to constantly carry around rewards cards and the like, but in reality, downloading a standalone app and registering your details to keep track of this seems to be as much of a turn-off as carrying around a physical card in the first place. Brands could also use messaging channels to offer personalised deals or suggest new products that their users might like. Something akin to the “If you like this, you’ll love these” style prompts that work so well on Amazon etc. Either way, it sounds like a smoother way to interact with customers and prompt them into action.

But at what point might this become a nuisance, and are most consumers really open to engaging with brands on channels that they also communicate with their friends and family on? Well it would appear that they are. Recent consumer research in the area is encouraging. According to a 2015 MEC survey, 79% are not opposed to engaging with brands on chat apps. That sounds like enough of a mandate to me. Even if actual user behaviour turns out to be a little less enthusiastic about this once it becomes the norm.

I’m sure we’ll slowly start seeing some examples of these concepts over the next 6 months or so as Facebook and friends turn on the tap and unleash some of the functionality that third-party developers have been working away on since F8 last March. In the meantime, we’ll just have to put our thinking caps on and come up with some interesting ways to utilise messaging channels to connect with customers.

Posted by Rob in Facebook, Mobile, Retail, Social Media, WhatsApp

Snapchat live chat & video could be a game-changer

This could be massive. In what was quite an unassuming blog post yesterday to announce their new live chat feature, Snapchat casually threw in that they are also adding a live video aspect to the service too. This move makes a heap of sense as the company grapples with ways of giving users a more valuable service. Sharing vanishing selfies will only interest people for so long after all.

By going in this direction, the company is clearly trying to branch out from their relatively niche focus and become a platform where users can interact with each other in a more meaningful and rich way. If they can eek out a place in the younger generation’s world as an alternative to Skype or WhatsApp, then turning down Facebook’s reported $3 Billion advances could turn out to be a very savvy move in the end.

Posted by Rob in Mobile, Snapchat, WhatsApp