From web to SMS to a seemingly endless array of apps, we as a culture are obsessed with messaging. Products like Facebook Messenger, SnapChat, and WhatsApp facilitate instant engagement, and they’ve given birth to loyal communities built around secret languages and brand new forms of communication (think: the reaction GIF).
The proliferation of messaging means one thing for businesses: opportunity — the kind that benefits consumers, too. Companies in virtually every industry can use messaging to reach people instantly in familiar, intimate ways; they can reduce friction and engage them more effectively, building their brands in the process.
How did we get here, and what does the future of messaging look like? Well, let’s take a little walk down memory lane.
Messaging apps have a history dating back to the 1960s. But for the majority of us, the true birth of messaging as we know it today began in 1997 with the AOL’s launch of Instant Messenger (better known as AIM). As any child of the 90s can tell you, school nights were spent aching for a quick and painless AOL login, hearing the familiar sound of the door opening, and chatting with your community of Buddies. It was the dawn of a new generation of tech-savvy internet users; your username was your mark on the world.
With one-on-one messaging, user profiles, away messages, and those little icons, IM-ing provided a glimpse of many messaging apps to come, built on a solid foundation of continuous engagement. By 2005, AIM dominated the messaging market with 53 million users, and spawned many chat bots (remember SmarterChild?) that have since been lost to history.
Around this time, Google Talk (GChat) came about, and Skype revolutionized the way we communicate across borders via free desktop calls, video, and chat. This was also the beginning of a little-known social network that made us ditch usernames altogether: Facebook.
The Social Web
People are social animals: social media is just the exhibition of our nature in today’s digital environment. Likewise, since the inception of the written word, people have sought to communicate with each other over long distances — and since the birth of the telephone and then the cellphone, people’s hunger for easy, synchronous communication has grown. In 2008, Facebook released Facebook Chat, coinciding with Apple’s iChat (messaging built for the Mac users), BBM (remember Blackberries?), and a new era of mobile consumption (more on this in a bit).
Messaging apps are one of the few parts of the social web that have actually grown into a realm of their own. Social networks have their own systems, but there are plenty of alternate options — for example, Snapchat (whose founder rejected Facebook’s $3 billion offer) and China’s WeChat are building new systems around chat and challenging the behemoths’ grasp on the area.
Arguably, Facebook’s increasing popularity catalyzed a gradual millennial exodus to new messaging apps. From a 2015 Washington Post article:
Mark Zuckerberg is no longer the coolest kid in school, sitting in the back of the classroom with his hoodie on. Last year, the Facebook CEO cum Michael Cera lookalike told investors that ‘coolness is done for us.’ Teens are leaving Facebook in droves for new friends like Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter — at an estimated rate of up to a million a year.
After all, who wants to have your latest party pic commented on by Mom, Dad, and Uncle Terry?
The Mobile Revolution
Hell hath no fury like a social networking behemoth losing relevance. Fast-forward to 2014, and Facebook can be found purchasing messaging phenomenon WhatsApp for a staggering $19 billion dollars, the highest valuation in high-tech history. Facebook also turned Messenger into its own app to encourage folks to chat faster.
So what happened here, exactly? WhatsApp is a platform for, essentially, texting. It’s a fee-free way to send messages, photos, and videos to any other user who has also has also downloaded the app. Much of WhatApp’s success can be attributed to the fact that it’s simply a mobile app: it’s quick, easily accessed by young people (read: mobile), and affordable ($1 per year at most).
“During different phases of your life, you talk more and are more social,” Deloitte’s head of technology, media and telecommunications Paul Lee said in 2014 regarding a study on the app. “And generally when you’re younger … you talk with more people. This has always been the case, it’s just text messaging replaced phone calls, and IM messages are having a similar impact on texts.”
Likewise, SnapChat offers a lightweight medium for quick communication — albeit, messaging mostly takes place in the form of photos, often with overlaid text. Snapchat’s time limits mean users feel more comfortable sending pictures that are spontaneous, personal, and even intimate. Two users — or a group of friends — can have a real conversational exchange in mere seconds.
Perhaps it’s here that we see the beauty of this new era of messaging: even a mass message — a snap sent to a group — comes off as an individual message and offers instant connection. “This is the holy grail of messaging platforms,” says one investor, “evoking strong emotion with minimal friction.”
There are a ton of these apps, and they each offer something similar (messaging) with a little something different (WeChat has its stickers, for example). While some will come and go, the top echelon offers a solid source of lasting engagement, and is able to bring together enough of one’s real life community to build a presence. Once that happens, people are likely to stick around and become power users.
We might be coming full circle: most messaging apps are surpassing simple chat to become more like social networks, with chat serving as the cornerstone of engagement. Case in point: in April, Facebook will likely launch a Bot Store for Messenger. By installing a range of automated programs, people will be able to do things like order pizza, buy movie tickets, and check their bank balances without ever leaving Messenger. (Thanks to integration with Uber, you can already use it to order a ride.)
The more frictionless messaging becomes, the more we’ll integrate it into our daily lives. No longer is whimsical chat just for personal use — it’s also for professional use (see: the rise of Slack, with its emojis and built-in #random channel). The growth of these apps has fostered a strong familiarity with the medium.
Companies that recognize the importance of this trend are primed to capitalize on messaging to strengthen their own communities, using ‘chat’ as a direct communication line to their customers. We can now take advantage of automation and artificial intelligence to create that one-on-one chat experience automatically — the way Facebook has with Facebook M, which turns Messenger into your personal assistant. For example, you could recommend purchases based on shoppers’ browsing behavior; you could trigger product-related advice; you could even predict what someone will want to read next and send the article over.
How will you use messaging IRL to reach your audience?