Facebook Messaging – The e-mail replacement

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What response can brands expect by targeting Facebook users through direct messaging?

E-mail newsletters are passé. According to a report on social media usage by The Nielsen Company in collaboration with AbsolutData, just 8% of Internet users spend approximately 1-3 hours on personal e-mail while 20% of the Internet users spend the same amount of time on social media sites. No surprise that directly messaging users on Facebook personal profiles is the next big thing for brands. However the strategy has a pull-push approach – reaching out to users and allowing users to reach out to you.

Only recently, Facebook has launched a new direct messaging platform for brands on an experimental basis. Other social networks like Google+ already have similar features and not wanting to be left behind, Facebook has now made it possible for consumers to interact directly with brands by messaging them privately on their pages. Obviously, this feature would not be a major plus for new and small brands which do not have a huge fan following yet. This is a pull strategy where consumers come to the brand rather than the other way around and hence makes more business sense for mature brands in the market.

With this feature, the message feature on product pages will resemble the message functionality on the profile pages of one’s friends. Brands can thus respond to questions and comments and continue a conversation as long as they like. However, since these messages are private, there will be no additional value in terms of gaining goodwill from other consumers as well. One may argue though, that every customer gained makes a difference to the bottom line.

What it Means for Marketers

Facebook’s latest feature means that consumers have better access to their favorite brands and brands can hope to get better feedback on their products. They can also gauge reactions to new brands speedily and change marketing efforts depending on the response. But the next step for brands would be to use a more aggressive push strategy by reaching out to users directly instead. You don’t even have to individually the profiles of potential customers and message this. Many Facebook users have activated their Facebook emails ([email protected]) and this functions like a usual email account except that emails are delivered to the message inboxes of users. The only drawback is that messages would probably go to the ‘other’ section of users’ inboxes, reserved for commercial messages and those from groups and pages the user may have subscribed to. But at least, they won’t get the ugly classification of ‘spam’.

Above: What a brand message will look like on a user’s profile

One of the questions asked to respondents of the study on social media usage by The Nielsen Company in collaboration with AbsolutData was: Choose the qualities that describe brands/companies that have social media presence. Guess which one got the lowest responses? Transparency. Allowing customers to reach out to brands privately and providing them a satisfactory response may just ensure that the findings of such a study are quite different next time around.

The Problem and the Solution

Critics of the proposed Facebook initiative point out that private messaging may result in drastic reduction in public comments and likes, which go a longer way in influencing customers and creating positive word of mouth publicity. But the solution is pretty simple. Brands must make it a point to reply to all messages with a message at the end: “Please message us only if you have a problem and we will resolve it as soon as possible.” OR” We would appreciate if you posted comments on our page. Thank you for your cooperation.” This will certainly discourage general comments eventually. Another option is to avoid replying to open-ended comments while making sure to respond to comments on the page.

As with most feedback-associated features on social networking websites, this feature has the potential to generate an equal number of negative comments. But brands can only benefit from criticism and look at it this way – at least it’s not public! And if a negative comment appears on the public page, brands can, with the new feature, reply through a private message, thus making the conversation invisible to anyone else from that point onwards.

A Word of Caution

One thing that brands need to be mindful about: if they do not reply to messages, it might spark ire that reflects in the public space – something to be avoided at any cost. Hence, before enabling the messaging feature brands – especially the more popular ones, must ensure that they have sufficient manpower and resources to respond to and resolve complaints and queries by the dozen.

Facebook has indeed come a long way from November 2007 when founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg first introduced advertising in Facebook. And this new messaging feature if launched successfully may just be the next big thing in customer relationship management.

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