More than 40M businesses now on Messenger, Facebook says at F8

At F8, the social media giant debuted a series of new business tools to turn the messaging platform into a better place to connect with customers.

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There are now more than 40 million businesses actively using the Messenger platform, Facebook said Tuesday as it rolled out a series of tools to help businesses connect with customers. Specifically, the new features will help businesses generate leads, drive in-store traffic and provide customer care. Facebook described them as "plug-and-play, one-size-fits-all" features that should be easy for businesses to use and developers to build upon.

Also: Facebook starts remodeling Messenger into the world's "digital living room" | Facebook Messenger hits 40M business users, but won't replace Slack anytime soon (TechRepublic) 

Facebook has for years cultivated Messenger as a platform for businesses. The statistics shared Tuesday, during Facebook's annual F8 conference in San Jose, show the progress made on that front: There are now 20 billion messages are exchanged between people and businesses every month on Messenger and nearly 300,000 developers building on the Messenger platform. By comparison, Facebook said at last year's F8 conference that there were 8 billion messages exchanged between people and businesses each month and 200,000 developers building on the Messenger platform.

Recently, however, Facebook's outlook on messaging has changed. The social media giant's messaging services, WhatsApp and Messenger, are now central to Facebook's new, purported focus on privacy. In March, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the company would retool its messaging services to be more interoperable, ephemeral, and with end-to-end encryption. Along with the new business tools, Facebook on Tuesday unveiled new features for Messenger users designed to foster closer personal connections -- features that will help transition the app into a more privacy-focused platform.

The new focus on privacy, Zuckerberg insists, should only help in Facebook's efforts to drive commercial interactions on Messenger.

"When you're using a messaging service... everything there is very intimate and private so it feels like a more natural space to be interacting with a business in a private way for doing transactions," Zuckerberg said last week on Facebook's Q1 conference call. While social networks like Facebook and Instagram offer a place for "discovery," he said, "you can complete the transactions and follow up with businesses individually and have an ongoing relationship through Messenger and WhatsApp."

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As part of its effort to cultivate those ongoing relationships, Facebook is making it easier to book appointments with a business via Messenger. It's rolling out a new standard calendar interface that makes it easier for people to select an available appointment and add it to their preferred calendar. Users will get appointment reminders and will be able to make changes or cancel appointments directly in a Messenger conversation with the business. The business will see real-time updates to their calendar. The appointment booking functionality is currently in beta and will be available more broadly later this year.

Facebook is also making it easier for advertisers to run lead generation campaigns in Messenger with a new  lead generation template in Ads Manager. Leads will be qualified via an automated question-and-answer flow within Messenger, and people will be able to input their answers with quick reply buttons. Businesses can curb natural drop-off with customized reminders, while submitted leads can be accessed via manual downloads, CRM integration or the Pages Inbox.

For customer care, Facebook is launching a new authentication capability for m.me, a shortened URL service that redirects users to a person, page or bot in Messenger. This will allow businesses to direct customers who are already authenticated on the Facebook mobile app or website into a Messenger thread and create a personalized experience. Easy Authentication will complement the existin gaccount linking platform feature and will help businesses handle common care issues like billing inquiries or refunds.