Facebook’s New Messaging Platform: First Impressions

Facebook announced their new messaging system today, incorporating elements of SMS, instant messaging, and email messaging. The "Social Inbox" is a big component of this new functionality, and Facebook's goal is to make it feel like a conversation.

Facebook was careful to tell us, "This is not an email system." Email is a component, sure, but they aren't expecting everybody to go home tonight and shut down their Yahoo account. This is a new platform, Facebook tells us, to enable more direct IM-like one-to-one communication.

The Social Inbox is probably the feature that is likely to have the most impact to how marketers go about their business. This new functionality allows Facebook users to prioritize messages from friends and other people they interact with, so that those messages are more likely to show up in the "messages" area of the social inbox. Other people who contact you are likely to go to that "other" section, where you can decide if you want to prioritize their messages higher or lower. If you interact with those people, or choose to mark their messages as most important to you, those contacts are upgraded to the "messages" realm. Unwanted and unknown email is likely to be relegated to junk status. There's even a setting that can allow a Facebook user to reject mail from unknown/unwanted senders.

Sound familiar? This is somewhat similar to Gmail's new Priority Inbox functionality. Interaction is king, if you want to be able to contact Facebook users. Exactly how a company can be invited through this barrier and allowed to be part of the "messages" inbox experience remains to be seen. Is this even a place where it makes sense for your typical one-to-many email messages to live? That also remains to be seen.

I think it makes sense to start thinking about how to integrate what you're doing into the Facebook experience. Make it easy for subscribers to opt-in to your messaging via your Facebook page. Make it easy for subscribers to be able to change their subscription email address. Make sure you have a social media strategy, and a Facebook presence, so that you still have a way to interact with these users who otherwise may not be welcoming your messages to the inbox.

It's very important that marketers don't over-react. Gmail is a really good product, Mark Zuckerberg said today during this product announcement. He was clear that this is not a Gmail killer. Email is still really important to a lot of people, admits Facebook. They certainly hope that over time, people will shift a lot of their one-to-one messaging over to this "simpler messaging system," but how fast that will happen, and how broadly that will happen, are open questions yet to be answered.

And whatever change comes, it will not happen overnight. Launched in 2004, it took Gmail a good five years to overtake AOL as an email messaging platform. Perhaps things move faster today than they did back then -- Facebook has a large, built-in userbase, many of whom are likely to want to kick the tires and take this new functionality for a test drive, but that doesn't mean that things are going to change overnight.

Consider that this functionality is now in a “closed beta-test” period. It is invite-only, and Facebook says they will be rolling it out slowly over the next few months. It’s not quite time to go home and delete your Yahoo account, as Facebook was careful to point out in their presentation. And it may never be time for that. Everybody said that Gmail, for example, was an "AOL killer." AOL is certainly smaller than it was in 2004, but it hasn't exactly disappeared, either. It's still a large and important email messaging platform.

Power users of email and IM functionality may want to wait and see exactly how the various features and functionality work out. Facebook was clear that threading wasn't part of the mix, and that was by design. There's no IMAP email messaging support. IM aficionados may by disappointed by the lack of a voice or video component. Facebook says they may consider additional features like these in the future, but they're not on the table today.

I am sure that we here at ExactTarget will have much more to say about Facebook's new messaging platform over the coming days, weeks and months. Stay tuned!

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