Is Facebook Messages the future of email?

As Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg blasts traditional email as "too formal", Media Week reports on whether the site's new 'social inbox' will replace Gmail and Hotmail as consumers' messaging platform of choice

It didn’t take long for Mark Zuckerberg’s unveiling of Facebook's "seamless messaging" service in San Francisco on Monday (15 November) to kick-start speculation around the world.

Early headlines about it being a "Gmail killer" appeared to owe more to journalists' desire to pit the networking giant Facebook against internet giant Google than any outright challenge.

Zuckerberg said: "This is not an email killer. This is a messaging system that includes email as one part of it."

Yet the India Times was among those wondering whether Facebook's upgrade could be a game-changer, citing research group Gartner’s prediction that 20% of workers will use social networks as their primary vehicle for business communications by 2014.

The 26-year-old Zuckerberg was certainly in no mood to downplay the significance of Facebook Messaging, describing it as "the way the future should work".

Facebook Messages will enable people to combine multiple forms of communication - email, chat, SMS and messages – that can in turn be received through whichever medium or device is most convenient for the recipient. And all in real time.

Eating into consumers' spare time

One thing Messages will undoubtedly do, as it is rolled out globally by invitation to all the site’s 500 million-plus accounts, is increase the amount of time people spend on Facebook. This should be a sobering thought for all media owners.

In the UK, the average Facebook user spent 475 minutes (seven hours 55 minutes) on the site last month, according to ComScore. This compares favourably with 22.5 minutes for the next highest social medium, Twitter, and just 13.5 minutes for News Corp’s troubled MySpace (see below).

Time spent on Facebook already far outstrips the UK’s leading email providers too, with AOL, Hotmail and Yahoo commanding 209 mins, 150 mins and 111 mins respectively.

John Willshire, head of innovation at PHD, says: "It's no secret, but Facebook wants to spend more time with you. Either on the site, so you'll see more advertising and thus up their inventory, or on mobile devices, so the system can keep learning more about you. They've clearly looked at how people spend time with devices and thought 'how can we eat into that?'"

He adds: "What better way than to offer a one-stop shop to consolidate all those conversations they have with people. Perhaps instead of trying to replace Gmail or Hotmail specifically, Facebook has email client programs like Outlook Express in its sights."

Despite claims to the contrary, Zuckerberg appeared to sound the death knell for email as we know it, calling it "too slow" and "too formal". He said: "We don't think the modern messaging system will be email."

Instead, the Facebook founder identified seven characteristics that will come to define "next-generation" messaging - "seamless, informal, immediate, personal, simple, minimal and short". Adam Field, head of social at MPG, is sold on Messaging's timing and its premise, calling it "brilliant".

Moving into mobile for 2011

Field says: "If you look at the official video [for Facebook Messaging] it screams rip-off of Google Wave [Google's vision for the ‘future-of-email’ that Google ended up pulling the plug on after less than a year after opening the beta to new users].

"Facebook has cottoned on to the benefits of stripping communications back to basics. It’s not about technology, it’s about communicating with people."

However, the MPG specialist warns Facebook Messages has "a long way to go" before it can own the messaging space, noting it is entering a crowded marketplace served by the likes of Hotmail, Yahoo! and AOL and, more recently, Google’s own "highly sophisticated and integrated interface" Gmail.

He says: "It will be interesting to see how people start to adapt and adopt the service. It’s a good first step and that will probably be driven by mobile. I think a Facebook Messages mobile app is coming and that will create a product that stands out and could potentially own its own space."

Tom Poynter, managing director of digital for Iris UK, agrees the battle has only just begun. He says: "It’s another nice feature from Facebook that continues to look at providing a value exchange to its mammoth user base by continuing to integrate its products and services. But it won’t be a killer to Gmail – well, at least not overnight.

"Google has been five-plus years in the making with Gmail, so Facebook is not going to get there from the off. They do have some lovely integration options with chat, messages, images etc, but also some way to go with email management functionality."

Poynter also notes that modern forms of communication have an innate age bias. "The youth of today don’t even use email, so they don't feel the need to anally file every email ever sent since the days of Netscape 1.01, as oldies like me do."

Jean-Paul Edwards, executive director, futures at Manning Gottlieb OMD, also picks up on this point. He comments: "This unified messaging service is a generational thing, which could see email becoming subservient to Facebook.

"It is what Google Wave should have been, but Google Wave was too technical and this is simpler to use and has mass-market appeal. 

Expect ads, sponsored links and more

Despite Facebook Messages being just days old, it has been 15 months in development, and most agency specialists foresee commercial opportunities opening up in the future, on top of the expected increase in users’ site time.

"In much the same way that Facebook and Gmail already do, ads and sponsored links could be served in and around the message based upon contextual analysis of its contents," says Adam Graham, managing partner at creative agency Saint@RKCR/YR.

"If you then layer this with the location information and the semantic data that Facebook has, it could provide a very sophisticated and valuable promotional experience for users and businesses alike."

Charlie McGee, managing director of Carat Digital, expects "consumers will take to [Messages] really well", but sounds a note of caution for the future. "From a social perspective, I imagine people’s lives will be organised even more through Facebook. But I wonder how aware they are that they will be giving even more data to a company that is already very rich in information.

"There will inevitably be a commercial angle to this. Agencies and publishers are collecting this new data and it’s not being done for fun. It can all help build and develop new products. We use Facebook’s API already, and Messages will provide another string to the bow when it comes to targeting individuals with particular products at particular times."

Martin McNulty, general manager of digital agency Forward3d, calls Messages "yet another land-grab by Facebook". He points out the site already pings messages across to email but "smooths over the rough edges".

"From a commercial point of view, the more page impressions it creates, the more attractive it becomes to advertisers," he says. "We may see a payment service coming into action too."

So will it work? Time will tell, but as PHD’s Willshire notes, Messages has "a better chance of reinventing email than Google's Wave did, because it will be the way Facebook works in the future... there's no 'opt-in' issue".

"But I wonder if all the email features they've stripped away in the name of simplicity, which are the ones people have grown used to having in email over the past 15 years, means Facebook is taking a swiss army knife and turning it into a screwdriver."

 

ComScore UK Consumer Social Networking
Media Total unique visitors (000) Total minutes (MM) Average minutes per visitor
Total internet: total audience 43,394 79,055 1,821.8
Social Networking 38,817 16,795 432.7
Facebook.Com 33,121 15,725 474.8
Windows Live Profile 6,845 29 4.2
Twitter.Com 5,031 114 22.6
Linkedin.Com 4,303 88 20.5
MySpace 2,732 37 13.5

 

ComScore UK Consumer Email
Media Total unique visitors (000) Total minutes (MM) Average minutes per visitor
Total internet: total audience 43,394 79,055 1,821.8
Email 30,931 5,579 180.4
Windows Live Hotmail 20,519 3,080 150.1
Yahoo! Mail 10,434 1,162 111.4
Google Gmail 5,308 350 66.0
AOL email 2,938 613 208.7
Sky email 1,570 43 27.5

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