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Latest 28 Nov 2017 | Customer Service | 7 min read

The Rise of Messaging & the Future of Customer Service

The following is an excerpt of a chapter from my new book, Message Me, coming out soon.

On February 24th, 2009, Jan Koum incorporated WhatsApp Inc. in California, and began developing what would become the biggest messaging app in the world within just a short few years. WhatsApp started as a basic way to send status updates to all the friends in your phone address book—but as people started to use this as a way to send messages to their friends, Koum realized that he’d inadvertently created a messaging service. As Koum said, “being able to reach somebody half way across the world instantly, on a device that is always with you, was powerful.”

At the time, mobile messaging meant SMS, which was expensive—especially to other countries. There was BBM, but that only worked between BlackBerries. And although Skype was free, that required creating a completely new social graph. WhatsApp was uniquely simple in that the login was your own phone number, and you could instantly connect with everyone in your phone book. After they released WhatsApp 2.0 on the iPhone with messaging built in, their user base quickly grew to over a quarter of a million people. They started to get a flood of requests to launch on other platforms, so that their iPhone users could message friends on Nokias and Blackberries around the world for free. They got to work on expanding the platforms, and by 2011 they were firmly in the top 20 of all apps in the U.S. App Store. By 2013, WhatsApp’s user base had grown to 200 million people around the world. By 2014, that had grown to 450 million, with a million more joining every day.

On February 19th, 2014, Facebook bought WhatsApp for $19 billion.

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Why all the fuss?

Messaging is more than just a way of sending free text messages to your friends. It’s also a different communication paradigm compared to other digital channels, like email. Some of the key defining characteristics of messaging:

  • Mobile-first, so people expect short, concise messages—and a fast response time
  • Rich media (photos, videos, gifs) are part of the conversation
  • Conversations are arranged around people (not subjects like email), with the people, brands or groups you’ve spoken to most recently closest to the top. When you enter into a conversation, it’s a continuous thread, and if you haven’t messaged someone for a while the full history of all of your messages between each other will still be right there.

Today, messaging hasn’t just eclipsed SMS in most countries. Messaging apps (including Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, WeChat in Asia, Snapchat, and more) have also eclipsed social networks, in both total users and growth rates. Facebook Messenger took roughly 40 months to reach 500 million users, then doubled to 1 billion users just 20 months later, an incredible achievement. WeChat skyrocketed from 100 million monthly active users to 500 million in just a year and a half. Today, six out of the ten most used apps on iTunes and Google Play are messaging apps.

The death of phone and email

Phone calls and email are dead for the next generation. Social media and mobile messaging completely dominate how teenagers today use their phones, as you can see from Ofcom’s comparison of phone usage for Adults versus Teens in the UK. This is a glimpse into the future—if you think your customers hate having to call and wait on hold today, the customers of tomorrow will be livid. Which brands do you think these customers will want to buy from: ones that engage and interact in the same way they communicate all the time, or ones that force them into old channels that are high effort and (for them) unusual?

Messaging is more than just a way of sending free text messages to your friends. It’s also a different communication paradigm compared to other digital channels, like email.

This isn’t just teenagers though—as the Ofcom data show, almost half of adult mobile phone usage today is with social and messaging apps, a trend that is strongest with the millennial generation (which now ranges to up to people in their mid-thirties). The messaging platforms are already dominant in terms of both overall communication channels and application usage, and these patterns are becoming more ingrained with each passing month, year, and generation.

The shift from public social to private messaging

Although social media customer care started in response to public complaints on Twitter and Facebook, for many brands the majority of questions and complaints have now shifted to private messaging channels. I observed this shift happen for many of the biggest brands Conversocial works with in 2016. A key factor is that this shift happens for brands who are actively promoting their private channels for service—brands who don’t do this continue to get a high volume of public complaints. Promoting social care in the right way will actually decrease the amount of public complaints about you.

On Twitter, this shift has been helped not only by the ability to directly promote “DM Us” buttons in websites and apps, but also by new features that Twitter built within the platform, including “Send a private message” buttons in public conversations, and new larger “Message Us” buttons on Twitter profile pages.

It’s now easy to promote private messaging with buttons for your websites and mobile apps that link directly to Messenger and Twitter DMs, and the benefits in terms of reduced public complaints and decreased effort for customers is huge. One Conversocial customer who has been promoting “Message Us” buttons on their website, mobile app and emails for the last two years now receives 98% of all their inbound Facebook volume privately, with only a tiny amount of public posts. For companies who are concerned that promoting social care will increase public complaints, this data shows that the exact opposite will happen.

The growth of messaging apps usage for service

On March 25, 2015, at their annual developer conference F8, Facebook officially launched “Messenger for Business,” opening up a live-chat API with a group of select partners. I was there at the launch along with our client, Hyatt Hotels, who was one of the first partners to launch live-chat over Messenger. In the months following the announcement, dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of major brands began using Messenger to deliver customer service.

Messaging combines full live-chat functionality with persistent identity and mobile notifications—combining all of the best elements of the traditional digital care channels, purpose-built for the mobile era:

  • Real-time (many messaging applications even show when the other person is typing)
  • Asynchronous (you can go away and continue the conversation later)
  • Persistent identity (and easy to link to a customer record)
  • Connected to smartphone notifications

Although businesses had been using the private messaging functionality of Facebook Pages and Twitter accounts for years, the lack of real-time messaging and typing indicators meant that this operated more like email, and wasn’t as useful for in-the-moment service. The new functionality inside Messenger (and shortly afterward, available in Twitter as well) also included the ability to add basic automation, giving more businesses a reason to switch over.

The combination of functionality available to businesses in modern messaging apps mean they are extremely convenient for consumers to use for service (just pull out your phone and send a message), with big benefits for businesses in terms of efficiency. If they are confident they will get a real-time response to their issues, consumers will message instead of phoning. This makes messaging the first digital care channel that has the potential to replace a significant percentage of phone calls—something that will have a massively positive impact on the customer experience while decreasing the high costs that businesses spend on phone calls every year. 


Message Me is about the future of customer service, examining the major forces impacting organizations today and in the future, including the rise of messaging, bots and AI, coming soon. To be the first to hear when it's available, click here.

This is the third excerpt. You can read the first, "We Live in an Effortless World… Almost", here.

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