More than a billion people currently use Messenger. Yup, that’s billion with a “b.” As Mark Zuckerberg said on this week’s Facebook earnings call, “Between Messenger and WhatsApp, I think we’re around 60 billion messages a day, which I think is something like three times more than the peak of global SMS traffic.”
This is big. A mere two years ago, Facebook lagged far behind when it came to its mobile and messaging strategies. The pivotal moment came when the company made a risky call that pissed off many, many users and kicked off a storm of negative press. In retrospect it turned out to be not only the right decision, but a mission-critical one.
Two years ago Facebook stopped allowing messaging in its iPhone and Android apps, and forced people to download its standalone Messenger app to exchange private Facebook messages.
To many of Facebook’s most loyal users, this seemed like a very dumb idea. As my sister-in-law posted on my page at the time: “I absolutely hate it. One centralized app where you can do everything you need to do is so much more efficient from a user perspective and a phone/memory one too.”
It’s no secret that Facebook was slow to figure out a mobile strategy. Thus, as messaging became popular, Facebook’s messaging feature was eclipsed by faster, less buggy apps like Snapchat, Kik, and WhatsApp. Apple and Google had both remade the texting tools inside their mobile operating systems. But Facebook didn’t have a mobile operating system, so it had to depend on users to download the Facebook app. Even then, messaging was hard to find within the slow and cluttered app.
Of course the Messenger app already existed. It got its start back in 2011, when Facebook paid a reported $40 million for the group messaging app Beluga and recruited its founders. By the end of 2011, they had launched the standalone app, but it was a mess — not as useful as email or as widely adopted as, say, BBM. Hardly anyone downloaded it.
To better compete with messaging apps, Facebook sunk resources into improving the tech behind Messenger. But Facebook’s diehard users didn’t download the app. Why bother? If they really needed to check a Facebook message, they could still access it through Facebook proper.
After experimenting with the strategy in several European countries, Facebook cut off messaging in its main app for everyone. Users freaked out. Privacy activists complained that the new app required users to set their settings all over again and that it defaulted to settings that identified too much personal information. Users began citing and spreading misinformation such as rumors that Facebook had permission to keep your camera turned on all the time, and could be spying on you.
Then, people began to use Messenger more. The tech had become speedier and the app began to introduce new, alluring features. In less than six months, Facebook more than doubled the number of active users on Messenger, and the number kept growing.
Today, Facebook’s Messenger has turned into ground zero for bot innovation. As developers and businesses experiment with building in-app software snippets to automate interactions — a phenomenon I call “BOTMANIA!” — they want to reach as many people as possible with their software. And in North America, there’s no bigger messaging audience.
All this promises to be very profitable to Facebook. While the company hasn’t lured advertisers to spend significant ad dollars on Messenger yet, that’s the future plan. In this week’s earnings call, chief financial officer David Wehner said the company develops its apps in three phases. In phase one, Facebook grows the user base. “We’re really at the beginning of phase two,” he said, in which the company focuses on growing organic interactions between people and businesses. Once businesses see this is working, the company launches stage three, in which it asks companies to pay up. This strategy has worked well for the company’s other products: Facebook reported $6.44 billion in sales this year, up 59 percent from a year ago. The company’s profits almost tripled to $2.06 billion.
Meanwhile, Messenger still hasn’t won my sister-in-law over. Not even the prospect of silly GIFs and cat stickers can convince her that it’s worth adding one more app to her phone. Yet.
Jessi Hempel is the head of editorial for Backchannel, where she writes about the business and culture of technology. Follow Jessi on Twitter @jessiwrites. This story originally appeared on Backchannel.com.