Facebook is planning to meld Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger on the back end, The New York Times reported on Friday, marking a dramatic culmination of the headwinds impacting these apps and their parent company. While the move won't be a game-changer for the apps' user bases, which have remained relatively stable despite high-profile scandals like Cambridge Analytica, the real play here could be Facebook trying to shore up a bigger share of the mobile messaging space as the channel becomes increasingly popular and the social media giant attempts to gas up the type of revenue growth that's slowed in recent quarters.
Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg has been pushing the idea of unifying its messaging app strategy for months, per the Times, including by incorporating end-to-end encryption across the services. The bold integration is planned to be completed by the end of 2020 and follows a deluge of criticism over data privacy for the social networking giant and its chief executive, who previously let WhatsApp and Instagram — businesses that Facebook acquired — operate largely independently. The change will give Zuckerberg more comprehensive control over Facebook's suite of products during a time of unprecedented crisis for the company and after the departure of key Instagram and WhatsApp executives last year, who reportedly became increasingly flustered at the greater degree of oversight Zuckerberg exerted over their businesses.
The idea of bringing Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger together has reportedly both confused and frustrated employees as well, thousands of whom will have to do the heavy legwork of blending together platforms that were previously separate and are in many ways different at the technical level. Despite these challenges, Facebook may see an opportunity it's unwilling to ignore in an integrated and potentially more powerful messaging strategy.
"There's a ton of money to be made if you become the dominant messaging platform … That's certainly a desirable position to be in, if Facebook could be in that," Melinda Krueger, a Salesforce associate principal of strategic services, told Mobile Marketer. She pointed to the dominance of apps like WeChat in China, which have grown beyond messaging to influence other aspects of consumers' lives and could serve as the model Facebook is trying to replicate with an integrated approach in the U.S., where the market is more fragmented.
"From a business standpoint, it makes a lot of sense [for Facebook]," Krueger said. "I'm not sure how successful they'll be, and I have a lot of doubts ... but it would certainly make sense to try."
History repeating itself
Facebook's bringing together Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger marks a standout point of consolidation in the mobile messaging space, even if all three apps are owned by the same company and will remain as standalone services. According to Derek Johnson, CEO of the mobile marketing company Tatango, the move echoes notes of what happened when text messaging started to take off near the turn of the century, after major carriers enabled cross-network compatibility.
"We're in the exact kind of realm now, but with over-the-top messaging," Johnson said, adding that the news is a clear indicator of how Facebook and Google, along with the carriers, are eyeing messaging as a big new revenue driver for their business.
"Most of the time, for Facebook and Google, that means revenue from advertising," Johnson said.
In terms of what that advertising could look like in the refurbished Facebook suite, marketers might ramp their efforts around chatbots, which have struggled to take off on Messenger and overall, but could have more viability operating across platforms. Voice is another nascent channel seeing an uptick in investment that can be supplemented by more robust chat functions, per Krueger. But, at least in the early days, marketing applications could also simply be more of what users are already accustomed to.
"On a very simple level, I think [it's about] being able to do in-line advertising within your message feed," Krueger said.
The data question
Those possibilities might still get marketers who are hungry to reach the audiences of Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger — each of which has more than 1 billion users — excited, especially since they'll theoretically be able to more closely link their campaigns.
"The more you know about any user — so if they're on WhatsApp but not Instagram, or Instagram but not Facebook — the more data that you can assemble about those people, the better you can target the advertising, the more profitable the advertising," Krueger said.
At the same time, the bigger changes happening at Facebook in regards to Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger won't necessarily register as a big deal with consumers.
"I'm sure most users won't notice and won't think twice about it," Jessica Liu, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, said in emailed comments.
Liu noted that tweaks to actual user experience will likely be relatively small, and that Facebook already offers features like friend suggestions between Instagram and its core platform, or pushing people to the standalone Messenger app when they want to privately converse with friends.
"Now, all messaging in FB, Inc.'s family of apps will be encrypted which is both good and bad," she said. "Good for privacy-minded users, bad for perpetuating bad (and untraceable) actors/activity on these messenger apps."
An issue of trust
Privacy seems to be a strong motivating factor behind Zuckerberg's decision to bring some of Facebook's star apps together with end-to-end encryption, which has previously been available on some Facebook messaging services but hasn't been leveraged as a unifying force across platforms. Tatango's Johnson pointed to how frequently end-to-end encryption appeared in the Times report, suggesting that the feature — which protects private messages from being decrypted and viewed by third parties — could be being used as a differentiation point from competitors.
"It's interesting that they mentioned [end-to-end encryption] so many times — they might be throwing some shade at Google and RCS," Johnson said, making reference to Google's Rich Communications Services platform, which doesn't offer end-to-end encryption for chat.
"Or they might have just been doing it because of the anti-trust issues or GDPR," Johnson added. "They're playing on such a crazy field."
Another cold reality for Facebook is that the shift to encrypted messaging could be too little, too late for a company that's steadily lost the faith of users amid repeated privacy fumbles, some of which have been linked to messaging. Late last year, the Times separately detailed how Facebook let some partners, including Netflix and Spotify, read private conversations between users, for example. The Menlo Park-based company is additionally facing a possibly record-setting fine from the FTC if it's proven that it violated a government agreement to protect users' privacy data with the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
Bridging Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger could ultimately stoke more antitrust concerns as well, per the Times, and is not guaranteed to be a decision that's going to immediately hook either businesses or users.
"I don't think anybody's really looking to hand over more data to Facebook or is feeling like Facebook is a trusted partner of theirs any longer," Salesforce's Krueger said. "But I really wonder whether, a.) people are looking for this solution, and b.) whether they're looking for it and would trust Facebook with it."